To Pimp a Butterfly was released a half-decade ago to instant acclaim. It’s strong jazz modalities owed a lot to a gifted battery of musicians and producers including Terrace Martin, Josef Leimberg, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington. All of whom released stellar jazz projects of their own shortly thereafter, with Kamasi’s debut The Epic gaining the most traction. So it’s safe to say the “LA jazz renaissance” has been around for quite some time. It’s added to the mythology of the city and its rich music history, but beyond the myths are genuine artists living and breathing in the city that forged them.
Because he’s played with scene linchpins like Kamasi and Thundercat, the pianist and keyboardist Jamael Dean has easily been linked to discussion of the “jazz renaissance.” However, the various musical projects that he’s released go much deeper than a quick check of the box. Released last November, his Stones Throw debut Black Space Tapes features a number of musicians from his circle, including scene driving force Carlos Niño as co-producer. Mixing various traditions, the album goes beyond conventional genre boxes to include ambient, jazz, beats, instrumental solos, field recordings, raps, and samples.
Often borrowing from Yoruba cosmology, the track titles reflect the spirituality that runs through his work. Black Space Tapes conceptualizes the color black as something original and elemental– what came before anything was. Whether it’s as the bandleader of The Afronauts, or as a keyboardist for the legendary L.A. jazz ensemble the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, afrocentricity is ubiquitous within his practice. The deep connection to Black culture stems from his roots in Leimert Park and the surrounding community, a place that holds a special place for him.
I met Jamael in L.A. during the Thanksgiving holidays. We found ourselves hanging out at the Leimert Park landmark The World Stage, the house show series the “Garage” in Inglewood, and recording sessions at Bedrock.LA. Shortly thereafter, Jamael returned to New York where he studies jazz at the New School; this interview was conducted over the phone the following month. — Samuel Lamontagne
Generally speaking, what was your introduction to music?
Jamael Dean: My first experience with music […] According to my parents I started pulling out pots and pans and beating on them. But as early as I can remember, I always loved my grandfather’s playing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him.
Yeah. Donald Dean.
Jamael Dean: Yeah. He used to take me around to gigs with him all the time. So I got to experience that part of the culture with him.
What drew you to playing keys and piano?
Jamael Dean: There were a couple different things that happened. I knew that if my grandfather played drums and I wanted to play with him, I couldn’t play drums. So piano was like the next best thing to me. Then around eight years old, Christmas came around and by that time my parents had cut out video games completely from my life. So they ended up getting me a small Yamaha keyboard for Christmas, one that you could get for $100 or something. I started playing by ear and later on I started taking lessons. That’s kind of how I got started.
Instead of playing video games, you were playing the Yamaha keyboard.
Jamael Dean: Yeah. I would end up practicing for like three hours a day on school days, and sometimes six or more on other days.
What would you say was your introduction to jazz? At what point do you remember being like “Oh, this is jazz.”
Jamael Dean: I always kind of knew jazz because my dad used to have this record that my grandfather was on called Swiss Movement in the car all the time. So he would play it and I used to love to sing along to the songs. I always asked my dad to play it. So I guess that would be the earliest experience.
On your album Black Space Tapes, there are straight jazz tunes and then beats. It’s all one in the same for you?
Jamael Dean: Yeah, very much so. And a lot of the beats sample the jazz stuff too. Some of the things came out by accident. I just liked the way it sounded because I was improvising. Then I decided to use it and improvise more on top of it. Expression is the key aspect of the music and I think it always has been. Even before it was known as jazz, when it was still one with the African drums that we used to play. I don’t know why we look at it different now and take the whole sacred aspect out of the music. But for people who are in tune with it, you can feel it in their music. Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, even Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. You have people who are very in tune with not only the cosmos but the science behind it as well. Music is a science, it’s dealing with frequency, which is the same thing as light. It’s the same thing as matter. It’s the same thing as me and you. So they’re teaching people how to live harmoniously through what they do.
How about your introduction to hip-hop? What is the first time you remember encountering it?
Jamael Dean: My sister Jasmine used to bump hip-hop a lot when I was younger. My parents used to not let me listen to it so much because of how vulgar it could be. But she had this one album in particular by Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III. And there was one song on there called “Phone Home,” where he’s talking like an alien.
Jamael Dean: Yeaaah! As a kid I thought it was the tightest thing. The intro and everything that goes into it. So I guess that would be like my first moment really loving hip-hop. The thing that I thought was dope was how he rapped a whole skit for every song. Even “Dr. Carter” where he pretended to be a doctor and he was helping his patients with their flows and everything. Then when I heard Flying Lotus for the first time, it was the same type of feeling. It’s the same type of feeling you get when you hear Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child or even Donuts by J Dilla.
Talk about The Afronauts. How did it form? How did it come to be?
Jamael Dean: We all have been playing together for a while at that point. We’ve been looking for a name. I’m sitting there, sitting at Devin’s [Daniels], just making beats. We used to hang out damn near every weekend. I used to call his mom my second mom. We were just chilling. And also thinking about space and everything as usual, thinking about astronauts in ways that related to Africa and yeah Afronauts. At that same time, I came up with the idea for Black Space Tapes too. So I feel like those ideas just birthed each other.
There are a lot of reference to African culture and heritage in your various musical projects. Why is it important for you to express this connection with Africa in the music?
Jamael Dean: Because everything works in loops, whether it’s time, whether it’s rhythm, harmony, or the way you think. It’s all loops. History will repeat itself. You can’t escape certain things and certain things will be able to be predicted to the exact detail. With that being said, I feel that it’s important to know where you come from in order to stand on the shoulders of the ancestors who came before you, and do that with integrity and character. So that’s kind of the idea with Black Space Tapes. The whole idea was that what came before anything is nothing. What is the color of nothing? We can see it in outer space. When comes nighttime, you see the color of nothing and it’s black. So that’s Black Space Tapes right there.
How did you connect with Stones Throw?
Jamael Dean: I connected with Stones Throw through Carlos Niño who knows Matthewdavid. Carlos gave me a residency at the Del Monte Speakeasy for a while. In fact, he was one of the first people who started supporting The Afronauts. After years of performing, we finally had some music ready to record. We did some mixes and everything. We were about to put it out on another label. But Carlos sent it to Stones Throw at the last minute and they were like “Oh snap! We want to release it”. So that happened. After a while I met with them in person; that was actually with Carlos again. So I guess Carlos is the main person behind it.
When and what was the residency at the Del Monte Speakeasy?
Jamael Dean: That was with The Afronauts. That might have been four years ago, in 2015 or 2016. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson had a residency that was every third Friday, and I think we were every fourth Thursday or something like that. That was every month. I kept it going for about a year into college and couldn’t keep it going. But it was cool because when I was gone I started letting Aaron and Lawrence Shaw run it, and they started coming out with all the Black Nile stuff.
What was your introduction to the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra? Do you remember the first time you heard about it? Pretty much from birth too I guess because your grandpa is part of it.
Jamael Dean: That was actually on some Congo Square shit man. I used to live in Bakersfield at that time, so my parents took me to L.A back and forth every weekend. I was part of JazzAmerica. So I played there in the morning. Then later on we went to Leimert Park. I saw Mekala [Session] there, and Kamasi [Washington] was playing with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Michael Session was there too. Michael saw my grandpa and was telling him how I play piano, so they just got me up there for a song. I just started playing with them. The sense that I felt was freedom. The music wasn’t easy. It was something that for a 12-year-old who first starts playing is really difficult. So I was nervous. But while playing, I just felt uplifted. It was support from something that wasn’t visually in front of me, but connected me to the people through the sounds. The fact that it was in Leimert Park too. A whole cultural center with the big water fountain in the center that people gather around and drum around all the time. That’s why I say it’s like that for me, it’s the whole spirit of the music right there. Jazz came out of Congo Square. There’s different Congo Squares throughout America. So it’s not just jazz, hip-hop and culture in L.A but all throughout America and the African diaspora. At the end of the day, the first people who are on this planet that birthed all of our ideas about existence were from that place. So it’s down to the core with it.
You mentioned a program you were part of called JazzAmerica. What was it?
Jamael Dean: That program was founded by Buddy Colette. It was about getting young kids in a band to essentially help preserve the tradition. The winter time would be dedicated to music of the 1930s and earlier, while the summertime would be stuff from the 1960s and later. So, as young kids, we would cover a whole lot of different jazz music in that band.
Knowing your grandpa has been part of the Arkestra for a long time, and yourself being part of it now. What does it mean to you to play and be part of the Ark?
Jamael Dean: From the very beginning, it was like not knowing your family and being introduced for the first time. I’ve known them for a while now and developed really good relationships with a lot of people. It has a whole bunch of different characters. It’s really the main inspiration behind my art and what I do. Being a kid without video games and having to do a whole bunch of work all the time, people around you start to matter a lot. Now it’s just about learning and maturing with myself while still maintaining that. But they definitely helped my sense of respect and discipline as a man, as a human being. The Arkestra is definitely a teaching experience.
What does Horace Tapscott, the founder of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra mean to you?
Jamael Dean: To me Horace represents teaching, healing. He’s very much the main source about it. You hear stories about how some people didn’t know how to play music so he would write them simpler parts and have them play and fuel their love for music. He understood the healing power of teaching. He’s like the epitome of harmony. It’s funny because a lot of his chords sometimes can be dissonant. He liked to wake people up with his sound, which is another thing I love about Horace. He’s not going to let you sleep through no music. I sometimes find myself falling asleep to music, so Horace was definitely the man. His compositions are crazy too.
You are one of the pianists/keyboardists in the Arkestra. Do you feel a special connection with Horace because you two share the same instrument?
Jamael Dean: I feel that way for several different reasons. For example, one of the other students he had was Nate Morgan. And Nate Morgan was with Nedra Wheeler, who when I first moved out to L.A had this scholarship program that she was teaching called the Roderick D. Jones scholarship Foundation, where she taught and mentor me. So it’s directly linked up to them and their realm of thinking and their philosophies. So even outside of just knowing Mekala, or getting the opportunity to play with the Arkestra, a lot of the teachers and elders have played a whole factor in that. Not only that, the Ark was the symbol of the bigger community.
We were talking about Leimert Park earlier. How does it resonate with you?
Jamael Dean: Leimert Park is the fountain of youth – to put it simply. I think people are realizing that, and that’s why it’s getting gentrified. That’s why people are coming through, buildings are changing and all of that. But you know what I mean, it’s like the Black Hollywood. You have Horace Tapscott’s name in plaque on the ground where everybody can see, you have Billy Higgins, Charles Mingus, Barbara Morrison. You have so many elders in our community who help. So it’s really just the fountain of youth. It’s a place to immortalize our community and more specifically, the Black people who get overlooked on a daily basis, the men, the women, the children, who can be represented through us as The Afronauts, and the elders through the Arkestra.