Rebirth of the Cool

In the wake of Kamasi Washington’s breakthrough, these four artists are helping to define the L.A. Jazz renaissance

Photos by Gustavo Turner, Jake Jenkins, and Chantal Chadwick

The Epic changed everything. Before Kamasi Washington unleashed his 2015 masterpiece, L.A. jazz was considered an afterthought. In its wake, the unthinkable occurred: a genre that hadn’t been relevant to pop culture since Miles Davis blew his last note suddenly became cool again. A sprawling three-hour saxophone fever dream altered the course of sound, receiving glowing profiles in Pitchfork, New York Times, and The Atlantic. Kendrick Lamar conscripted Washington and his West Coast Get Down bandmate Thundercat to supply bruising modal funk for his Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly. The premise of La La Land was suddenly revealed as fraudulent. Jazz didn’t need saving. All you needed to do was catch the West Coast Get Down’s residency at the Piano Bar in Hollywood.

The renaissance really began at those legendary marathon sets every Wednesday and Friday night during the early years of this decade. But somewhere along the way, the national spotlight fixated on the crew of L.A. natives began to obscure the deep roots and slow gestation of the local jazz multiverse. It was an overnight success that was a quarter century in the making. In the early ‘90s, you could catch Washington, Thundercat, and company in the Multi-School Jazz Band founded by the legendary Locke High music teacher Reggie Andrews. The Mr. Holland of South Central, Andrews nurtured the careers of everyone from the Pharcyde to Patrice Rushen. But his greatest contribution might have been mentoring the Get Down and their close kin Terrace Martin, who learned to play old standards and ‘60s jazz classics under the tutelage of the man who wrote the immemorial Dazz Band banger, “Let It Whip.”

Andrews once described his career mission in clarion terms: “Do I want to try to be Herbie Hancock or do I want to try to create Herbie Hancock?” His undertaking underscored the reality of Southern California’s perennially unsung jazz scene. In contrast to New York and Chicago, L.A. has always been considered a second city. Herbie Hancock might have received mail here for nearly a half-century, but few still consider him an L.A. artist. The City of Angels birthed the Central Avenue scene and the West Coast Cool Jazz sound; it served as a hub of Latin jazz and home base for Quincy Jones, Stanley Clarke, and Alice Coltrane. It spawned fabled venues like The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, The Baked Potato in Universal City, and the much-mourned Fifth Street Dick’s in Leimert Park. You still might catch L.A. resident Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina Jazz Club. Or if you prefer avant-garde abstraction, the Blue Whale offers a left-of-center locus in Little Tokyo with the requisite late-night ramen spots to hit up after.

In the previous decade, The Sun Ra of rap, Madlib, raided the Blue Note vaults and released cosmic odysseys that fused hip-hop and jazz into psychedelic space dust. In this one, Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew, Flying Lotus expanded upon his family’s astral legacy with his own genre-melting experiments, inspired by the freedom of jazz but not particularly bound to any specific modality. The late Austin Peralta possessed the potential to become the 21st century’s answer to McCoy Tyner. But until Washington dropped The Epic on Lotus’ Brainfeeder Records, jazz was considered your grandfather’s music, or at best your cool uncle who always smelled like chronic smoke (although you didn’t realize the scent’s identity until much later).  Now, Ariana Grande is covering Thundercat songs.

With this new ecosystem of jazz firmly established and reaching its widest audience in decades, a new crop of players, both veterans and newcomers, have emerged to push the genre in even further and more adventurous directions. This post-Kamasi world has opened a lane for jazz’s next wave of talent, players that are at the creative forefront of Los Angeles jazz’s rapidly expanding scene. These are four of the finest:

Ryan Porter. Photo by Brandon Ruffin.

“When I was seven years old I would dress as a jazz player for Halloween,” the trombonist Ryan Porter explains over coffee in Westchester. His eyes are buried beneath a black flat-brimmed Dodgers hat and blackout stunna shades that would be intimidating if he wasn’t cracking a miles-wide smile.

“I’d have a little fedora and a trench coat,” the member of the West Coast Get Down continues. “I always knew I wanted to play jazz. But we could never sit in my neighborhood like this when I was a little kid on the corner, you know what I mean? We couldn’t play outside. I needed to get out.”

Thirty years ago, when Porter was growing up, the community just north of LAX was inundated with crime and violence. From a young age, Porter saw jazz music as a physical and spiritual refuge from a gang-heavy world. Although Porter still considers the neighborhood home, he spends half of his time in Cleveland, Ohio where he has better access to treat an undisclosed medical condition.

“Jazz was a chance for me to get into a different world and all my heroes were these musicians that my peers knew nothing about,” Porter, 39, says. “I was 10 years old talking about Elvin Jones. My friends would be like, ‘Who exactly is Elvin Jones, he play for the Lakers?’ Once I met [the members of West Coast Get Down], it was cool to bond with people who loved playing as much as I did.”

A fixture in Los Angeles’ music scene for two decades, Porter’s first years as a professional found him working as a go-to session musician. Gigs backing Quincy Jones, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Leon Russell, and Anthony Hamilton supported random creative endeavors and late nights at Piano Bar. A jazz original forced into a session player’s discography, his credits hinted at his polymath gifts, but Porter still needed a stage from which his music could be heard.

It took nearly a decade for that to happen. Porter’s excellent 2018 release, The Optimist, was initially recorded between 2008 and 2009 with the West Coast Get Down — at Kamasi Washington’s parents’ house, a spot lovingly dubbed “The Shack”  

“We still hadn’t made a name for ourselves yet as the West Coast Get Down. No one would take a chance on us,” Porter explains of the delay. “Around the same time, we did a record called Live at 5th Street Dick’s that Kamasi put out personally. And when I say personally I mean he custom made every CD at his house using his own computer and printer. To me, Dick’s is better than The Epic, but at the time, without help from stars like Kendrick Lamar, no one would take a chance and sign Kamasi. It was all about timing.”

The band had been playing together for 15 years by the time they recorded The Optimist, and they exhibit a telekinetic chemistry  — the same evinced on Washington’s record and Uprising, the 2017 record from the Get Down’s bassist Miles Mosley. On his masterful debut, Porter’s trombone serves as the bedrock that allows his bandmates to shine atop his melodies. It’s replete with Monk-style piano solos and spiritual experiments that recall a young Charles Mingus (“Obamanomics”).

Even a decade ago, Porter was hinting at the style the West Coast Get Down members now regularly display at international festivals — a style of jazz that reveals a loose and improvisational genius defined by decades of deep practice and study. It’s both fun and scholarly, with vibrant tones exuded in each horn solo and piano vamp.  “Night Court In Compton” is led by a drum groove that blends A Tribe Called Quest with James Brown. The rhythm initially seems almost alien to jazz, but fits perfectly when stacked below the contrasting horn solos of Washington and Porter — each player navigates between staccatoed short notes and extended melodic phrases like climbing a ladder to space.

The Optimist offers a rare timestamp, a retrospective look through the lens of Porter and the West Coast Get Down’s evolution.

“It’s all so surreal. When you see it from the ground up, it’s hard to take a step back,” Porter says. “There were times that we’d do all this for free. We just wanted to play our own music. I just wanted to learn all of the music. You have to know all your friends’ songs.”

Brandon Coleman. Photo by Gustavo Turner.

Brandon Coleman’s studio looks like his music sounds: vocoders, guitars, drums, computers, and keyboards are arranged in helter-skelter formation. Yet there seems to be a divine order only accessible to the initiated. A method to his madness. It’s the operating theater of a scattered genius, one whose freewheeling embrace of genre-less music made his Brainfeeder debut Resistance, one of 2018’s best.

We’re located in a small practice space just outside of Van Nuys. As Coleman discusses his alchemy of jazz and funk, the piano player occasionally tinkers with one of his keyboards. It’s as if he’s translating his natural language of gospel soul-meets-‘90s Prince into a dialect understandable to normal humans. It’s a fusion both spiritually familiar and deeply extraterrestrial.

“How many kids can you name who grew up in the middle of South Central that grew up not being able to name one rap record?” Coleman says, adjusting a neon pink cap that almost matches his shirt. His thick black glasses are scratched and dirty and look like they do more harm than good.

“Jazz was my safe haven,” Coleman, 37, adds. “My brother kept rap and that stuff away from me because where we grew up, it’s easy to turn the music into real life.”

Resistance might spend ample time detouring from Coleman’s jazz roots, but the keyboardist always returns home. Unlike many of the members of the West Coast Get Down, Coleman’s parents weren’t musicians. His dad was an all-consuming presence in church, the sort of guy who would find a new congregation one week and lead the choir the next. Frank Coleman  might not have bestowed any musical skills to his son, but his passion and spirit infuses his music. Like his longtime bandmate Porter, Coleman pairs unrelenting discipline and skyward ambition into a strain of jazz that seeks an escape from the asphalt realities of their South Central childhoods.

His philosophy of jazz is similar to his Brainfeeder contemporaries. Coleman’s vision includes everything as jazz…even when it’s not.

“I still consider Resistance a jazz record for sure,” he says.

“But it’s funk,” I remind him.

He laughs, adjusting his cap with an air of mystery. He’s the type to let his music reveal the real clues to his identity.

“I want jazz musicians to hear it and say ‘Oh, okay, that’s definitely somebody who knows what’s happening,” Coleman explains. “It needs that musicianship, but at the same time, this needs to be an easy introduction for people who don’t know anything about jazz.”

If Washington’s shadow can seem overwhelming, Coleman steps out from under it by using jazz as a departure, not an end point. It’s a launching pad to blast off to places that we need a telescope to see. That’s how the musician born on 81st and Avalon can create a song like “All Around the World.” It’s a drunk vocoder ride where he quantum leaps from tour dates in Asia to all-night sessions with Babyface.

His debut album is economic and precise but whimsical. You can practically hear him smiling. Robotic instrumentation becomes flesh and blood. Coleman gives the vocoder a heart transplant, imbuing the instrument with preternatural soul.

“We’re always looking at jazz as a vehicle — a way of uniting different cats who play different music,” Coleman says. “But when we get on stage or hit the studio, we all come at it with a certain commonality — it’s all about creating the new.”

Anenon. Photo by Chantal Chadwick

If the West Coast Get Down embodies jazz’s psychedelic and spiritual tradition, Anenon is the ethnomusicology professor who meekly steps out of the audience to dazzle the crowd with cerebral saxophone licks at a late-night jam session. The L.A. native relies on classical and intellectual impulses to steer his sound. You’d expect to find him in New York’s avant-garde scene, but instead, he’s helped redefine the shape of local jazz.

“My music has always been rooted in electronic sounds, coming out of classic Warp-era artists [like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher],” Anenon (born: Brian Allen Simon) explains over the phone from Greece, where he’s decamped for a music-writing residency focused on a non-Anenon album.

“That was the root, although it has eventually started to morph into something very different,” Simon, 34, adds. “The saxophone has become more and more present and important to the sound I’m working with.”

It’s morphed into something simply explained but endlessly intricate. It’s Steve Reich if Reich didn’t believe that minimalism gave you the right to pretension. It’s jazz if horn players practiced the MPC instead of scales. The graduate of UCLA’s music history program began his career around the start of the decade, founding NON Projects to release his first work as Anenon.

But Simon didn’t really begin to gain a wide audience until 2016’s Petrol, an album inspired by the numbing gloom and persistent hum of LA’s freeway systems. It was released on Friends of Friends records, an electronic-leaning label, that—like other modern LA staples LEAVING Records, Brainfeeder, Alpha Pup, and World Galaxy—does away with distinctions between jazz, electronic, and funk.

Petrol broke ground within the experimental jazz community with an enthralling combination of ‘60-inspired minimalism that recalled both Terry Riley and fragmented free jazz. It attempted to mirror the city itself through structure, with Simon layering the record with the spirit of sample culture and the beat scene pioneered at Low End Theory.  It also betrayed fine art leanings, partially influenced by the time that Simon spent working at MOCA as a ticket seller. (In 2016, he premiered a composition at MOCA that accompanied an art piece by Dan Flavin titled ‘“monument” for V. Tatlin (1969).’)

Although recorded in the hills of Italy, Simon’s most recent work, Tongue, is still informed by Los Angeles’ jazz roots. You can specifically hear it in his willingness to push jazz and electronic music against each other until his stubbornness becomes genius. He’s also trying to instantiate the complexity of Los Angeles’ history and musical legacy into dense saxophone suites.  

“L.A.’s history is a lack of history, a story that doesn’t stay written for very long. That provides a springboard for a lot of artists and people who are based in L.A. and people that come to L.A.,” Simon says. “It’s a constant experiment and we’re constantly questioning and reinventing the sounds every time we go to the studio and sit down to work on a project. The openness in the city really lends itself to us.”

Sam Wilkes. Photo by Gustavo Turner.

Sam Wilkes hates the word jazz. Over decidedly Angeleno green potions that masquerade as juices at Sqirl in Silver Lake, Wilkes bristles at the idea of his music being any one thing.

“It’s hard for me to even use the term jazz because — it’s like my favorite creators of the genre hated the word, you know?” Wilkes shrugs. “So it’s like, what does that even fucking mean?”

A Westport, Connecticut-born bassist who just put out his debut solo LP, WILKES, in October, Wilkes fits in perfectly within L.A.’s unpredictable jazz sprawl. Dressed like a Deadhead taking a night off from a gig at The Blue Whale, Wilkes beams positivity and appreciation. He’s the sort of dude you’d think was full of shit if he wasn’t so genuine. Rocking flip-flops and crisp white socks beneath baggy gym shorts and a waffle-knit long-sleeve, Wilkes personifies the laid-back cool that pervades his new LP.

Wilkes moved out to Los Angeles to attend USC nine years ago, focusing on arranging, production, and musical direction. He was heavily involved with pop music and even spent some time touring as a backing member of an undisclosed opening act for Maroon 5. He realized very quickly that he didn’t get into music to spend so much time on the road with music that he didn’t particularly like. He started working on his own stuff, but his early days as a cog in the star machine shouldn’t be totally dismissed as a useless waste of time.

“Those gigs allowed me to have the technique, gear and facilities to start writing my own shit,” the 27-year-old explains. “That’s how I started recording this music.”

When we get back to discussing jazz, Wilkes is still hesitant to label his music. He’s right to feel this way. It’s reductive for an album so interested in any idea available. But the deep improvisatory bond he shares on the record with collaborators like Sam Gendel and Louis Cole is rooted in the tradition of spiritual jazz and hard bop pioneered by Wilkes’ heroes: John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Art Blakey.

“The music certainly comes from the jazz tradition as these compositions are vehicles for improvisation,” Wilkes says. “I wrote these tunes, but the beef of it then really comes from the improvisation.”

WILKES is a wild card of a jazz album. It’s smooth and patient but never restrained, weird in the way that you’d want to show your friends because they’d think you were cool for having such eccentric taste. It’s intensely disciplined, yet birthed from freedom. The man is a huge Dead fan, after all. And WILKES refuses to believe that there isn’t space for both a Jerry Garcia melody and a Sun Ra solo on the same track. Throughout the album, Sam Wilkes proves that there’s a link.

“We’re kids who studied with the masters. We got exposed to this extensive lineage,” Wilkes says. He pauses, and reckons with the responsibility and excitement of this honor. “Being alive right now gives you access to an entire history. And we get to make whatever we want with it.”