Kamasi Washington is composing a ballet, writing a graphic novel, and binge watching his own mind

Written by Andrea Domanick

‘There’ll be some big surprises, I’ll say that much,’ Kamasi Washington says of his return to the Hollywood Bowl for KCRW’s World Festival series. Photo by Russell Hamilton.

LA jazz luminary Kamasi Washington returns to the Hollywood Bowl with Earl Sweatshirt on Sunday night to kick off KCRW’s World Festival series.  The artist’s hometown comeback after 18 months will be one for the books, featuring loads of new music and top-secret surprise guests under the stars. 

The ever-prolific Washington seized his time off during the pandemic as an opportunity for personal reflection and creative inspiration, during which he embarked on new mediums, new styles, and perhaps the most profound journey of all, fatherhood. Washington catches up with KCRW’s Anne Litt on Morning Becomes Eclectic to discuss creativity in isolation, his upcoming projects, and what’s in store for the Bowl. Get tickets for this can’t-miss show here

Read more: Kamasi Washinton on Morning Becomes Eclectic (2018)

KCRW: How does it feel to be back in front of people on the Hollywood Bowl stage, with 18,000 people there?

Kamasi Washington: “I’m super excited. I'm from LA, and there’s always something different about playing at home. And the Bowl is such an iconic venue. I remember going there and watching concerts. We used to play sometimes in the little walkway going up to the Bowl, and we’d try to sneak in with our instruments. I probably owe them a few dollars.”

Are you nervous at all?

“I mean, I am nervous. I've been playing, but I've been playing by myself. And playing by yourself and playing with 15 people on stage with you is different. I'm bringing my band. It's kind of a larger version of my band, with my dad [saxophonist Rickey Washington], and some special guests that I’m keeping a secret right now that I’m pretty sure no one’s gonna see coming. But there’ll be some big surprises for people. I'll say that much.”

Are you going to be playing new music?

“Yeah, a lot. Maybe a couple of world premieres, music that we never really played live, and some music that was released during the [pandemic].”

Have you been writing most of your new music alone, or have you been able to collaborate remotely with people?

“It was a bit of a lonesome period for me, in some regard. I recently had a daughter. And that's actually who I wrote the song “Sun Kissed Child” for. I was in a whole different kind of mode, but I was writing a lot. I didn’t get to do a lot of collabs, but I did some.”

Was that time more isolating or creative? Are they mutually exclusive?

“It was both, because I had so much time. Writing is kind of a solitary act in a lot of regards for me, in general. But the act of musically connecting with people, playing music with people, in that way, I felt pretty isolated. But creatively, I felt like I had time and space to really dive deep into some other things.”

You’re considered the leader of a new generation of jazz artists. Is there anyone coming up now who you have a lot of faith in and want to work with?

“Oh, yeah, there are tons of young musicians and musicians that I grew up with who are still waiting to have the opportunity to share their music with a really wide audience. I mean young guys like Jamael Dean, guys in my band like Brandon Coleman, who has a new record coming out pretty soon. Cameron Graves just put out an amazing new record. Miles Mosley is working on a record with Patrice Quinn. There's all kinds of new music that I'm so excited for people to hear.”

And that's all coming out of Los Angeles. I've noticed a scene in London as well. It seems like those two cities really have it all going on. Where does an artist like Hiatus Kaiyote fit into this for you?

“They're right in the middle of it. That’s just Australia. The world is such a smaller place because of technology and everything. And it just feels like everybody's kind of connected in a way that may have been different than 30, 40 years ago. We ran into them a lot on the road, and we know them. It's inspiring, because everywhere we go, there's somebody doing something cool. And when you hear music, it manifests itself into creative ideas for yourself. So hearing creative music, meeting creating people, talking to them, interacting with them, it boosts your own creativity.”

Since you haven't been able to tour this year and run into all those folks, how have you dealt with not getting that stimulation?

“I've got to get to all the things I've been wanting to do and have been working on. I'm actually working on a ballet, this really long, orchestral piece. I have this graphic novel I've been working on for quite a while. And then just being able to experiment musically in a way that was just sitting around for hours and hours, like when I was young, finding new possibilities within one chord or something like that. So that's been kind of cool. 

Whereas the last five or six years, we've just been going, going, going, so that a lot of times your explorations end up only happening in between the cracks. So this time it was like I was back to being 17 again.”

Read more: MBE Throwback Session: Kamasi Washington (2015) 

Where did your inspiration for the ballet come from? Are you working with a dance company?

Yeah, [choreographer, dancer, and teacher] Lula Washington is my aunt. And I was talking to her and my cousin Tamika. We haven't solidified yet. I'm still working on the music. I have the story in my head. It started off as a purely musical thing, but then this story kind of [emerged], which happens to me a lot. As I'm making music, I start seeing things.

I’ve been in a mode of listening a lot, too. I was watching and listening to a lot of Stravinsky's ballets, and it just kind of inspired me. And it was like, ‘Well, I got this amazing dance component in my family.’ So we've high level talked about it. They’re probably going to get mad at me because I haven't really, really talked with them about it yet. So I’m kind of putting them on blast a little bit. But yeah, it’s still in the workings. I've never written a piece this long and involved before.”

Is it really different writing something that's orchestral and expansive, as opposed to writing the score for the Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming?”

“It’s just who you're serving. With this, I'm kind of serving my own thoughts. And with the documentary, I was serving Michelle Obama's thoughts, and the director Nadia Hallgren. I wouldn't say it's confining ... I've been lucky in that all the film projects I've ever worked on have all been with people who are pretty open minded, but it's still my job. And that is to find what they're trying to say and the music that frames that.

Whereas with [the ballet], it’s more like, what do I want to say? And then it also gets mixed into, what am I hearing musically? So the order of operations changes. I'm free musically to wander, find something, and then figure out, ‘What does this mean?’ … It’s like sailing the open sea to find a particular place, versus just sailing until maybe I see something way off in the distance.”

Talk about your graphic novel, because you’re also a fan of anime. Is there some connection between Los Angeles and anime? I know Flying Lotus and Thundercat are fans as well.

“Yeah, it's a trip. When we were kids, at least in South Central LA, where I grew up, anime was kind of a niche thing. Thundercat and I knew each other for years, and then we found out that we were both into anime. It was kind of like, ‘Oh, you like this too?’ That's back when you had to get someone to get a VHS from Japan. You had to have a Japanese VHS that you can then convert. It was like a whole thing, watching anime. It was a lot of bootlegs. And then it just kind of exploded. I went to Comic Con two years ago, and it was like, ‘Wow!’ It was so packed.”

What's your graphic novel about? 

“Oh, it's a long story. But it's basically about a group of kids who grew up in this village. And they have this goal to challenge this guy that lives up in a mountain. They spend their whole lives training for it, and they finally get ready and go up there, and he's not there. And then they have all this power, and they have to figure out what to do with it. And that kind of leads them on this road that takes them to other worlds.”

You'll probably find some way to score that graphic novel as well, right?

“I’m sure that’s gonna happen when it gets to that level. I’m still just working on the story. Writing the story is such an interesting thing, because it's almost like I'm watching the movie and just writing down what I see [in my head]. That was the cool thing about the pandemic, was that I would have these blocks of time to just sit in a room and really dive into my psyche. It was kind of fun. It was like binge watching, almost, but in my own mind.”

What do you turn to musically when you need to be inspired or uplifted?

“When I feel depleted from inspiration, I usually look for something new, something that I haven't heard. For me, a lot of times, the spark is some new ideas or approaches. I’m someone who’s always taking risks and buying records where I don't know if they're good or not. Sometimes stuff will sit on the shelf for a little while because I'm a bit of a glutton when it comes to music, and then it’ll find its moment.

Sometimes I’ll have listened to something, but I didn't really dive deep into it, so I'll do that. And then sometimes I’ll just type some random description into YouTube and see what the matrix gives me. The other day I put in ‘Zimbabwe mbira music’ and this really beautiful piece came on. Stuff like that will just spark an idea, and then I'm often off and running again.”

“I would have these blocks of time to just sit in a room and really dive into my psyche. It was like binge watching in my own mind.” - Kamasi Washinton

Who is your horn player of choice? 

“If you had to pick one star, you’d probably pick the Sun. So if I had to pick one horn player, I’d probably pick John Coltrane. But music is a personal expression, and as amazing as any person may be, no one is everyone. And everyone is someone. So as amazing as Coltrane is, you can't get what Joe Henderson has from John Coltrane. 

And so for me, with certain people, you know how much of your spiritual inner space they've touched ... Coltrane has definitely been the biggest influence and the biggest inspiration for me. But I have a lot of influences from a lot of other people. Like Wayne Shorter is definitely the reason why I play saxophone. When I was a kid, I got into the Jazz Messengers, and then I heard Wayne Shorter. And at that point, I was playing clarinet. And I was just like, ‘Oh, man, I want to sound like that.’ So different people have different places in my life.”

Tell us about the new song you wrote for your daughter, “Sun Kissed Child.” 

“When she was born, I had just never felt love like that. And it was instant. And it stayed with me. I was writing some music one day, and this song just kind of came to me. We are gonna play it at the Bowl. It's just special. There’s something to experiencing completely and utterly unconditional love. There's no reason behind it. There's nothing. It's just instantaneous. And you feel it and it's beautiful. It's a beautiful, amazing part of life. I'm a bit late into the game on that level, but I'm so happy and so grateful to have been able to experience that …  it gives you a new hope for everything.”





Anne Litt


Ariana Morgenstern