In Conversation With…
KAMASI WASHINGTON, Musician
“The real fact of the matter is that music and arts education is not out of every school, but they are out of schools in our communities or less-affluent areas. You go to a private school and it is very much there.”
37 years old
An Inglewood, California native
A saxophonist, musician, composer
I always knew I would play music, but I didn’t always want to be a professional musician. My dad is a music teacher and my mom is a chemistry teacher so for a long time, I thought I was going to do something in math or science. However at the start of high school, music is what I became passionate about though it was still a novel concept. Then one summer I took a summer bridge program at UCLA for calculus and microbiology. The classes were much harder than the ones I breezed through in high school. I realized that I was not having fun. That clarity helped me identify music as my intended major.
I went to Hamilton High School, which is like a music academy in Los Angeles. While there I joined the Multi-School Jazz Band under the direction of REGGIE ANDREWS. He is a pretty legendary figure for any jazz artist who has emerged from South Central, LA in the last thirty years or so. He taught my dad, Patrice Rushen, Tyrese, THUNDERCAT, Terrace Martin.
When I was about 16 or so, we played the Playboy Jazz festival. The attending crowd was bigger than anything I had seen before—about 17,000 people. I knew going in that I would not have a solo performance and accepted this. The members of the group were better than me; more advanced with their music. Then on stage, out of nowhere, Mr. Andrews points to me and throws me a solo. I was not prepared. I was not happy with my performance and remember not being able to let go of the thought that “I could have done better.” To make matters worse, my friend Ronald who had already gotten really serious about music had a drum solo and he killed it. People were walking over telling him that he really killed and then turning to me like, “yeah, you were okay, too.” It was then that I committed myself to really, really practicing so that I never feel like this. It was like, “I love music and I know I am good at it, but I didn’t love that feeling.” It was like a weird switch that went on inside of me.
Growing up my dad made certain I read a lot so I knew how much practice other musicians— MILES DAVIS, CHARLIE PARKER, JOHN COLTRANE—put into their music to feel good about their craft.. I had that all in my mind as confirmation of what I knew I needed to do to be better and never be in that position again. After that concert, summer started and I went full-fledge despite having only been playing the saxophone for about a year. I was determined.
I didn’t really talk about it to anyone. Everyone could see it though because that summer I was practicing like 8-hours a day, every day. It was summer so my friends would come over to the house trying to get me to come outside and kick it, but I was like, “nah I’m okay. I’m going to stay in.” I was so focused that my mom thought that I was depressed and actually called a therapist to be at our home one day. I remember I was in my room trying to learn this CANNONBALL ADDERLEY solo and this lady came over speaking in that voice and then asked me if I was sad. (Laughter) My mom was in the hallway listening all concerned.
Around this time, I refocused my friendship circle and surrounded myself with people like Ronald who were also focused on music. We would call one another just to check-in. Like if you started practicing at 10AM where are you at 7PM? Me, I was still practicing and so were they so that felt good. Sometimes we would get together and just jam. Music for me just got more and more fun. It is one of those things where you get out of it what you put into it. That’s when you get hooked because everything is new to you and there is so much to discover and explore: records, harmonies, theories, the sax itself and the different things I could do with it. I was falling in love.
THE INEQUALITY OF EDUCATION
Within the African-American community, we have a lack of confidence in one another and must get over that and see our greatness. We must keep it for ourselves and not let it be taken from us. My former teacher, Mr. (Reggie) Andrew was very much against the Magnet Schools Programs, which is a point of view I have come to agree with now. Magnet Schools, always a white-school out of our community, were positioned as “better” educational alternative for those black students like me who were perceived as having greater intelligence or skill. In order get this “better education,” we were taken (offered the opportunity) to go to a school outside of our community, which framed the proposition of our educational institutions being inferior.
At the time it was seen as a good thing; an advancement. Our parents did not understand that by taking “us” out of the community the deeper messaging and lack of confidence in our own is ultimately created. I went to 74th Street School located in my neighborhood. In elementary school is when they used to have the CTBS test. I scored really high on it which is how I then went to LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies) for middle school. I remember that the Principal brought in me into the office and asked me, “how did I do so well on the test,” as if I cheated or something. I thought I was supposed to do well on it so that is what I did. It’s a standardized test right, so why shouldn’t I do well? That is how my teacher explained it when she prepared us to take it. That it was something that we should all know.
What that high score did was take me out of my neighborhood for a time, not just physically but most importantly by way of influence on my friends. Whatever things I was into that I would have germinated into the general population to inspire others who look like me was lost until I enrolled in Locke High School.
The real fact of the matter is that music and arts education is not out of every school, but they are out of schools in our communities in less-affluent areas. You go to a private school and it is very much there. They have it and make sure their kids have it because they know the value and more to the fact that they are preparing their kids for careers, not jobs.
It is not okay that we look at schools in our community as being expendable because the thought process is that if you are a bright kid with a bright future then you are not going to go to that school—the neighborhood school—anyway. You have all those kids who are there. Just because you don’t score high on a test that was never designed for you to do well on does not mean that you don’t have something important to contribute to the world. It does not mean that you are not important.
ARTS EDUCATION IN OUR SCHOOLS
Arts and music in particular are a very human activities similar to physical education. To me taking music out of schools is like an extraction of humanity. Music is part of who we are as a species. It is not a frivolous thing. When you take it out of schools then you are taking expression—the ability of expression—away from people leaving them with only one recourse: writing but that even still is not a creative writing course. Your whole educational system is void of expression.
To me education has gotten to a weird place because it is not about the development of knowledgeable, balanced, intelligent people as part of a functional society. Education is now about the pursuit of a piece of paper so you can get a job and with that then the argument of taking music out of the school system seems validated. You are no longer in the business of making good people with a variety of ideas that can inspire and change the world. That, to me, is bothersome and doesn’t sit right.
Music is not a specialty job. I know it is viewed as not particularly stable, but that does not mean it should be taken away. Music, the learning and application of, develops a certain part of the brain that is enriching to a human being and our collective experience. Enriching to our community. Preparing people in so-called inner-city areas to be jobbers does not feed the soul in any way that increases our contribution to humanity and expression. Understand, I don’t think that everyone is built to be a musician. It’s a very weird lifestyle, but I do think everyone should have the proper exposure and relationship opportunity to it. Music in its element is fundamental like reading and writing.
Society is losing sight of the importance of teaching people how to be good people. .. that used to be the importance of scholastic education. What we are doing now is basically job training/vocational. When you meet someone who loves music and has been exposed to various types of music, there is a certain openness that they have that encourages a receptivity and that is because music exists in our emotional expansion.
I remember my dad used to talk about this song as something hard that no one really could play perfectly—he even had problems with it. Knowing that made me curious about it so he would hear me trying it, and he’d just let me. Despite being a teacher, and I am sure against his instinct to instruct, he let me figure it out. I found the logic in the arrangement and where my style of playing fit within it. I won’t lie, it is a difficult song.
Music is not something you can teach. You can show someone the path to learn the basics, but you can’t teach it. Music is in between math and science. It is not something that you can be shown and master in another’s way. We all have a signature. You have to train your mind to do it on your own. Yes, my dad would nudge me if he heard I was going in the wrong direction and then give me the tools to figure it out, but it was never a lesson. He knew better than anyone that music is a personal journey. There is no right or wrong way. It is how you play and if someone can appreciate it.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
Accept what is, then find a way to make it work.
I am not a quitter. I don’t give up easily, but at the same time I am not particularly stubborn. I give in, but I don’t give up. In my mind you have things you want to do, but you have to find the route to get to it, and oftentimes that requires some detours along the way.
It’s going to be what it is. My manager Banche was the first to point out that I say that a lot. She is right. I keep my eyes on what it is that I actually want and try not lose focus. I believe that your perspective influences and dictates your experience with circumstance. It is like a glass being half full or empty. It’s all in your mind.
You would think that life on the road is without routine, but touring like is not as sexy as people think it is. The most functional mode of transportation remains the tour bus. It allows my band and I one real consistent place to sleep and keep our things despite being in a different location each day.
4:00AM Leave the current location, drive through the night, and sleep. I am a pretty late sleeper so by the time I awake we have arrived in the city, but most likely are too early for our hotel check-in. My band mates RYAN PORTER and POPS are always first to rise and explore.
12:00PM I wake up to Ryan and Pops giving me the morning report from their walk-around: best breakfast sandwich, coffee shop, music, water feature or park near to us. It’s too early to get into our hotel rooms so you keep yourself busy.
2:00PM Hotel check-in. When you live out of a suitcase and have been in a thousand hotels it’s just a bed, a TV, and a bathroom. There is no excitement. One day I would like to travel just for fun.
I recently went to Havana, Cuba on a personal trip. I heard some musicians, but I didn’t jump in to play with them. I just wanted to experience it all and enjoying walking around the city absorbing the people and art galleries. There are also a lot of amazing visual artists.
3:00PM or 4:00PM Soundcheck at the venue. Before this, I try to get a feel for the city so I have an energy or mood from the city and the band in order to construct our set list. No two shows are the same. We play a different set for each performance.
5:00PM The next 3+ hours is the only free-time we have so whatever the experience is going to be must happen here whether it’s a great meal, doing laundry, playing some video game, or just chilling out. Often though we’ll go try to find RONALD BRUNER (laughter, inside joke). Normally, I can go to one or two places before I have to be back at the venue.
I seldom have “me” time. I travel with a large band (8 for touring, 50 for Coachella) and we are all close so the lines are blurred. It’s okay though because I come from a large family; it’s like being in the same house all the time.
8:00PM – 9:00PM Back at venue preparing, and preparing to go on.
12:00AM Finishing our set. If the show goes well, we go out to celebrate and maybe find a jam session. If something goes wrong, we have a meeting. They all hate when I call a meeting.
3:00AM Back on the bus. You hang out late at night, leave at 3 or 4AM, and sleep on your way to the next city. You awake in a city you have never been to and you may or may not know anything about it. The first thing you do is try to figure out where you are.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
I don’t necessarily think in regards of what I am going to leave behind. I typically think about what I am going to do. I haven’t gotten to do many of the things that I want to do yet. At 37 years old I feel like I am at the very beginning; like I have been preparing and am just now getting to the starting position of actually doing all the things I envisioned.
I am not very concerned about what people will think of me in the future so much as I am concerned with what I am able to do now. In that however, if I put my mind one step forward then it would be about music and art. That will forever be my life’s energy.
Music comes through us and then we attach whatever we want to it. I have always tried to use my music to propel thoughts and ideas that I feel will help make the world a better place. Most of my energy goes into making beautiful music. They will know me for what they know. I hope I am able to contribute something good and lasting.
To really make music, you have to put everything you have into it and what bubbles out is the result. It’s out of your hands and all you can do is look for more to pour in. How you live your life is the engine and inspiration. Life is the source of the energy that you can put into the music. Miles used to talk so much about living life in the most powerful and impactful way. Music comes from people who have lived. True, there is a technical side that anyone can do with proper training, but the intangible side comes from who you are and what you have experienced; what you have seen and what you have thought. That is the way of working on music. Organizing those thoughts so I can put them into something. Music is that vessel for me to put that into the world. I am always writing so there is not set aside time that says ‘now’ I have to be in the studio to write x-number of songs.
When I was younger I wrote with blinders on. As I have gotten older, experienced life, looked around, and allowed experience to inspire me I know that there is more than just diminished scales. You then start to feel that (life) in the music. I am not super deliberate about it, but I do try to keep an open mind, go places I have never been, and look at art. I live. I remember the first time I saw a VAN GOGH and a MONET in-person, I could feel them filling up the chamber in my soul. It was powerful.
I am a music head across the board. I genuinely love all musical forms and actually hear more that I like than what I don’t like. I inherited my Pop’s vinyl collection and that was the beginning.
· Lee Morgan
· James Brown
· Chaka Khan
· Kendrick Lamar
5 THINGS THAT I WOULD LEAST LIKE TO LIVE WITHOUT
A year before I recorded THE EPIC, I injured my mouth and didn’t think I would be able to play saxophone anymore. Surprisingly, it did not throw me in a downward spiral or anything. My mind pivoted pretty quickly and went into, “what else do you like to do and let’s pour everything in to that.” Sure, I was depressed for a moment, but I realized quickly that life was the biggest thing and started thinking to myself about what was next.
· Music – Most of my friends are grandfathered into that. Did I tell you about my band? (laughter)
· Play Station – A man’s best friend on tour bus. When I am home off the road, I don’t touch it.
· Movies – Yes!
· Family – I have 6 siblings. Now you know why I am at ease with my band in every condition: cramped bus, exploring a city, and beating them at play station.
· Saxophone – This could probably go under music, but this harder than I thought. Never really thought about my five things before.
· Albums – My recorded music. I have my Prince vault recordings that are not out in the world yet and may or may not find their way out there.