Leimert Park in the early 90s was a unique place to be. South Central LA: the birthplace of west-coast hip-hop, jam centre for the now middle-aged instrumentalists of spiritual jazz, historical home to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, the outskirts of so-called Black Beverly Hills. An area also recently infamous for its street crime and gang affiliations, it was here that young saxophonist Kamasi Washington first became versed in jazz.
At the age of 11, he was taken by his jazz musician father Rickey to see acts in the many clubs dotted around the area’s backstreets: artists such as saxophonist Pharoah Sanders at the 100-capacity World Stage club and pianist Horace Tapscott, who would perform with his Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Tapscott’s work was particularly influential for Washington. He viewed the music he played not as spiritual jazz, nor even jazz, but simply “black music”, and pioneered the use of spoken-word artists who would chant sociopolitically charged lyrics over his compositions. On Why Don’t You Listen?, vocalist Dwight Trible lists jazz musicians from Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie, interspersed with the titular refrain. Tapscott felt his work had a responsibility to its history and an ultimate emphasis on imparting this culture to younger generations. In his hands, this lineage would never die.
Over the street from Tapscott and the World Stage, another type of spoken-word culture was forming: hip-hop. Acts such as the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship would hold jams at Project Blowed, extending Tapscott’s lineage of black music and putting words to their heavily racialised social environment. A fluid scene was forming; in Leimert Park, the jazz kids would meet the hip-hop kids. Washington was both.
Almost three decades later, in 2015, Washington released his debut album, The Epic. It would spark the beginning of a mainstream jazz resurgence across the US and in the UK, and the radical, politicised reclamation of a genre that had become deeply unfashionable. It was unshackled from the confines of the hotel lobby and thrust back into the clubs.
When Tapscott died in 1999, jazz had been relegated to a traditionalist’s preserve – nothing as radical as its bebop heyday, nor as “cool” as its 50s Pacific incarnation, nor as indigestible as 60s free jazz. Instead, Wynton Marsalis was at the peak of his academic resurrection of swing in New York, while in the UK, Courtney Pine and the Jazz Warriors were drawing on their own African-Caribbean heritage to perform a cubist fusion. Music writers persistently proclaimed the death of jazz, its political edge dissipated in favour of the search for technical intricacy and introspection.
But The Epic played like a revitalisation of Tapscott’s musical philosophy. Here was a three-hour, three-part record that called upon everything from Sun Ra to A Tribe Called Quest’s reprocessed jazz sampling and Parliament/Funkadelic in its ever-expanding definitions of black music. By this point, Washington had played in Tapscott’s Arkestra and put in his hours as a session player for jazz stalwarts Herbie Hancock and George Duke, and early 2000s hip-hop and R&B acts Snoop Dogg and Raphael Saadiq. His most important collaboration was to come with another South Central rapper, Kendrick Lamar.
Lamar followed his own lineage: the west coast sun- and blood-soaked aggression of NWA, Dr Dre and Tupac. Where the Pharcyde were easy-riding in the stargazing psychedelics of hip-hop, Dre, Tupac and co spat out a sometimes venomous, emotional rap fuelled by police aggression and widespread neglect of the immigrant communities of South Central. The communality that had been so important to Tapscott seemed at the risk of collapsing by the late 90s; this was its response.
There was similar urgency at play in 2015 when Lamar enlisted Washington for his second major-label album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Where 2012’s debut Good Kid MAAD City was a cinematic retelling of a day in the life of Lamar’s seething Compton, TPAB cast its net far wider, enveloping black musical history through the meandering lines of Washington’s tenor saxophone. Take U, a dark, anguished number from Lamar, its introspection and self-critical lyrics – at one point calling himself a “fucking failure” – standing in stark contrast to the macho excess usually celebrated in rap. Lamar screeches and squeals, his voice breaking like the pre-lingual cries of free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry’s playing, while Washington’s mellifluous, keening lines provide a melodic dialogue, a background reasoning to Lamar’s uneasy questioning.
The critically acclaimed TPAB brought Washington’s jazz to a new, young, globalised audience. Where jazz had been largely the preserve of the concert hall and clubs such as New York’s Blue Note and London’s Ronnie Scott’s, now it was being played at major festivals including London’s rap-focused Wireless and at club nights in major cities. Its sound was bubbling up to the mainstream for the first time in a generation.
Perhaps it was the sociopolitical context of 2015 that made such fertile ground for the jazz revival brought about by Washington. Black Lives Matter had reached peak visibility following the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin and the ensuing acquittal of George Zimmerman, while President Trump’s overt racism proved shockingly mainstream. Lamar and Washington’s unapologetic, afrocentric music positioned jazz as a tactile, tangible form of resistance. As footage of crowds at anti-Trump rallies chanting the lyrics to Lamar’s Alright went viral, the radicalism of jazz had seemingly returned – that lineage of Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit, Amiri Baraka and black power, Sun Ra and black consciousness. Critic Greg Tate hailed Washington as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”.
When The Epic was released later that year, accompanied by its grayscale sleeve of Washington and saxophone looking down from a distant planet like a benevolent cult leader, its success was unexpected: it hit the year-end top 10 albums of the Guardian, Pitchfork and Wire, and was certified platinum in Germany. During the TPAB sessions, Washington had formed his own version of Tapscott’s Arkestra, the West Coast Get Down, featuring fellow LA locals including bassists Thundercat and Miles Mosley and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. Washington’s 13-piece ensemble would lay down the 17-track record in frenetic sessions between sessions for Lamar’s album, resulting in a record that veers from a languorous, swampy rendition of Claire de Lune to gut-busting chromaticism from Washington and keys player Cameron Graves on Change of the Guard and Askim. Washington’s playing is always insistent, regardless of a song’s timbre. Where Charlie Parker’s most burning bebop plays like a fever dream and John Coltrane’s later playing hits like an anguished pre-lingual cry, Washington commands an ocean of tone. His heavy breath is just as important as the sound it carries, and both are heard in equal measure: the sound of raw physicality as well as melodic emotion, waves crashing upon the shore.
The Epic is not a particularly easy listen, at turns impassioned (Askim), knotty and introspective (Change of the Guard), balladic (Cherokee) and didactic (Malcolm’s Theme). Perhaps its difficulty became a badge of honour for its new listeners, or maybe its aesthetic struck the right chord with a generation becoming more open to different musical genres thanks to streaming services. Regardless, the record’s challenging singularity of vision, combined with its positive critical and commercial reactions, created a new framework for jazz releases. Soon, The Epic’s influence was spiralling outwards from LA and sparking jazz resurgences in the UK and Chicago. In London, Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings released a breakbeat-heavy LP from Yussef Kamaal, AKA producer Kamaal Williams, and drummer Yussef Dayes, formerly of the jazz trio United Vibrations. The duo sold over 20,000 copies of their first and, so far, only record, Black Focus, a major success for an indie release. Black Focus was primed for dancefloor play in its machine-gun rhythms and headphone introspection in its sparse synth work. Its release opened the doors for a new generation of London-based jazz artists to further explore the intersections of electronics and improvisation, the club space and orchestration.
Many young jazz musicians were trained by free grassroots organisations such as Jazz Warrior alumni Gary Crosby’s workshop Tomorrow’s Warriors, disrupting the traditional privileged pathway of jazz conservatoire education. Their music had a resulting diasporic fluidity, reflecting London’s cultural makeup. Mostly in their early 20s, artists including drummer and producer Moses Boyd, saxophonist Nubya Garcia and keys player Joe Armon-Jones played DIY venues off the traditional jazz circuit, such as Hackney’s Total Refreshment Centre and Deptford’s Steam Down jam, attracting an audience of students and curious locals. The aura of impenetrability that had calcified around jazz was dissipating, replaced by a vivid and multifaceted new identity: female-fronted group Nérija were signed to major independent label Domino in 2019 – a milestone in a consistently male-dominated genre.
In Chicago, meanwhile, label International Anthem was taking an experimental tack, finding an eager audience for their releases from drummer Makaya McCraven, trumpeter Jaimie Branch and multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay. McCraven’s Where We Come From and Branch’s Fly or Die II albums were partly recorded in London and feature a number of the next-gen players such as Garcia. While British jazz had usually operated within the shadows of its American progenitor, here was a newfound parity for collaboration. The internet and social media were obvious facilitators of this increasing collaboration, along with the artists positioning themselves outside of traditional industry hierarchies, working in ever-mutating collectives. They staged their own shows and defined their own narratives. Rather than create a stifling atmosphere of control, this created a means of dialogue with the listener. Tapscott’s community was extending.
Washington’s key work, the 2017 EP Harmony of Difference, is based on the idea of counterpoint: rhythm and harmony working together, yet with a friction that resists overarching unity. Each of its six tracks is named after differing emotions and features a distinct refrain, all of which combine in the final 13-minute opus, Truth. Here, movements bubble up from a down-tempo, meditative intro into a tightly swung solo from Washington before dropping to a half-time ascension and a choral close. Written for the Whitney Museum’s Biennial and presented alongside an impressionistic short film directed by AG Rojas, Truth is a warm and enveloping experience to behold – a slick culmination of Washington’s spiritual jazz.
The following year’s Heaven and Earth LP continued the pugilistic ethos of The Epic, an anguished cry for change targeted at the world’s ills, featuring track titles such as Fists of Fury and Street Fighter Mas. The cover art once again depicted Washington and his saxophone, this time hovering above a plane of water. It acts as a deifying diptych to that of The Epic – from space to the earthly pursuit of heaven. By now, Washington’s maximalism had catalysed something new in the jazz revival, one which was building on and beyond his influence.
UK quartet Sons of Kemet took the abstract empowerment of Washington’s music and radicalised it with precision. Their Mercury-nominated 2018 album Your Queen Is a Reptile indicted the unearned power of hereditary monarchy, positing instead their own lineage of “alternative queens” such as Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis. Where breath is a simultaneous signifier of force and fragility in Washington’s playing, for Sons of Kemet bandleader Shabaka Hutchings, circular breathing ensures that his saxophone is all power – a bursting forth of energy reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s reed-breaking laments targeted at 1960s New York. Coupled with Theon Cross’s susurrating tuba and dual drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, Hutchings’ honking sax fuses the kineticism of Afrobeat with the gasping urgency of free jazz.
The mutations of this new scene have taken it to surprising places. Saxophonist Binker Golding and pianist Sarah Tandy are currently championing a return to the straight-ahead, air-tight swing of Wynton Marsalis and Michael Brecker – a mode previously dismissed for its fusty air of the conservatoire – while Joe Armon-Jones’s recent work is heavily influenced by dub and the patois rhythms of his vocalist Asheber. British Indian drummer Sarathy Korwar’s jazz pushes forward the hip-hop fusion of Lamar’s TPAB, this time enlisting the “gully” style of Mumbai Hindi rap, while Josef Leimberg is championing a new stonerism in spiritual jazz with his Astral Progressions project. Jazz-origin label Blue Note is ushering in a new era with vibraphonist Joel Ross, playing through the pert freneticism of Bobby Hutcherson.
Critic Whitney Balliett describes jazz as “the sound of surprise” – the eternal present tense of improvisation – and the new jazz era resonates in the continual playfulness of this instant reaction. Perhaps in the instant-click era of streaming, jazz will always remain a fringe pursuit – or perhaps not, given that it has, crucially, re-engaged with a younger generation. Revivals and resurgences imply a preceding death, yet in the karmic philosophy of spiritual jazz, death can only mean rebirth, the onward movement of breath, sweat and melody.
• This article was amended on 21 November 2019 because an earlier version attributed the “sound of surprise” quote to writer John Szwed. It was made by critic Whitney Balliett. This has been corrected.