Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Ahead of His San Antonio Show, Jazz Giant Kamasi Washington Talks About Creativity and Why the World is What We Make It


  • Courtesy of Kamasi Washington
Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Kamasi Washington’s gargantuan compositions have branded him as one of the most important creative forces in contemporary jazz.

Much of the buzz about the Los Angeles-based musician stems from his 2015 tour de force album The Epic, a 172-minute cosmic journey with a 10-piece ensemble, which included the acrobatic R&B and fusion bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner.

As evidence of Washington’s clout — not to mention his appeal beyond the typical boundaries of the jazz world — his Thursday, March 12 performance in San Antonio will take place not at a club but at the Aztec Theatre, which can accommodate a 1,645-person general admission crowd.

“He’s one of the few so-called jazz artists who could also headline a rock festival or headline a festival that doesn’t associate itself with jazz very often. At the same time, he could headline a jazz festival,” said Kory Cook, music director for local jazz station KRTU-FM. “Being that all-encompassing type of artist, he can appeal to a lot of people with different tastes, whether it’s jazz or improvisational rock or experimental music. Or people who may like R&B and soul but aren’t necessarily jazz fans.”

Part of that expansive appeal stems from Washington’s frequent collaborations with pop and hip-hop musicians including Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg and Raphael Saadiq. He also performed in the jazz band featured on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking album To Pimp a Butterfly.

“He’s introduced jazz to a lot of people who maybe didn’t think they liked jazz so much,” Cook added.

While Washington’s music is clearly pushing the genre’s boundaries, he’s not making “difficult” music that caters to a boutique audience. The swirling, breathing, polyrhythmic layers of compositions never seem to be fighting each other. Instead, they combine into grand and harmonious pieces of musical art.

On his latest full-length recording, Heaven and Earth, Washington pushes further into uncharted cosmic territories, all the while moored to accessibility thanks to his mastery of swing and melody.

We caught up with the 39-year-old reedman and composer via phone to ask about his personal influences, what drew him to the saxophone and the themes he explored on Heaven and Earth.

  • Mary Kang
What artists influenced you most growing up?
I was like into West Coast hip-hop like NWA, but when I was 11 years old, I had a cousin that gave me a mixtape that was full of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. And, you know, my dad was a jazz musician, and he was trying to get me into jazz my whole life. But there was something about having [the music come from] someone closer to my age. But that’s when I really took it as my own thing. Then, when I was 13, that’s when I really started to play saxophone, and I was really into Wayne Shorter. When I was 16, I got into John Coltrane, but there were tons of musicians in between there.

What was it about the saxophone that drew you to the instrument?
My dad was a musician and had tons of instruments around the house, so when I found the saxophone, it just felt like the instrument that felt like my voice. But I was always writing music. I was always interested in music in the whole sense of it, more so than I was super-attached to a particular instrument. I was always writing music. It was always a means for me to express myself, and I think that’s what drew me to music, and that’s what drew me to jazz. This idea of being able to share who you are in a way that is kind of pure. You know, when you try to explain yourself and try to explain your feelings or explain to someone what’s going on in your head, you can’t find the words, but somehow in music it just comes out? … Or you just feel it as you play it, like “Oh, wow, I’m tapping into who I am, and it’s coming out and I can hear it myself.” Like aspects of who you are and what’s going on. But, somehow, music has this way of — at least for me — reaching to the truth of myself that I didn’t have anywhere else.

What’s the overarching message of Heaven and Earth?
It was a journey that at that time period, right after The Epic, we were touring — I toured more than that I ever did in my whole life — and when you’re touring with musicians, you’re having a lot of conversations. And one aspect of those conversations was asking the question “Why are things the way they are?” And my perspective on that has always been and the world is exactly what we all make it, you know? And each of us contributes something, and none of us are responsible for all of it or none of it. And, in that, I was also coming to this realization about the power of our thoughts: not only is the world what we make it, it’s also what we think it is. As we think the world is a certain way, it will start to become that way. Same thing with ourselves. So, there’s like heaven, which is our thoughts, and earth, which is our reality, and realizing that they’re kind of one and the same thing. So that’s what this record was all about for me. The journey of realizing that.

On this particular album, the track “Can You Hear Him” really moved me and I got lost in it. Is the song about God?
As you travel and you go to different places and go to different cultures and even just nature — like right now, I’m in Buffalo, and we went to Niagara Falls — and you know that idea of God is so expansive. I feel like it’s everywhere, and the idea of “Can You Hear Him?” is that at any given moment, no matter where you are and what you’re doing, that energy and presence is there, and it’s, like, but can you hear Him? And it’s in the journey of life and learning all the different places that God is. He’s not just in one place, He’s not just in one town, or with one people or with one culture, He’s everywhere. … And that’s what the song is about: opening your consciousness to be able to feel that presence everywhere and in everyone and in every place, and once you do that, you start to see all these beautiful wonders of the world, and you get to experience things on a different level.

You’ve collaborated with musicians across jazz, hip-hop and other genres. Who was the most fun to work with?
I feel like each person brought their own special dynamic to [the music]. It was definitely fun working with Kendrick [Lamar], he’s such a brilliant artist, and he’s also so open, you know. I think that approach of letting people you work with really kind of pour their whole hearts into the music that you’re doing is something I definitely prescribe to myself. It was really fun to work with artists on that level, but I mean everyone. Lauryn Hill is one of the most brilliant people, for sure, that I’ve ever worked with. Snoop [Dogg] is super cool. It was amazing working with people Gerald Wilson, who was there for the invention of jazz basically. People like Stanley Clark. I mean, everybody I’ve worked with! I’ve had the chance to work with extraordinary people, and they all had something different and uniquely special to bring to the table.

Who would you most want to collaborate with, living or dead?
D’Angelo would be amazing to work with. We were just driving to Black Messiah today.

Do you enough young people care about music outside of pop, like jazz or instrumental music?
Right now, I feel like there seems to be a resurgence. I’ve been meeting a lot of young kids that are really knowledgeable and are really great young musicians. They’re really searching, and they live in an era now where music is so accessible. When I was kid you only got to hear the music that you owned. Like, if you got five CDs, that’s the music that you got to listen to, other than what’s on the radio, I guess [laughs]. Now, if you’re a kid growing up, basically all of music is at your fingertips, all the time. I can’t wait to hear what these kids end up sounding like, because they’re going to have such a wealth of music infused into who they are. So, it’s hard to say if there’s enough kids or not. It feels like there are, but I’m in a different position — I feel like a kid could probably answer that better than I could.

To that point, what would you say to a kid who’s taken up a woodwind instrument and is afraid of what the world might think of them?
I would say to any person that’s making music, whether with an oboe or an MPC or with Ableton, that the true gift of music is the music itself. So, when you find your voice, it’s not about how popular you think you are or how you think people are going to react to what you do. It comes to you from outside of yourself, and you don’t really know what the impact of the music will be. You think of someone like Bach who wasn’t really famous in his lifetime. He was a guy playing at a church, but he ended up being one of the biggest figures in music history ever, you know? I would tell that person, “Don’t worry about what people may think. Do you love it? Does it move you? Is it your true and honest expression?” That’s what you should worry about it: are you really truly and honestly expressing yourself? The world changes, and there was a time where there wasn’t an invention called the saxophone, and people were still making music then. And there was a time where there wasn’t an invention called the piano, and people were still making music then. The real gift is the creativity and the expression. You can express yourself on a string tied up to a bucket if your heart is really in it. The instruments are just that, they’re instruments to help you release what’s inside of yourself — that’s the real precious thing.

Tickets ($30) are still available at

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