Critically acclaimed jazz saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington visited USC’s campus for a performance and conversation about his music and upbringing in South Los Angeles Tuesday night in Bovard Auditorium.
Washington has been an Angeleno since birth. Born and raised in Inglewood, where he still resides, Washington has appeared on tracks by artists such as Flying Lotus, Nas, Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar over the course of his career — including significant contributions to Lamar’s critically acclaimed 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. Washington’s own solo project, 2015’s three-part jazz opus The Epic, was similarly praised, and was ranked 10th by Pitchfork on its list of “The 50 Best Albums of 2015.”
Washington followed that album up with an inspired performance at the 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival where he, as Billboard described it, “won over a growing crowd at the outdoor theater without compromising any sort of jazz roots, nailing afro-funk stops, bebop melodies, and high-flying solos from bassists, turntablists, and dueling drummers in a lesson in musicality.”
A graduate of UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology, Washington is currently signed to Los Angeles independent label Brainfeeder, which hosts other L.A.-based jazz and avant-garde artists such as Flying Lotus, experimental hip hop group Shabazz Palaces and jazz fusion bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner.
The event, which was hosted by USC Visions & Voices and co-sponsored by the Black Student Assembly, began with a performance from Washington and his live band. Washington, whose work often skips between genres so rapidly and frequently that it could almost be called “genreless,” deftly balanced elements of jazz, soul, funk and R&B throughout his set.
A discussion led by Josh Kun, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the director of The Popular Music Project at Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center followed Washington’s performance.
The conversation mainly focused on the role music played in helping him escape gang life in South L.A.
Washington’s performance was praised by both the members of the audience and the people who helped organized the event. Nadja Barlea, one of the student coordinators for Vision and Voices, said that she was pleased to to see how Washington generated buzz on campus.
“What I was surprised about was how many people are super excited about the chance to see a jazz sax player,” Barlea said. “Kamasi’s brother is a grad student and his entire class is coming, so many music students are coming with their friends, so many musicians are here. It’s cool to see so many people come out for someone who’s not strictly mainstream.”
Kamasi Washington’s next live performance in Los Angeles will be at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Nov. 6.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kamasi Washington was pictured in the photo that ran with this story. It was members of his band, not Washington. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.