Saxophonist Kamasi Washington credits musical success to UCLA roots

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington has played alongside rappers like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, but his early education lies in jazz.

As a second-year student at UCLA, Washington played saxophone on Snoop Dogg’s tour. After the 2004 ethnomusicology alumnus released his debut album “The Epic” in 2015, he went on to help arrange the string instruments on Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

On Sunday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Washington and his band “The Next Step” stuck with his jazz roots. He took the stage alongside the Ron McCurdy Quartet, which performed a rendition of Langston Hughes’ jazz poem “Ask Your Mama.”

By studying a range of music at UCLA like the gamelan players of Indonesia and the choir singers of Ireland, Washington said he gained a better understanding of world music he could later incorporate into his own playing.

“I always wanted my education to be something where I went to learn and not just party,” he said.

Washington played drums and clarinet in his early childhood and did not really become interested in jazz until he was 11, when a friend gave him a mixtape of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, he said. Soon Washington wanted to be a jazz musician, and at age 13, his father bought him his first saxophone.

Musicians he played with in high school, like trombonist Isaac Smith and upright bassist Miles Mosley, had decided on staying in Los Angeles, so Washington knew he could keep gigging with them while attending UCLA.

“We were all really focused individuals, and we put in a little more time than the other kids did and playing music was all we cared about doing,” said Mosley, an ethnomusicology alumnus.

Studying at UCLA also gave Washington access to instructors like Gerald Wilson and Kenny Burrell, the UCLA Director of Jazz Studies, Washington said.

When Washington auditioned for the jazz studies program, Burrell said he was so impressed by his rendition of saxophonist John Coltrane’s song “Giant Steps” that he immediately accepted Washington into his program.

“Kamasi is a unique person and musician, so the thing that we can offer a person like that is support in that uniqueness, because we recognize it,” he said.

In 2004, Washington played tenor sax on Burrell’s album “The Ralph J. Bunche Suite.” The album, which features a mixture of jazz music and spoken word, paid tribute to Nobel Peace Prize-winning UCLA alumnus Ralph Bunche.

Burrell rarely asks undergraduate students to record with him, but he said Washington’s saxophone skills convinced him that he was capable of taking on the job. Burrell said that unlike many young musicians, Washington was able to articulate his ideas into unique musical rhythms, notes and phrases.

“Here’s the thing about great artists: They usually embody important parts of the past and the present,” Burrell said. “(Washington) was trying to forge new ground, and we could hear that in his music.”

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