Kamasi Washington's Father Helped Mold Him into a Jazz Master

Kamasi Washington's dad, Rickey, played an essential role in the talented musician's life, challenging and nurturing him so that he could become the man and artist he is today.

Jun 13 2016, 4:00am

Portrait by Shane J. Smith

This story appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Before I met Kamasi Washington, I met his father. Rickey was standing behind a merchandise table at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village about an hour before one of Kamasi's first major solo shows in New York City. At the time, I didn't know that Rickey was the father of the saxophonist whose contributions to Kendrick Lamar's landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly and his own debut, The Epic, have introduced a new generation to the social consciousness, expressive modal, and fusion-jazz grooves of the civil rights era. I also didn't know that Rickey was a talented woodwind musician in his own right, who had a career playing sessions with legends such as Diana Ross and the Temptations. Honestly, I just thought Rickey was some old dude trying to hustle me out of $35.

"My brother," he called to me as I strolled past. "You better get this box set tonight." He held a hefty cardboard slab in the air. "Otherwise, you're going to end up paying a fortune on eBay."

Rickey was pitching me The Epic, Kamasi's 17-song opus that has everything from an ecstatic ode to Malcolm X to a saccharine yet soulful cover of Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune."

The 170-minute saga gets its name not from its length, but a dream the musician had about a young warrior battling to become a "guard," a position held by a powerful and aging warrior. The record's opening track, "Change of the Guard," tells this grand tale sonically, with sweeping strings from a 32-piece orchestra, the angelic voices of a choir, and the swinging soul jazz of Kamasi's ten-piece band.

Thanks to widespread critical praise and high-profile collaborations with popular artists like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi's position in the pantheon of music now mirrors that of the young warrior from his dream. His three-record debut—which won the inaugural American Music Prize and made nearly every major "Best of 2015" list, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone—has positioned Kamasi as a jazz emissary who's ushering in a new musical movement.

This rapid rise seems unlikely for a kid who grew up in Inglewood, California, in the 90s, an incredibly violent era for South Central, when it was probably more prodigious to learn gang signs than study chord changes. But as Kamasi would tell me later, his success was not by chance. Instead, it's the outgrowth of the fervent love of his father.

"I prayed for Kamasi to be the one," Rickey told me. "I prayed he would bring people together, and he would be a powerful force, and I prayed that he would do great things."

Months after that evening at Le Poisson Rouge, I sat with Kamasi and Rickey in a room at Dumont NYC, a hotel on 34th Street. The men were in town for yet another sold-out show, this time at Webster Hall—an even bigger venue—and they filled me in on the pivotal role that the elder Washington had played in his son's life.

"Papa was a rolling stone," Rickey laughingly sang to me. "Where he laid his hat was his home." The absence of Rickey's father, who was also a musician, draws a stark contrast to his close relationship with Kamasi. Rickey told me that he only met his dad once when he was young. On that day, his father promised him the world. Unfortunately, that new bike and those trips to basketball games never materialized. It wasn't until Kamasi was born that Rickey tried to reunite with his old man. "I needed a man in my life to help me figure out how to deal with it all. I looked up my father, and I found his brother, who told me he had just died," Rickey said. "Going through that was the precipice for me deciding to break the chain."

Portrait by Shane J. Smith

When Kamasi was born in 1981, Rickey was a successful musician. He fronted and played woodwinds in the Raw Soul Express, a group that mixed funk with elegant musical compositions. And as a producer, arranger, and session musician, Rickey's star was rising.

"My career was taking off. But I realized that all of my friends who had taken that route didn't own homes, didn't have health insurance, and left their family. They left their kids. So I gave it thought, and I said, Well, you know, my father didn't take care of me. So it's my responsibility to take care of my children."

Instead of going back out on the road, Rickey took a job as a music teacher in Inglewood, so he could remain a fixture in his son's life.

"I prayed for Kamasi to be the one," Rickey told me. "I prayed he would bring people together, and he would be a powerful force, and I prayed that he would do great things."

Long before the release of The Epic, it was clear to Rickey that his prayers for Kamasi had been answered. The boy was a prodigy. "Kamasi would sit at the piano for hours and just amuse himself. He had stick-to-itiveness, which is one of the greatest gifts. There are so many gifted musicians who only go so far with their talent. But the person who has stick-to-itiveness can traverse the difficulty and become a master. I saw that in Kamasi."

His ascension to the marquee of Webster Hall wasn't without its trials and tribulations. Growing up in Inglewood in the 90s was dangerous. Kamasi's mother lived in a Crip neighborhood, and his father lived in a Blood neighborhood, so he had friends on both sides of the ghetto war. At that time, the homicide rate in his neighborhood was one of the highest in the country, and gang life had a stranglehold over pop culture, creating an allure that was hard to resist.

"There's like a culture, a pressure to kind of take on a negative self image. You don't see it as negative self-image, but it's there whenever you're eleven years old, and your goal in life is to be a gangster, to have people be afraid of you," Kamasi said. "I don't think my dad even realized how indoctrinated I was. Every other word out of my mouth was 'cuz.'"

Today, although Kamasi has shared the stage with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Pharoah Sanders, his proudest moment as a performer just might be the day his father actually gave him some props.

Rickey fought against the seduction of the streets by instilling in Kamasi an appreciation for his heritage. In an early memory of his father, Kamasi remembers Rickey trying to get him to say he was an "African American," not just an American. Rickey even named Kamasi in honor of the ancient capital city of the Ashanti Kingdom, a place that has become symbolic for African unity.

Rickey always tried to keep Kamasi busy and out of trouble, giving him chores and books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "We learned at a young age, with our dad, that even if you weren't doing something, you had to look like you were, or some hard labor was coming your way," Kamasi said. "That's the reason I started practicing music—when I was practicing, Pops left me alone."

To that end, Rickey built a recording studio in his bachelor pad and let Kamasi's friends come over to jam. Keeping them inside the crib playing music was better than having them out on the streets. There were drums, keyboards, pianos, mics, and lots of food and video games in the house. The boys had everything they needed.

"There wasn't a woman there to make things more structured," Rickey said. "So they could stay up late. As long as they were doing something positive, I didn't mind."

As Kamasi directed his focus to mastering his saxophone, Rickey continued to push him in subtle but important ways.

"When I was about seventeen, I had a group called the Young Jazz Giants. We played all originals. When we would finish playing, people would be like, 'Oh my God, that was so nice, that was so great,'" Kamasi said. "But Pops would never tell us we were the best. He would give it to us straight, like, 'You're out of tune. You're dropping beats.'"

Today, although Kamasi has shared the stage with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Pharoah Sanders, his proudest moment as a performer just might be the day his father actually gave him some props.

"It was a jazz-band concert during my senior year of high school," he said. "I was used to Pops coming up and telling me what I did wrong. I was like... Oh, here it comes. And he walked up, and he was like, 'Man, that sounded good.' And we all looked at one another like, That's it? It sounded good? It was a major moment for all of us that night because Pops didn't have a critique."

Today, Rickey doesn't have any critiques about the musician or the man his son has become. The changing of the guard has actually happened. Kamasi has picked up where his father left off, and he has taken their shared love of music further than anyone—besides Rickey—could have imagined. And this is just the beginning. After touring the world in support of The Epic, Kamasi recently revealed to Rolling Stone that he's already planning his sophomore album, featuring "a thirty-two-piece saxophone thing." It's through Kamasi's fervent drive to push his art forward that you can see the culmination of Rickey's sacrifices and love.

You can also see it when they are onstage together. After hanging out in the hotel, I saw them that night at Webster Hall. Fifteen hundred fans howled when Kamasi stopped the show to bring out his Pops.

Rickey stepped into the glow of the purple stage lights and looked out into crowd. He gripped his golden flute in his hand, glanced at his son, then closed his eyes and began to blow. Soon Kamasi joined in, and the two tones intertwined and sprawled out from the stage. The vibes hit the folks in the front, and stretched through the crowd to me in the back by the merch table. They'd transformed their love into sound.

This story appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

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