Kamasi Washington on Winning First-Ever American Music Prize & How Jazz Doesn't Have to Be 'Daunting'

Mike Park
Kamasi Washington 

One of the most notorious features of the Internet age is righteous indignation -- and nowhere is that more evident than the world of awards. The Grammys, Oscars and all their associated golden-statue-laden fetes have become targets of seemingly endless criticism, mostly for their opaque processes and out-of-touch (and usually-whitewashed) results.

"Yeah, that was a surprising one," says Kamasi Washington, the Los Angeles saxophonist and bandleader whose 2015 debut album The Epic went un-nominated at this year's Grammys, despite its commercial and critical success. "But you know, the Grammys are always a bit... unpredictable. Predictably unpredictable," he continued, laughing.

American Music Prize to Launch in 2015

Last week, though, Washington was announced as the inaugural winner of an award that could potentially serve as an industry corrective: the American Music Prize, conceived as a clear-eyed, music-centric designation for the best debut album by an American artist. Chosen by a panel of 25 music-industry experts, the award comes with a $25,000 cash prize, but more important, according to founder Scott Murphy, is the prestige. "It's about it being announced that you've made one of the best, if not the best, debut albums in all of America in a 12-month period," Murphy tells Billboard. "It's pretty significant."

Murphy, who founded the Australian Music Prize in 2005, sees this new award as filling a gap in the awards "market" -- the U.K. has the Mercury Prize, Canada has the Polaris Prize, Australia has its own award, and "America doesn't have one," says Murphy of the realization that prompted him to begin putting the prize together. "What's going on?" 

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So about two years ago, Murphy began research on what it would take to create an American equivalent, taking around 100 meetings during a two-week trip to the States with people from all corners of the industry. He learned from the RIAA that there are around 80,000 albums released in the U.S. annually, and a little less than half of those are from American artists -- clearly too many albums for even the most efficient judges to survey. To narrow the scope, Murphy determined that the prize would be most valuable as a way to support artists who had just released their first album -- a conclusion encouraged by the fact, according to Murphy, that most winners of similar prizes are debut albums anyway. "We believe the reason for that," says Murphy, "is that when we're talking to the judges, we tell them the number one criteria is originality."

With the pool of potential prizewinners in the realm of three digits instead of five (the panel only considers albums that have sold more than 1,000 copies because, as Murphy put it, "It's become very easy for anyone to make and release an album"), it was time to get down to the business of figuring out which debut album by an American artist released between Aug. 1, 2014, and July 31, 2015, should win. The project's broad scope was reflected in its diverse shortlist, which included everyone from rapper Azealia Banks to country traditionalist Chris Stapleton to singer-songwriter Natalie Prass.

Kamasi Washington's 'The Epic' Wins Inaugural American Music Prize

Yet it was Washington who ended up taking home the top honors, an entry from a genre (jazz) that rarely sees recognition outside its own hallowed walls. "Jazz just seems to live on this island," Washington tells Billboard. "It's cool to have it be recognized in a construct that includes other styles of music. Usually, the only time you have jazz alongside another style of music is at a jazz festival."

The saxophonist, who first entered the national spotlight as a contributor to Kendrick Lamar's acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, has spent the past year making waves as jazz's next great crossover hope -- a title he is even more qualified for after a recent sold-out performance at New York's Webster Hall, a large theater better known for Just Blaze's weekly dance parties than for showcasing jazz talent. "People there were just enjoying the music," Washington says of the show. "It wasn't like some kind of theoretical study. You can just have a drink and chill and dance with somebody. It's not this daunting thing."

Making his music approachable is one of Kamasi's highest priorities. "I think people psych themselves out before they listen to jazz a lot, thinking that they have to like, put on a suit or something. That's not what it is," he says. "People need to realize that even the greatest jazz musicians, when they listen to jazz, they're not like, analyzing it and deconstructing it -- they're enjoying it. It's like listening to any other style of music. It's saying something to you, and you kind of just absorb it."

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Now that he's developed an audience, Washington's band, filled with L.A. jazz and session scene stalwarts, is preparing to release some American Music Prize contenders of their own. "That's something we're trying to work on -- just getting them out in the right way, you know?" Washington says of potential upcoming projects from his bandmates. "Some of the guys are talking to Brainfeeder [Washington's label] about doing it, I'm not sure if they've worked that out or not. It's a lot for one entity to put out, you know? We're thinking of maybe even doing some type of imprint situation. There's just so much music. It could almost be its own little thing."

Potential jazz empire aside, Washington is relishing his win, a brief respite before he begins a busy festival season that includes stops at Coachella, Pitchfork, Bonnaroo, and more. "It's very inspiring -- with people for whom music is a very important part of their life -- to have my album mean that much to them that they called it the best," he says. "It's cool to do things your way and have it work out."

"It's good for artists to know that whether they're commercially successful or not," concludes Murphy, "that there are people out there who are listening."