These LA Artists Are Keeping Jazz Raw as Hell
Kamasi Washington and Thundercat are making jazz cool again, but they're far from the only Angelenos helping LA reclaim its status as a boundary-pushing jazz city.
From the 1920s until the early 50s, Los Angeles was a jazz mecca. Back then, denizens of the city’s southern Central Avenue corridor were treated to performances by artists who now comprise the pantheon of jazz worship: Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and Billie Holiday regularly set the clubs along “The Avenue,” as it was known, ablaze, making LA one of the period’s premiere jazz cities.
When jazz greats flew in from around the country, nearly all of them would stay at The Dunbar Hotel, a revered socio-cultural hub for the black community and arguably the crown jewel of Central Avenue’s jazz venues. Not only did its stage accommodate some of the wildest performances and parties seen on Central, with “chicks and champagne everywhere,” The Dunbar also hosted the first West Coast meeting of the NAACP, and counted Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. Dubois among its long list of illustrious guests. As a nexus for intellectual, artistic, and ecstatic expression, the hotel was both the center of, and an apt symbol for, the LA jazz scene of the early twentieth century.
From the 50s onward, economic decline gutted many Central Avenue businesses and The Dunbar was no exception, officially closing its doors in 1974. By the time it reopened them in 1990, offering low-cost housing for senior citizens, it had once again come to embody the state of Los Angeles jazz—but for very different reasons than during its golden age. Once epicenters of a powerful movement, by the 90s both the Dunbar and the LA jazz scene as a whole had faded to near irrelevance, neglected homes for the ghosts of a forgone era.
Various factors had conspired to cause the decline. Chief among them was the easing of racist housing practices known as “redlining,” which prior to being deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948, limited where African Americans were allowed to buy and own property in the city—predominantly to South Central Los Angeles. As the prevalence of those discriminatory housing covenants waned, the community that had made Central Avenue the locus of LA jazz began to seek opportunities elsewhere, and The Avenue fell silent.
But the dimming of the lights on Central Ave. didn’t mark the end of LA’s jazz scene; it just made it harder to see. Diffracted, dispersed, and decentralized, Los Angeles jazz may not have looked like the powerhouse it was during the first half of the twentieth century, but it endured, spreading across the city’s iconic sprawl. From Leimert Park’s The World Stage, to Hermosa Beach’s The Lighthouse Café, to the Piano Bar in Hollywood, gifted musicians like Billy Higgins, Chico Hamilton, and many others continued to leave audiences transfixed even as the national jazz spotlight shifted to New Orleans, Chicago, and New York.
The last several years have seen that spotlight return to the City of Angels. While an exact turning point is hard to pin down, the resurgence of LA jazz can be traced back to the 2010 release of 21-year-old pianist and composer Austin Peralta’s album, Endless Planets, on Flying Lotus’ record label, Brainfeeder. Despite Peralta’s tragic death two years later, the recordings he left behind and his association with Flying Lotus’ label marked a turning point for the genre’s West Coast presence, by both exposing a younger generation to jazz, and by setting a precedent for similar collaborations between the city’s hip-hop, electronic music, and jazz communities.
A burgeoning movement became a full-fledged explosion in 2015 with the release of saxophonist and South Central native Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic. Bolstered by mainstream attention from his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly that same year, and dovetailing with the breakout success of lifelong collaborator and jazz-funk fusionist Thundercat, the exuberant response Washington’s record garnered not only thrust LA jazz back into the collective consciousness, but helped usher in a nationwide jazz renaissance that has seen a marked increase in the genre’s visibility and popularity. That Washington, alongside Thundercat, Badbadnotgood, and others, has spent the last several years playing mainstream music festivals, injecting jazz into typically pop, hip-hop, rock, and dance centric events like Pitchfork Music Festival and Coachella, speaks volumes to their collective role in bringing jazz back into vogue.
Washington and Thundercat might be the most widely recognized paragons of Southland jazz, but they are far from the only Angelenos making exemplary contemporary jazz music. The following list is a small sampling of the musicians who have helped usher in an LA jazz renaissance, and who are poised to continue contributing incredible music to the city’s resurgent scene.
Long before LA jazz was drawing national attention, the collective of musicians that accompanied Kamasi Washington on his watershed record were at the nexus of the city’s jazz scene. Known as the West Coast Get Down, this corps of prodigies has been playing together since their early high school years, developing a near-telepathic musical bond that left patrons of LA jazz clubs, audiences at City Hall, and even residents at local senior citizen homes speechless for well over a decade. In the wake of The Epic’s groundbreaking success, many of the members of The West Coast Get Down have stepped out of Washington’s shadow, releasing records under their own names and proving themselves to be far more than simply role players.
Each member of the Get Down possesses an impressive resume, and trombonist Ryan Porter is no exception. Having lent his skills on the horn to premiere artists such as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Rihanna, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and Mariah Carey, as well as having joined several of his WCGD compatriots in playing on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Porter has been an A-list session musician for some time. But with the 2018 release of his debut album, The Optimist, he made it irrefutably clear that his top-tier talents extend into the realms of arranging and composing as well.
Though The Optimist didn’t cause a media earthquake quite as cataclysmic as the one triggered by The Epic, its brilliance is nothing short of scintillating. Recorded between 2008 and 2009, Porter’s record captures the budding hope that swept through many black communities at the dawn of the Obama presidency. Each of its songs is pregnant with a complex and vivid bouquet of emotions, expertly conveyed by a cast of players that includes WCGD members Miles Mosely, Cameron Graves, and Washington.
Unlike the towering, maximalist compositions that made The Epic so, well, epic, Porter’s record is generally a smoother, more sensuous affair—a sound that lends itself perfectly to Porter’s style of playing. That style is typified by the first moments of standout, “Déjà vu,” in which Porter imbues a simple run of notes with what feels like the entire spectrum of human feeling—joy, longing, contentment, perseverance and so much more all ineffably balanced on his every exhale. Clean yet uncompromising, intricate yet accessible, Porter’s debut is a true tour de force, a modern classic that represents the very best of LA’s thriving jazz scene.
From the very first note that escapes her lips, it’s clear that vocalist Natasha Agrama is a singular talent. The stepdaughter of legendary bassist Stanley Clarke, her jazz pedigree shines through in her expert phrasing and musicality. That innate musicianship is then filtered through a voice so rich with warmth, intimacy, and an attention-grabbing level of clarity that each note it produces feels like being repeatedly struck by a freight train made entirely of warm silk.
On her debut record, The Heart of Infinite Change, Agrama shows herself to be every bit as skilled a storyteller and she is a gifted singer. By adding her own lyrics to jazz standards and inflecting classic tunes with melodic embellishments that serve to heighten their emotional narratives, Agrama makes her record feel simultaneously timeless and fresh. The album’s dexterous vocals are buttressed by a star-studded roster of musicians that spans generations, including Clarke, keyboardist George Duke, late piano prodigy Austin Peralta, and WCGD members Ronald Bruner Jr. and Stephen Bruner (better known as Thundercat), on drums and bass respectively.
Like The Optimist, The Heart of Infinite Change was released on World Galaxy records, an imprint of the largely electronic music label Alpha Pup. Both labels are run by DJ, producer, and engineer extraordinaire Daddy Kev. Kev’s work as an mastering engineer, label owner, and facilitator embodies the crosspollination between electronic music, hip-hop, and jazz that is one of the touchstones of contemporary LA jazz. Although Natasha Agrama’s work carries a more straight-ahead jazz vibe than other jazz artists who’ve released their work under the aegis of Kev, her unique interpretations and vibrant presentation capture the essence both of the city’s jazz heritage and its modern musical innovations.
Another founding member of the West Coast Get Down, Cameron Graves possesses the same level of otherworldly musicianship on the keys as Washington and Porter bring to their respective horns. Successfully marrying his classical piano background with influences that range from funk to hip-hop to progressive rock, Graves hurls the resultant blend of styles at listeners with kinetic alacrity.
Recorded in an eleven-hour session, Grave’s debut, Planetary Prince, is a manic explosion of virtuosity, but one that never strays into the realm of self-indulgence. The record finds him alternating between sending melodic lines running rampant up and down the ivory and maintaining tight, percussive back beats that allow his fellow musicians ample room to color his compositions. Even at their most dizzying, Grave’s riffs and runs are often anchored by gorgeous recurring themes, the solid cores around which his planets of sound whirl.
Having contributed the iconic opening notes to Kenderick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost,” there’s a good chance you’ve already heard trumpet player Josef Leimberg blow his horn. A long-time staple on the Los Angeles recording circuit, Leimberg spent decades honing his skill as a session musician before cutting his first record, Astral Projections, which was released in 2016.
Yet another World Galaxy release, Astral Projections is an easy sell for listeners enamored with Washington’s sound . Like The Epic, it’s a spiritual jazz record chock full of compositions that brim with energy and awe. But the fusion of disparate stylistic influences is far more pronounced on Astral Progressions, a process that Leimburg feels is an integral part of keeping jazz music fresh, while simultaneously staying true to his eclectic musical identity.
“To me, jazz is whatever is transcending and pushing forward musically,” says Leimburg. “As long as you keep fusing it with other genres while still keeping some of the rudimentary elements, you can keep pushing it forward and transcend.” Astral Progressions is a master class in doing just that. The prog rock-tinted explosiveness of “Interstellar Universe” transitions seamlessly into a tight hip-hop groove that forms the backbone of “As I Think of You,” all while maintaining the spiritual jazz flourishes that make the record feel cohesive and while showcasing the clarion notes Leimburg coaxes from his instrument.
The Breathing Effect
Few acts manage to blur the lines between genres as gracefully as The Breathing Effect. Since the release of their self-titled EP in 2014, Keyboardist/producer Eli Gross and drummer/bassist Harry Terrell have found a sweet spot between electronic music, funk, hip-hop, progressive rock, and jazz so expertly balanced that it’s hard to discern where any one of those specific influences peek through in a given song. While it’s clear that a compendium of styles contribute to The Breathing Effect’s sound, Gross and Terrell have melded them all into such a convincing alloy that its musical genealogy becomes secondary to its luster.
With their LPs Mars is a Very Bad Place For Love (2015) and The Fishman Abides (2017), both released on Alpha Pup, The Breathing Effect have continued to cultivate their unique sonic identity. Tastefully placed vocals, complex drum patterns—both programmed and organic—and evocative melodies all work in tandem to create songs that are both cinematic and engaging. Though The Breathing Effect is far from a traditional jazz act, they represent the cutting edge of modern jazz fusion, pushing the definition of what that distinction can encompass to new vistas.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is one of those musicians who has achieved a stratospheric level of success without yet becoming a household name. The multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, music director, DJ, and producer played violin for Lady Gaga at the Oscars, viola for Big Boi at the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards, and has accumulated a list of credits far too long and illustrious to relate.
In addition to helping others realize their musical visions, Atwood-Ferguson has his own list of noteworthy accomplishments. Perhaps foremost among them, he composed the orchestral tribute to hip-hop deity J Dilla, “Suite for Ma Dukes,” which he continues to conduct in cities around the world.
As if all of that weren’t impressive enough, Atwood-Ferguson’s skill on the five-string violin has earned him a revered spot in the jazz world. His debut jazz album, “Les Jardins Mystiques,” is set to be released on Brainfeeder this year, and if the live recordings that comprise Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble Live in Los Angeles July 23—a performance that included Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Bilal, Dontae Winslow, Chris Dave, and many other notables—is any indication, Atwood-Ferguson’s forthcoming record is sure to leave its mark on the LA jazz scene.
Ben Grenrock is a writer based in LA. Follow him on Twitter.