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WCGD, West Coast Get Down
West Coast Get DownPhotography Visual Thought

The history of the West Coast Get Down, LA’s jazz giants

WCGD, West Coast Get Down

Kamasi Washington might have made the headlines, but the jazz collective he’s a part of deserves just as much of your attention. This oral history explores how the group is only just getting started

Los Angeles in the 1990s wasn’t considered the safest place to grow up if you were young, Black, and working class. When there was a spike in homicides at the start of the decade, city officials placed the blame on rising tensions between the Bloods and the Crips, ignoring the social inequality and institutional racism that led to young people joining a gang in the first place. “There was a lot of turmoil and there really wasn’t much opportunity,” recalls Tony Austin, a teenager in LA in the 90s. “Most of the kids that I knew would join a gang and get drawn in by violence.” To stay out of trouble, Austin and his friends turned to music. “Jazz was an outlet for us to express our anger,” he says. “Some of the other kids we knew spoke with a gun, but we used music as our language.”

The friends that Austin refers to make up the West Coast Get Down, an immensely talented, LA-based collective that has grown from a group of school friends using jazz as a form of escapism to become one of the most influential forces in contemporary music. Each growing up in locations across LA county, most of its members – Austin (drums), Ronald Bruner Jr (drums), Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner (bass), Cameron Graves (keys), Brandon Coleman (keys), Miles Mosley (bassist), Ryan Porter (trombonist), Patrice Quinn (vocals), Terrace Martin (multi-instrumentalist), and Kamasi Washington (saxophonist) – initially crossed paths after attending regional after school jazz clubs. They subsequently grew up together, but rather than chasing girls, they cared more about finding rare Miles Davis and John Coltrane records that they could then take home to study.

This group of teenagers created their own musical language after honing a collective sound irritating neighbours jamming at Mosley’s house and Washington’s dad’s garage, a DIY studio affectionately called ‘The Shack’. They would also practice at after school clubs, with non-profit programmes such as the Thelonious Monk Institute crucial in aiding their development. Later on, as young adults, this sound would grow even further during residencies at iconic LA jazz venues such as The Piano Bar, The World Stage, and Fifth St. Dicks, where improvisation and experimentation were actively encouraged. And that’s not even mentioning their role in sonically moulding modern masterpieces like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (many of the collective, including Mosley, Washington, and both of the Bruner’s, who are biological brothers, were involved in these sessions) in their image, later becoming the first jazz band of their generation to play Coachella.

“The reason our albums sound so fully formed is because we’d been playing that music for years and years before it was actually recorded in a studio,” says Austin. “A West Coast Get Down song is only good enough to be released to the public if it endures through that process. Remember, we had a residency at the Piano Bar for eight years before it closed down. We played there twice a week. We were playing the songs from Kamasi’s The Epic, Miles’s album, Ryan’s album. That place was our mecca and where we really consolidated the idea of being this collective movement.”

Austin says each member is driven by a desire to push jazz to the forefront of culture, just like it was in the 1950s. He and the rest of these musicians play music with a thoughtful rage, and this unpredictable firecracker energy could be the reason why the crowds who turn up to their solo shows are so noticeably young. These kids might once have looked at jazz as something firmly etched in the past, but seeing the West Coast Get Down play so urgently is a reminder of its rebellious streak and ability to channel social issues (one of Porter’s best songs, “Obamanomics”, resurrects the lost optimism of the Obama years, while Washington’s “Malcolm’s Theme” cements the spirit of the civil rights figure into the internet age). The West Coast Get Down are aware that their uniqueness lies in channeling Black issues via the pure theatrics of their instrumentation.

“We see teenagers at our shows moving their bodies like it’s a rock concert,” Porter tells me. “We don’t look like no jazz band. We’re like a rock band, or a collective like the Wu-Tang Clan. We play loud, fast, and with a shit tonne of energy. We don’t need lyrics to show them what the world is like. People can see our energy and how we’re murdering these songs; they haven’t seen a jazz band like this in a long time. They can see that our music is about taking people’s perceptions of jazz and flipping them upside down. Because of how diverse our musical backgrounds are, we’re channelling everything from grunge and Snoop Dogg to Duke Ellington.” 

The West Coast Get Down’s members have long established themselves as talented solo and studio musicians, collaborating with the likes of Jon Brion, Prince, Korn’s Jonathan Davis, Stevie Wonder, Snoop, Chris Cornell, Joni Mitchell, Erykah Badu, and Suicidal Tendencies. Yet they’re most drawn to one another. “At one point, Cameron went off and studied thrash metal, Brandon goes off and plays with funk musicians, Kamasi is studying the flute and playing with Snoop Dogg, I’m learning from Lauryn Hill and Joni Mitchell,” says Mosley, one of the group’s more flamboyant performers, dressing like a mix between Sly Stone and Huey Newton. “But it means that when we come back to LA and see one another again, we’ve all learned new things that we can all share with our brothers. It means the West Coast Get Down can master any genre, as we’ve all learned secrets from the greats.” 

Having firmly established himself as one of the most important jazz auteurs of this era, Kamasi Washington’s cinematic, expressionistic take on the artform channels the ghosts of Black America’s past into music that’s both haunting and healing; it’s about pushing boundaries, but not forgetting to honour your roots either, whether they’re Gerald Wilson or J Dilla. Whenever Washington tours, he’s surrounded by members of the West Coast Get Down in his backing band – but because the music press tends to focus on positioning Washington as jazz’s sole renaissance man, the musicians he grew up with often get overlooked.

This is a shame. Few artists channel the intergalactic funk of Parliament better than Graves. Bruner Jr hits the drums vengefully, like Dennis Chambers if he was into death metal. Whether singing or playing bass, Mosley paints a nostalgic picture of LA’s underbelly just as vivid as Jim Morrison. Coleman’s joyous keys take you back to the church before it sold its soul. Austin is the scientist behind the boards, ensuring everything comes together, while also capable of a drum solo that will knock you for six. And Porter’s euphoric, bouncy horn sections effortlessly channel both Dr. Dre-style g-funk and Dizzy Gillespie bebop. There really is talent wherever you turn, and Washington would like the critical lens to shift. 

“When Ronald put out his solo album Triumph, or Ryan dropped The Optimist, those were classic records, but both were overlooked and it’s hard to understand why that was,” he says. “Sometimes it feels weird that the other guys aren’t as celebrated as they should be, but I think there’s an understanding that everything we drop is a group effort. There is a collective mentality underpinning this music that not everybody understands. The West Coast Get Down is a family that sticks together, no matter what.” 

This collective mentality is best illustrated by the group’s now legendary one-month studio run back in December 2013. For 30 days, the group recorded together every single day from 9am to 3am, each chipping in a few thousand dollars to pay for studio time, sometimes sleeping on the studio floor. Out of these sessions they produced more than 170 songs, completing albums including Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, Miles Mosley’s UPRISING, Ronald Bruner’s Triumph, Cameron Graves’s Planetary Prince, Ryan Porter’s The Optimist, Brandon Coleman’s Resistance, and BFI, a joint project between Miles Mosley and Tony Austin. Kamasi’s dad, Rickey, even made a record.

Drummer Bruner Jr, who is the spark of the group and the most likely to throw hands if one of his friends is in trouble, believes this team mentality has enriched each of the members’ lives and ensured they stayed on the right path. He concludes: “LA is pretty dangerous and I guess you could say being able to play music together is our safe haven. But just because we’re jazz musicians, doesn’t mean we don’t move like a gang. Kamasi is leading a group of fucking warriors. This is a brotherhood right here.”

We spoke at length to eight members of the West Coast Get Down to trace the roots of jazz’ most important collective, and to ask: what comes next? (These interviews were conducted prior to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and before the Black Lives Matters protests that took place around the world; the West Coast Get Down send support to their families and to all the others lost.)

THE BEGINNINGS

Ronald Bruner Jr: If I liked a piece of music (when I was young), my father (Ronald Snr) would teach me to play it until I sounded exactly the same as it did on the record. Me and my brother Stephen (Thundercat) had that kind of intense coaching, so it meant playing different genres came naturally to us. I did my first ever paid gig when I was just eight, and played at this wedding reception, filling in for another drummer. I made $150 and went straight to the drum store. Kamasi was my friend more or less since the moment I was born. Both our families were so close.

Kamasi Washington: Me and Ronald’s dad both had a band together, and I was just amazed that the Bruners were these little kids who could already play music professionally. I hadn’t found music so much at that stage, but seeing them both play so fluidly definitely sparked something in me. We had no money, but we all developed this passion to create music. That love for the craft made us feel richer than the white kids. In hindsight, jazz probably kept us out of trouble as it gave us a discipline and a reason to live life. Me and Miles went to school together, Cameron was there a year or so later, Ronald went to classes with Tony. Me, Cameron, Steven, and Ronald actually started this band in the eighth grade called the Young Jazz Giants, and we all played in the Multi-School Jazz Band with Ryan, which I guess was the start of this collective.

Tony Austin: None of our other friends had an outlet to express themselves, but every time we would get together and play jazz, it gave us this focus. Playing music helped us heal from all the pain that was around us. We all connected through music and would hang out and play for free in places like Leimert Park, which was in the middle of Crenshaw. It was a dangerous neighbourhood, but it had this block of jazz clubs and coffee shops and all the songs we practiced together we would be able to play for free to an audience at The World Stage, which was led by the great jazz drummer Billy Higgins, who gave us all free masterclassesThere was a community of people cultivating a safe space for young Black musicians and it meant we would all bump into one another naturally just by hustling as musicians. We also spent a lot of time practicing at each other’s spots and at Kamasi’s house in his dad’s garage. We called it the Shack.

“People would walk past my house confused as they could hear this Dracula sound coming out the windows – my church got rid of this funeral organ, so my mum brought it home for me” – Brandon Coleman

Kamasi Washington: The Shack was like a stadium to us. It was hot as fuck in there and had no air con, and we were playing this high-energy music, trying to re-create Bitches Brew. My dad was afraid that the neighbours would be tripping as we would be playing in there until our fingers were bleeding, but he knew it was a place where we could make demos and stay out of the streets. It was a beautiful time. That place was like ground zero for the gang – one of us was always there, playing and learning.

Ronald Bruner Jr: We would play video games, Kamasi learned how to cook chicken – the Shack was just a beautiful place to hang out. We all went to different high schools. The person that really brought us together was our teacher, Reggie Andrews. Reggie got together with Bob Brodhead and Barbara Sealy, who ran the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz West Coast at the time, and they would scout all the High Schools for talented kids and then bring them together for after school workshops and masterclasses. Reggie created this group called the Multi School Jazz Band, and they helped to fund it, as well as finding other young talented kids that weren’t already at Reggie’s school. Back then, everyone in LA looked up to producers who made millions just making beats on computers and selling them to rappers, which was cool, but they knew there were kids out there who wanted to preserve the craft and really learn how to play every instrument. They brought in people like Herbie Hancock, Gerald Wilson, and Wayne Shorter to meet and teach us, and gave us our first professional opportunities. The main thing that Reggie taught us was to be brothers and help each other win – that was the conduit that brought us all together. Without him or that programme, we might have drifted apart.

Brandon Coleman: Jazz was something we all shared deep in our bones. Our parents would listen to it fanatically. I remember I brought home a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony cassette and my brother, Marcus, dropped his bass guitar on the floor and said “What the fuck is this!?” He ripped the tape up and threw it in the trash. That was the kind of strictness we had in terms of wanting to be true students of jazz music. People would walk past my house confused as they could hear this Dracula sound coming out the windows – my church got rid of this funeral organ, so my mum brought it home for me! In fact, some of the first gigs we got were playing at churches. Me and Kamasi would go to all these different churches and just try to blow the people away.

HONING A COLLECTIVE SOUND

Ryan Porter: I just remember being addicted to playing music. I was a real brass addict. I loved playing the trombone so much that I didn’t really have time for girls. It was the same for all of us. The thing that brought us the most joy was stepping into a room together and having that camaraderie. We grew up on the west coast at a time where rap was very big, so we weren’t just making classical jazz, but interpreting the way DJ Quik would mix drums, or that uptempo energy of A Tribe Called Quest. Hip hop was always in the background. I would say playing this kind of genre-less music was our safe haven. The seven of us couldn’t go hang out in the street or the police would think we were gang members, but when we played this music, it gave us a purpose. It made us feel like we could be somebody. We come from a place where there’s a lot of sun, sea, and beautiful women, but also a lot of civil unrest and revolution, so all that energy started to come out in how we would play.

Cameron Graves: There was this club called Fifth Street Dicks that we played at. Kamasi booked the Young Jazz Giants – me, Stephen, Ronald, and Ryan – but we couldn’t make the gig. So Kamasi ends up asking Brandon, Miles, and Tony to sub for us. But when the gig happened, all of us showed up at the same time. We all played together and the chemistry was just instant, because some of us had also played and trained together in the Multi-School Band. It felt so natural. Much later on, Miles and Barb (Barbara Sealy, SB Music Management) discussed wanting to find a place where we could call home, instead of playing all over town. Miles said we needed a place to land anytime we all came off of our various tours with other artists, a place to call our spot, so they found us a residency at this little club called The Piano Bar in Hollywood. It felt like church there and we were giving communion. It meant we had a venue to really shape our music.

“We grew up on the west coast at a time where rap was very big, so we weren’t just making classical jazz, but interpreting the way DJ Quik would mix drums, or that uptempo energy of A Tribe Called Quest. Hip hop was always in the background” – Ryan Porter

Kamasi Washington: It was really just a group of friends until the Piano Bar shaped our group into a collective. We made a decision that when we’d play there, we were not going to play other people’s music, but only our own. We had this big ass book filled with everyone’s tunes, it must have been 400 pages long. The place was so crammed that people were watching from outside. It was crazy. We had that residency for eight years before it closed down, playing twice a week. We played The Epic there years before it came out. It was our mecca. It taught us how to move as one unit. We felt like the heart of the city. 

Miles Mosley: The idea was always for the music we played to hold up a mirror to society. We wanted to channel the spirits of our ancestors, but also provide the soundtrack for the resistance. The music was always about showing nuance and that there were lots of different facets to the Black experience. We could be vulnerable, but also aggressive. We built a buzz in LA and people began realising we could be a great asset to their studio sessions. While jazz remained a homebase for us, we all knew we had to go out in the world and explore our musical DNA. Cameron is off doing his death metal thing, Ronald is playing drums for every genre you can think of, Brandon is studying funk, I was working on grunge with Chris Cornell, Kamasi is playing flute with Snoop Dogg. But whenever we were finished, we couldn’t wait to get back to LA and teach each other what we had learned from working with all these legends. Ronald would be telling us what he learned from Prince, and we’d be taking notes and would just evolve instantly.

REACHING THE NEXT LEVEL

Tony Austin: It was nice going out in the wild and coming back. It was like we were on assignment, but nothing really felt as nice as playing with your brothers. We decided we really needed to get serious and got some money together and contributed to a fund that would allow us to play at this studio (King Size Sound Labs) for 30 days. We recorded something like 13 songs a day. It was crazy hours, like 9am until 3am, but it meant that people had a wealth of material to draw from and it allowed us to build up this West Coast Get Down catalogue.

Ryan Porter: Those sessions are a blur, honestly, but I just remember us approaching that music so cinematically. We wanted our albums to sound like scores for different movies. If you listen to a song like “Strugglesville” from The Optimist, it’s about channelling the social pressures and frustrations I felt, but also turning them into something beautiful and freeing. Just being in the studio together for that long forced us all to grow. I think it made us realise just how good we really were, and whenever one of us was short of a particular sound, there was someone ready to step in and provide it.

Patrice Quinn: Kamasi brought me in as a singer (back at the Piano Bar) and through that connection I guess I ended up becoming another member of the family. I loved seeing these guys work in the studio, but I always felt like it was the live stage where they achieved true transcendence. There’s something righteous, good, and real about their music. It pulls the world straight by showering it with love. We’re so adaptable as a band too. There are nights that are particularly funky or nights where we’re a lot slower and a bit prog rock. To see the audience, which is such a wonderful cross-section of people from young kids to older jazz heads, is amazing. I think it was difficult for all of us growing up, especially in terms of loving jazz and not feeling that free. I think (after that 30-day marathon in the studio) the music really started to represent that struggle, and it made us all feel free whenever we would play it. 

Miles Mosley: When we’re on the stage, we go super hard. We play really loud and aggressively. If we’re playing a festival, then we want people to hear us on the other stages and be so intrigued they go follow their ear. It’s a 90-minute show, but it is 90 minutes of relentless playing. We want to show people that jazz musicians can be rock stars too. But although it’s great playing live, I’d say the Kendrick album really emboldened our movement. I think that was the moment we realised this sound we had created over the years could really shape something that stands at the forefront of popular culture.

“The music was always about showing nuance and that there were lots of different facets to the Black experience” – Miles Mosley

Ronald Bruner Jr: Being a part of To Pimp a Butterfly was an extension of us having each other’s backs, just as we have done from day one. Terrace Martin, he is a part of the crew, and he was working with Kendrick and was like: “Let me get my boys over to touch this.” He kicked the doors open and put Kamasi, Ryan, me, Miles, and Thundercat into those sessions, and Kendrick really trusted us to mold the project. Sitting in those sessions and hearing “King Kunta” and “Mortal Man”, and our contributions to those monumental songs being so big – well, we knew “This is some shit that is really gonna get a response.” The way that album sounds is a love letter to all those jazz clubs we played in Crenshaw. You’re hearing Kendrick rap over chords we had been honing for years. Our blood, sweat, and tears went into that record. We helped make it a masterpiece.

Tony Austin: It was validation for us. When Kendrick hit big with that album, all of us were like, “Yes!” His lyrics were deep. He delivers a strong message. But I think all this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. Kendrick didn’t wake up and become a prolific rapper. He built his style over decades. Kamasi didn’t wake up and make a song about Malcolm X. He wrote it 10 years ago and practiced it until it sounded so fucking good, it was like he was resurrecting Malcolm’s soul. We been working at this for ages, yet people think it just happened when Kamasi got big! It’s so much deeper than that. I guess when Kendrick got his time to shine, it was like, “Oh, wow, we can all shine too.” We been riding the momentum from that Kendrick record ever since.

THE FUTURE

Ronald Bruner Jr: Being in this band is a gig forever. I could be 90 and Kamasi will still call me! He calls me just to ask if I woke up this morning or if me and Thundercat have made up after an argument. He is that guy that brings us together. He helps us continue on that path of always making great music. 

Kamasi Washington: We each have our own things going on, but yes, I try to pull people together. When you are talented you get pulled in different directions, but it’s important we all remember that you’re nothing without your brothers there to enjoy it with you. We are all generals on a unique path, but when another person needs help, we become their soldier. We all have each other’s backs, and I think the world needs more of that kind of loyalty. I would be lying if I said there hadn’t been conversations about getting together and doing a West Coast Get Down album.

Brandon Coleman: I’ve been suggesting that since day one! I realise the magnitude of it. If we come together as one then that solidarity has roots that will touch peoples’ souls. When it happens, it will be like the fucking Avengers of jazz music.

Miles Mosley: The idea is for all of us to build up our solo records so there’s a real body of work. Then once we’ve grown, we will come together and hopefully record one of the best jazz albums the world has ever seen. It would be historic. The idea that these young Black boys who had no money but practiced their craft for decades can make a record together that they’ve been learning for all their careers is beautiful, isn’t it? I am doing everything I can to persuade everybody to clear their schedules. It’s coming.

“We are all generals on a unique path, but when another person needs help, we become their soldier” – Kamasi Washington

Ronald Bruner Jr: An album would be beautiful, but we’d also like to do something socially to really back up this movement. We want to pass the baton over to somebody else. We would love to bring new young kids into the fold and teach them everything we know. Maybe to start a West Coast Get Down jazz centre in LA, where each of us hold classes and teach young Black kids how to be the next Kamasi or Ryan Porter. It would be nice to continue that love and belief people like Reggie Andrews instilled into us. We want to create something that lasts forever.

Kamasi Washington: I think the word ‘jazz’ itself is very controversial. The music often gets overlooked because of confusion over a word. People think it means a certain thing. Jazz inherently is music of freedom and of the soul. The reason we can play to a crowd of twentysomethings is because they realise that jazz has evolved and it’s the music that defines this era – it’s no longer something their grandparents just listened to. I think all of the West Coast Get Down recognise the world is dark, but it is beautiful, too. As much heartbreak as there is, there is also joy. Our music is about moving through the darkness to find some light. Jazz is about finding the light, and the West Coast Get Down should be the beacons that shine it towards you. When it’s all said and done, I want people to look at this collective and see that it was a movement much bigger than any one individual. We won’t stop until we’ve left our mark.

Many thanks to Kevin L. Clark, Erik Otis, and Barbara Sealy for helping with the logistics of this feature