From Issue Four of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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LA‘s entire jazz lineage can be traced to a five-mile strip of Central Avenue. In fact, for the first half of the twentieth century, this overlooked span of street, originating in Little Tokyo, near Downtown, and sliding south through Watts, served as a cosmopolitan celebration of both jazz and blackness, a launching pad for some of the greatest innovators in American music.
Dexter Gordon, with jovial energy and a six-foot-six frame stretching long like the body of his tenor sax, introduced a hard-blowing sound into the rowdy LA clubs that would directly influence bebop greats like John Coltrane. Lionel Hampton, a boisterous performer who would bound from vibraphone to drums to piano mid-show, pioneered the idea of jazz and swing as entertainment and earned a reputation as a talent scout by recruiting legends like Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones into his big bands. And Charlie Parker, though he experienced his booze- and heroin-addled lows in the city in 1946 and ‘47, laid some of his most striking, lyrical solos to tape through Dial Records, an influential, LA-based label created for the exclusive purpose of recording Bird.
“It’s like LA is either Hollywood or the war zone,” Washington said. “There’s an in-between, and that’s us. We live here, were educated here.”
The sidewalks of Central Ave pulsed with energy, attracting African-American figures as diverse as Joe Louis, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall and Ray Charles to any one of the numerous venues dotting the street. There were stately establishments like the Dunbar Hotel, with its elegant Spanish arcades and dangling art-deco chandeliers, and raucous venues like Cabin Inn, Kentucky Club and the Jungle Room. There were 2,000-person theaters like the Lincoln, which was considered the “West Coast Apollo,” and intimate clubs like Club Alabam, which declared itself “the finest Harlem café in America.” There was also the Downbeat, where one might find Art Tatum plinking on a piano adorned with a half-finished case of PBR, while mobster Mickey Cohen listened intently nearby.
“It may not have been as charming on the Avenue,” LA jazz historian Sean J. O’Connell wrote in his book Los Angeles’s Central Avenue Jazz, “but an honest and impassioned sound arose from the cramped venues that could rival New Orleans or New York in terms of forward-thinking musicianship.”
Nearly 70 years after the peak of Central Ave, the sometimes seven, sometimes eight, sometimes ten career musicians and lifelong friends known collectively as the West Coast Get Down still consider themselves the protégés of LA players like Gordon, Parker, Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott. “Those are our teachers,” West Coast Get Down bassist Miles Mosley said. “You had the heroes of Los Angeles in their twilight when we were coming up. We sought the approval of the masters.”
So it was that in December 2011, the Get Down holed up in a recording studio for 30 straight days. After largely growing up together in an artistically fertile pocket of South LA, not far from Central Ave, the members of the group had more recently branched out from jazz to play for artists like Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Chaka Khan. That month, each member quit his or her other gigs, and the group recorded 190 songs together.
“It was like, it doesn’t make sense for us to all start competing against each other,” said Mosley. “Let’s all jump in and really try to build a springboard.”
They divided days into three-hour blocks, with each band member leading his or her own session for 180 minutes while the others took back seats as hired guns. With each frontman came a different approach. “There was that constant influx of what we call ‘leader energy,'” tenor saxophonist and de-facto frontman Kamasi Washington said.
Days consistently lasted from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., though some stretched from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. “There was a lot of music flying around in a really short time,” said drummer Tony Austin.
“We didn’t talk to each other for three months after that,” Mosley said. “Not a text, not a ‘Hey, how ya doing,’ not a ‘Happy birthday,’ nothing. It was, creatively, the most freeing thing I’ve ever been a part of, but as a human being, it was really hard.”
Washington’s resulting three-disc, 173-minute opus, The Epic, was released first. It was an unlikely hit, resonating not just with jazz audiences, but most notably, with a younger and more varied crowd. Rolling Stone called it “a jazz album as much about tradition as expanding it,” and Pitchfork called it “a large and generous canvas, with the feel of a generational intervention,” giving it an 8.6 out of 10. The record clearly had meaning beyond just its music, too. Jazz pianist Jason Moran told The New York Times, “It’s a moment when black LA has something to say, and people are listening.” Jazz critic Greg Tate called Washington “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter.”
Suddenly, jazz — representing just 1.4 percent of all music streamed and purchased in 2014, putting it in a tie for dead last next to classical (save for children’s music) according to Nielsen — was back in the zeitgeist. Suddenly, Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down were selling out thousand-seat theatres around the globe and drawing massive, young crowds at music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Glastonbury. Suddenly, they were soundtracking Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-award winning album To Pimp a Butterfly and claiming the ultimate “cool critic” moniker of approval, Pitchfork‘s Best New Music, for their own.
Washington’s album turned out to be the springboard for which the collective was searching, and it has kept the whole crew together and busy for the past two years. However, the intense spotlight made one fact easy to forget: every core member of the Get Down recorded an album that December. Washington’s just happened to come out first. There are at least five more ready to go, each with its own voice and style, each supported by the group’s powerhouse collective musical prowess, and each steeped in a healthy understanding of LA’s rich, overlooked jazz past.
“The house of jazz has had a front yard and a backyard,” Miles Mosley said. He is thick-shouldered and sharp-jawed, with a wide smile that lends him an uncanny resemblance to Drake. When we met at the World Stage in Leimert Park, a longtime hub for African-American art in Los Angeles, the bass player was part of a semicircle of West Coast Get Down members laid out in front of me. They were, from left to right: Kamasi Washington, a robust, dashiki-clad tenor saxophone player; Cameron Graves, a wiry, cerebral piano player with a taste for heavy metal; Ryan Porter, a trombone player with a beaming smile and crackling laugh; Tony Austin, a bushy-haired, muscular drummer in sunglasses, who also engineered the marathon recording sessions; and Patrice Quinn, a wide-eyed, long-limbed, spellbinding vocalist. Washington’s dad, Rickey, who often joins the group to play flute, was milling about nearby.
“The front yard was always New York. It was always trimmed and kept very pretty and neat and anything that stood out too far was plucked,” Mosley said. “But the back, the West Coast and LA, everything could grow free. We had barbeques and dancing and hanging. And because [the West Coast Get Down] weren’t nitpicked over, we were able to create a sound that was so uniquely ours, and so powerfully connected within ourselves, that when that sound steps on stage, it has all of our personalities in it without any interference. You can feel it’s coming from our soul.”
“What’s enjoyable for me is the shock that you see a person’s face get when you tell them this is jazz.”
Our gathering at the World Stage had an easygoing air. The musicians were lounging in the comforts of home following another leg of a multiyear world tour supporting Washington’s album. Some road-weary members remarked they’re not yet used to washing their own dishes. Others entered a semantic discussion about the quality of the new Miles Davis movie, which some watched on the plane ride home (“It’s a good movie, not a good biopic,” Washington eventually blurted out in an attempt to pacify the band). It was a mini-reunion too. Their manager had called in Reggie Andrews, the revered LA high school music teacher who had first brought the collective together.
Andrews, a sage man with gray on the tips of his mustache and a booming preacher’s voice, fondly reminisced with the collective about the early days of the Multi-School Jazz Band, a sort of high school all-star group he created in the ’90s for LA’s best young jazz players. In some ways, it was the earliest iteration of the West Coast Get Down.
“My thought was, every school probably had one or two players that stood out with nobody to play with. That’s why I started the Multi-School band.” Andrews said. He would drive a burgundy Mercury Villager minivan around LA gathering up students like Washington, Graves and Porter from their respective schools, sometimes driving everyone through McDonald’s before bringing them to practice at Locke High School in Watts, where Andrews was a teacher. Students from the more well-to-do suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, like Agoura Hills, would even commute in to get a seat with the coveted band. Andrews noted the irony of the racial role reversal — affluent, eager players gladly commuting into South Central — and recalls white parents remarking with surprise, “Wow, your students are really well behaved.”
“One of my favorite statements I would make [when the band was performing at competitions] was, ‘This band is from Watts,’” Andrews said, before imitating the shocked expressions that would come from the audience.
Once they graduated, the musicians moved on to various tiny jazz clubs around LA, like 5th Street Dick’s, the Leimert Park coffee shop where they first played as a 10-piece in 2005. As Washington tells it, he was preparing for a gig at the cramped venue when his rhythm section — Graves, the pianist; Ronald Bruner Jr., the drummer; and Ronald’s brother Stephen, the bassist now known as Thundercat — canceled. He called bassist Mosley, drummer Austin, and another keyboard player, Brandon Coleman, to take their place. Somehow, both crews showed up. Washington responded with typical warmth, inviting all his buddies, plus a couple more, onstage. The result was a forceful, virtuosic wall of sound.
“We all knew each other, and we had all played with each other too . . . but that [moment] was the realization that ten people could play together at the same time with the same instruments,” Washington said.
The group’s growth continued at the Piano Bar, a janky, rowdy dive bar in the heart of Hollywood, certainly an inauspicious place for jazz. “At Piano Bar, we refined ourselves,” Washington said. “We learned how to play each other’s music. That’s where our separate musical endeavors started to influence each other.”
They would cram onstage Wednesday and Friday nights, rotating through each other’s songs and entertaining liquored-up, amenable audiences who had unwittingly stumbled into the show. “Cameron’s music starts to influence my music, because I’d play my song and then we’d play his song,” Washington said. “The next week, that song Cameron wrote last week may have inspired me to write something else. Then Miles writes a song. Then Ryan writes a song, then Cameron plays something at the end that might turn into a bridge.” The group of seasoned musicians had not yet found their break, but they were winning over strangers. It was their version of the clubs in Hamburg, where the Beatles famously put in 10,000 hours of what Malcolm Gladwell called “deliberate practice” to master their craft.
But arguably the most important venue for the band was where we were sitting now, inside the World Stage. It’s the connective tissue between the spirit of LA’s Central Ave jazz scene in the 1940s and the spirit that drives the West Coast Get Down now. Washington, with a multicolored knit beanie on his head and an ornate cane by his side, surveyed the small, boxy room with lemon-yellow walls and space for only 100 people. “We grew up here,” he said.
“It’s etched in my memory,” said Cameron Graves.
The venue was cofounded in 1989 by late jazz drummer Billy Higgins, who played with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, among many others. From its origin, the World Stage was a community hangout, offering both a place to perform and a free-flowing exchange of ideas between torchbearers like Higgins and young musicians like the West Coast Get Down. Higgins would sometimes sit in with members of the collective when they were 15 and 16, a legend in his twilight, gliding over the top of his tightly tuned drums, gathering a band in his palm and piloting them wherever he chose.
“When I was in my early teens, I didn’t just know who they were,” Washington said. “I knew the older cats that blew. I had a connection to them.”
“If you were a bass player, and you were in your fifties, sixties or seventies, it was time for you to find a young bass player to share your knowledge with,” Mosley said. “People felt that responsibility.”
Now, Higgins has passed, and the World Stage is one of the last standing odes to jazz in LA. “If we played here today, you’d still have people shaking their heads and pulling your coat about how you played over the bridge in the third song or whatever,” Mosley said. “It’s not just a venue, it’s a community that’s teaching you every time you come here — about music, about life, about lots of things.”
“Music was important [at the World Stage], but there was always someone dropping some information here,” said Rickey Washington. “It was a generational connection.”
The fiery sun that was Central Ave burned out quickly: 1945 marked the end of World War II, leaving the many defense-industry workers in the area out of work and without disposable income for entertainment. In 1948, the formal end of racially restrictive housing covenants allowed wealthier black residents to leave the overcrowded block for neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills. In 1953, music unions were integrated — a civil rights victory that also forced the Central Ave HQ to be shuttered and moved to Hollywood, taking many jobs along with it. The Watts riots, six days of unrest in response to police discrimination and brutality, broke out just over a decade later in 1965, forever changing the legacy of the neighborhood where jazz first landed in LA. The sidewalks of Central Ave, once overflowing with revelers and filled with the joyous clang of cymbals, saxophones and trumpets, saw looting, violence and blight.
“‘Preserving’ is the wrong word,” Graves said. “What we’re doing is growing jazz.”
In 1992, as the members of the Get Down bloomed into their adolescence, LA’s jazz scene was again caught in the crossfire of racial division. The Rodney King riots left a lasting bruise on Los Angeles, and specifically, Leimert Park. The World Stage was only a few years old, and 5th Street Dick’s, where the collective would first play as a 10-piece band, opened in the neighborhood just two days before the riots. Some of its first customers were National Guard troops called in to manage the chaos.
While the surrounding area suffered significant damage, 5th Street Dick’s became a kind of oasis in the riot’s aftermath. Owner Richard Fulton elected to set sprawling communal tables on the sidewalk instead of hiding his business behind locked metal gates; the establishment’s coffee shop became a cultural hangout where old men waged moonlit chess battles into the wee hours outside as spoken word and jazz rang out from within. An influential hip-hop open mic called Project Blowed popped up, designed as a sort of alternative to gang life. A club that used to be on Central Ave, Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn, reopened in Leimert Park in 1997.
But despite the burgeoning art scene — and wunderkinds like Washington, the Bruner brothers and Mosley, who were just beginning to play their first shows — the neighborhood scene went largely ignored. South LA was considered a locale for violence, not art. “It’s like LA is either Hollywood or the war zone,” Washington said. “There’s an in-between, and that’s us. We live here, were educated here.”
After the 1992 riots in Leimert Park, O’Connell said his white friends told him they “didn’t go to that neighborhood anymore,” because “something had changed.” (O’Connell, who is also white, would routinely play at and attend jam sessions at the World Stage, and said, “No one ever gave me shit.”) Drummer Tony Austin recalled something similar: When he would invite friends to see him play at the World Stage, which was just steps from 5th Street Dick’s, they would say, “Tell me when you’re playing in Hollywood or the Valley or something, because that area is really sketchy.”
“The irony of Leimert Park, especially in the mid-nineties, was that this hugely impactful thing was happening, something that impacted all our lives, but it wasn’t getting any sort of ink or any light of day,” Austin said. “The only people that knew about it were the people that lived in this neighborhood. Now we get to bring that era of LA history to light.”
“If you think about the history of jazz, there is a parallel to that,” Washington said, “because in the past jazz was always a music of rebels. When John Coltrane came out, he was not critically acclaimed. Our heroes were not the status quo. They’ve become the status quo. We weren’t going against the grain. There was just no grain at all.”
Washington’s The Epic is elusive — a dense, mostly wordless album that stretches nearly three hours with multiple songs running over 14 minutes. It’s spiritual, cerebral and dreamlike. Musically, it revels in its bigness, serving as a wide-open highway on which all 10 members can occupy a lane.
But the band’s volume on The Epic does not equal impact. Rather, some of the best moments are when they’re laid bare, like at the 10-minute mark of “The Next Step,” tiptoeing around measures, suggesting chords rather than landing on them, the song threatening to crumble into nothingness if only the band would allow it.
Washington plays his saxophone with stunning expressiveness throughout, and, though much of The Epic is wordless, his music never feels estranged from a message. In fact, this thoughtful mysticism as a frontman (recalling, say, John Coltrane circa A Love Supreme) is part of what makes Washington so compelling. He’s a hypnotic storyteller when he solos, often toying with rhythm, dragging behind the beat and making time feel elastic. It’s a subtle way of freezing the moment and roping in the listener, a reminder from Washington that he builds songs around much more than just flurries of notes. “He’s matured into this craftsman,” Dan Taguchi, one of Washington’s former high school music teachers, said. “He’s developed his solos into more of a story than a technical exhibition.”
The Epic‘s music alone is noteworthy, but two years after its release, it seems that the Get Down’s role as cultural messengers, and as storytellers, may be why they have surged, at least commercially, while the rest of genre has declined. Their first lesson: populism. They were borne of sweaty dive bars, not stuffy cocktail lounges. They reclaimed a genre turned elite and gave it to regular people once again. As Austin told me, “What’s enjoyable for me is the shock that you see a person’s face get when you tell them this is jazz.”
But the main story of The Epic is one imbued with race, spirituality, oppression and liberation. On it, the Get Down plays the jazz of the ’60s, informed by N.W.A. “For so long, [jazz] didn’t live in the African-American community,” Washington said. “Our jazz, what we came up in, we were playing for regular black people, not rich people, over here in Leimert, and they loved it. This is jazz from the hood.”
The neighborhood in which most of the collective grew up, and still live, left an undeniable mark on their sonic DNA. “We’d all go to Project Blowed and hope to see someone like Freestyle Fellowship or somebody from the Alkaholiks just freestyle. We’d be in there with all the rest of the hip-hop heads, then we’d all go home and then transcribe to Charlie Parker. They coexist. There is a connection that is very clear and very apparent here.” Washington said.
“I’m from South Central LA. It’s not a jungle, it’s a place.”
“They are a product of this city, and they’re a product of many of the musicians that were here,” said the author O’Connell, who went to college with Washington and Mosley and also writes about jazz for numerous outlets like Down Beat and The Los Angeles Times. “They are a product of post-riot, whatever this is we’re in. And they’re still tied in, still there, in the middle of Inglewood.”
Jazz and hip-hop have a lasting love affair, dating back to artists who merged the two African-American art forms in the late ’80s to great effect, like Gang Starr, Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. However, it’s typically been hip-hop culling from jazz, not the other way around. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis did helm a collaboration with hip-hop producer (and one half of Gang Starr) DJ Premier in 1994, and Miles Davis’s posthumous 1992 release Doo-Bop featured guest raps and hip-hop beats, though both projects were largely panned by critics. Washington and the Get Down are among the first jazz artists to bridge the gap with care and subtlety. They have personal experience playing in the genre (“I started to hear music in a different way, and it changed the way I played jazz,” Washington told The New York Times about his experience with Snoop Dogg). This is probably why they largely avoid using hip-hop as a songwriting gimmick. There is no heavy-handed rapping on The Epic and no trill 808 beats. Instead, the influence lives on the fringes — the G-funk synth that courses in and out of “The Message,” or the sauntering drum beat on “Isabelle” and “The Rhythm Changes.”
Washington has also shown his comfortability with hip-hop on other projects, like when he joined Thundercat and frequent Get Down collaborator Terrace Martin to contribute to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The album, which received 11 nominations and five trophies at the 2016 Grammys, is a departure from Lamar’s previous record, which was more influenced by Dr. Dre and early Outkast. Thanks to Washington and Terrace, Butterfly is laced with jazz. There are flitting saxophones, unique chords and layers of strings. Listen to The Epic and To Pimp a Butterfly back-to-back and it can begin to feel like Lamar and Washington, born just a few years and a few miles apart and connected by their mutual friend Terrace, were always meant to bridge one another’s genres. “Man, a lot of the chords that you pick are jazz-influenced,” Terrace told Kendrick during the writing of To Pimp a Butterfly. “You don’t understand: You a jazz musician by default.”
Lamar’s album is also notable for its poignant statements about race, police brutality and poverty. (Barack Obama called “How Much a Dollar Cost?” — an allegory about Lamar meeting a homeless man, who turns out to be God, at a gas station — his favorite song of 2015.) When I asked Washington if he felt the West Coast Get Down was also intentionally delivering a message about race, he countered, “It’s just us being ourselves. But us being ourselves is not really something we get a chance to do.”
“Kendrick is the same thing,” he continued, then offered an example. “The minority of people [in South LA] are in gangs, but they make a lot of noise. It changes your perspective. Out of three hundred sixty-five days in a year, if two of those days someone pulls a gun on you . . . it feels like they pulled a gun on you every day.”
“That’s what makes the Black Lives Matter thing so pertinent. [Some people] want people in these little boxes: ‘You live here, you look like this, so you gotta be this.’
“I’m from South Central LA. It’s not a jungle, it’s a place,” he said.
When asked about his music, Washington typically responds by using “we,” not “I,” and there is no doubt that The Epic is the result of an immensely talented group as opposed to one individual. The reality, though, is that Washington earned the most recognition and made the grandest cultural statements to the press; not everyone’s forthcoming albums will sound similar. “My approach is very live. I want you in the moment, making a magic trick happen,” Washington said. “My sessions are very different than Ronald Bruner’s, who had been working on a record for years, trying to perfect songs he already started. Or Brandon [Coleman], who likes to create and teach and come up with the music together. Cameron [Graves] was doing improvisation. Miles [Mosley] had a record he was working on before. There was not only different music, but different approaches to making music.”
In many ways, the West Coast Get Down’s rise could follow the blueprint of another collective with deep LA roots: hip-hop crew Odd Future. Members of the rap group, some of whom grew up in the same South LA neighborhoods as the members of the Get Down, have been rotating into the spotlight for years. They first rose to prominence as a scrappy unit of live performers in 2010, led by leading man Tyler, the Creator. Singer-songwriter Frank Ocean and rapper Earl Sweatshirt were contributing to some of the group’s output, helping with Tyler’s solo efforts and also working on their own projects, which would eventually come out over the next few years and result in numerous Grammy nominations and widespread critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Odd Future’s DJ, Syd Tha Kid, was fronting her own band called The Internet, a neo-soul outfit that earned a Grammy nomination in 2016 (The Internet’s keyboard player was Jameel Bruner, brother of Get Down drummer Ronald Jr. and bassist Thundercat).
The Get Down’s own musical diaspora is finally taking shape. Mosley’s album came out January 27, Cameron Graves’s and Thundercat’s albums February 24, Ronald Bruner Jr.’s, March 3. The collective has opted to divide and conquer, with Mosley taking half of the Get Down on his tour, while Washington will continue with the remaining players (plus a few more) on his dates. The frontmen will overlap shows whenever possible. Mosley shrugged off the notion that it might get complicated. “Just like we had been round-robining these songs [at Piano Bar], we’ll round-robin these records,” he said. “I don’t really have an issue knowing that I have two records on deck already.”
The first sounds from the other members of the Get Down seem to indicate they will all retain the soulful, musically adept elements that powered Washington’s record while channeling it through their own unique lens. Mosley is a natural frontman, and he fuses the collective’s classic jazz sound with a sort of Lenny Kravitz pastiche on his album Uprising. Graves’s album Planetary Prince connotes something frantic, impressive and virtuosic, while Ronald Bruner Jr.’s groovy Triumph and Thundercat’s Drunk seem to align more obviously with soul, funk and hip-hop. I asked the collective as a whole, with each of their solo careers looming, if they felt like they had an obligation to preserve the idea of jazz as a genre.
“‘Preserving’ is the wrong word,” Graves said. “What we’re doing is growing jazz.”
“We’re the next step,” Patrice Quinn said.
As the West Coast Get Down rejuvenates the spirit of LA jazz around the globe, the city’s scene teeters on the edge of the financial abyss. Some clubs, like the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo, are seeing steady business; others are disappearing, like 5th Street Dick’s, which shuttered in 2000. At the time of writing, the World Stage remains in Leimert Park Village, though it has been forced out of its original building due to risings rents. Piano Bar, the West Coast Get Down’s spiritual headquarters, planned its own funeral in September. The collective played a secret show for one of the closing performances.
It was the first evening of fall, and appropriately chilly, with cool Santa Ana winds swaying the palm trees in the middle of Hollywood. The bar had wood-paneled walls, a thin, crusty burgundy carpet and dinky bronze chandeliers that were missing lightbulbs. The stage sat level with the ground, only discernible by a parquet outline that stretched about 15 feet wide and half as deep. I had seen the collective perform twice before, once at Coachella and the previous night at USC’s Bovard Auditorium, both under the billing of Kamasi Washington’s name. But here, they were billed as the West Coast Get Down, and it became clear I’d be seeing a band at the peak of its career opting for ultimate vulnerability, a setup stripped of any production or pretense.
The previous evening, Austin’s setup had consisted of a gleaming, pristine Tama drum set, lined up at a perfect 45-degree angle so that he could have one eye on his fellow drummer Ronald and the other on Washington. At Piano Bar, Austin loaded in a weathered, anonymous vintage kit, hauling it through the crowd piece by piece. Mosley ambled in with his upright bass on his back. The PA offered an audible buzz.
“This, I believe, is really where they became a collective,” Barbara Sealy, their manager, leaned in and said to me as they were loading onstage. Lines had stretched around the block for hours, and about 250 people piled into the venue, with space for only about 50 in front of the stage.
“It’s very hard for a musician to find a place to call home,” Mosley said from the stage. “Piano Bar has been our home for the last eight years.” They began, and rotated, like always. Miles led a song, then Ryan, then Cameron, then Brandon Coleman.
To watch the collective perform is to find comfort in sensory overload, reconciling the rollicking sextuplets spitting out of Austin’s snare drum with the squealing sheets of sound coming from Washington’s tenor. Each member moves in his or her own way. Washington holds the rhythm in his barrel chest, dipping and heaving; Mosley in his limbs, forearms twitching; Porter behind his eyes, brow furrowed while he blows soulfully through his trombone. All their sounds have a way of melting together wonderfully, the wah-wah effects of Thundercat’s bass solo eventually becoming indiscernible from Brandon Coleman’s keyboard textures. In that way, it’s more a display of togetherness than brazen, solo musicianship.
The band was loose but virtuosic all night, Washington smiling as he took tiny breaths during his solos. The crowd was sweating, gleefully dancing to odd time signatures and plodding modal jazz. The number of people on stage, which started at seven, eventually grew to 10. Tables were stood upon, drinks were spilled, smokes were smoked. For a few hours, I felt like a voyeur of history, peering in on an era I’d never known.
“This song has closed a lot of nights,” Mosley said into the microphone before their final tune. “West Coast Get Down ’til I fucking die. We really from here,” Ronald Jr. hollered into the microphone, tears in his eyes, before offering praise with an important qualifier. “The Piano Bar was the first place, other than the World Stage.” He took a shot with the bartender.
The closing song was a Mosley original from his album, recorded in that frenetic, fruitful month of December 2011. It, like many of the collective’s songs, was worked out over sessions at Piano Bar. Its chorus was screaming brass and thumping bass, a letter of encouragement chronicling Mosley’s struggles in his city and the brighter days that lie ahead.
“Faith brought you all this way, to this unforgiving place / wherefore dreams we blindly, boldly chase,” he sang. “But I won’t let LA bring you down.”
The lights came on, reminding the audience that the night had turned into early morning. The bartenders sneakily passed out free drinks. The band members comfortably basked in the afterglow of the tiny show, floating around the room with smiles plastered on their faces, greeting a cadre of friends and family, some giving praise to the band, but most just laughing, hugging and rehashing old memories. The show, personal and electric, was the type an audience member recalls for years. A venue may have been closing, but the West Coast Get Down, the torchbearers for LA’s next jazz generation, felt very much alive.
“We’re sitting back in the backyard, looking at people saying, ‘No one likes jazz, jazz is dead, the music doesn’t connect to the people.’” Kamasi said. “The jazz that we make connects with people.”
“And there is a party in the backyard,” Mosley said.