Keni Washington on jazz and political activism To many, the name Keni Washington is synonymous with music, jazz, tenor sax and the unique band Omniverse. However, there"s another, politically engaged dimension to the man and his music.
Jazz musician Keni Washington: "What we call patriotism in this country becomes a kind of tribal jingoism, where we say we"re going to go and look for evil and root it out and kill it."
For those who don"t know him, Washington"s occasionally austere presence and cool reserve can be intimidating. But mention politics or education, subjects to which Washington has devoted a lot of thought, and that reserve quickly melts away. Get him laughing and the sun breaks out. As an active member of the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center, an organization with worldwide membership dedicated to such causes as protecting the environment and peaceful resolution of international conflict, Washington devotes a lot of time to public forums on these issues. In particular, what he calls the one-dimensional, militaristic attitude of our country and its president is a subject about which Washington and the center have much to say. "What we call patriotism in this country becomes a kind of tribal jingoism, where we say we"re going to go and look for evil and root it out and kill it," he says. As an honors graduate of Howe Military School, Washington is familiar with that kind of attitude. At the time, he was interested in military leadership and was even considered for West Point. "I had no aspirations of being a musician. It was maybe the opposite," he says. "But, as I became more mature, the military ceased to have an interest to me. "There"s something in us as males that is attracted to militarism when we"re kids. We have to outgrow that. It"s an arrested part of human development. It"s dysfunctional," he says. Last month, Washington and the center participated in a debate held at Butler University concerning the legitimacy of President Bush"s plans for a preemptive strike in Iraq. "This whole notion of preemptive defense is illogical, and it"s illegal. It"s the one-dimensional thinking of militarism," he says. Washington asserts that we come from a long tradition of militarism. "Organized religion has basically been spread by violence. Native Americans were beaten and disemboweled out of their own religions. That"s how Christianity, Islam and, in the early days, Judiasm were spread - kickin" ass. And that"s their legacy. How do we get past this kind of dysfunction? "The scientific establishment, too, has this need to quantify the universe on behalf of nations and institutions and ultimately the military," Washington observes. "The "Big Bang," that"s something driven by some male militaristic god who had this idea and exploded everything." Washington continues, "If you listen to Bush, you hear a guy that benefits from all this dysfunction. The status quo benefits people with a limited vision of humanity and knowledge of history and no vision for the future." Reality needs a check, a counterpart to science. That"s where music comes in for Washington. Music, the omniverse "It"s not just a universe, it"s an omniverse, a sort of infinite cosmos," Washington says. In omniversalism, a word Washington coined, artists are called upon to become principal players in defining what reality is, and they need to take that responsibility seriously. "Our notions about the cosmos are just as important as the physicists", if it"s infinite," he says. Omniverse, the band, was started in the early "90s. The ensemble performed a blend of jazz standards and original music and was unique in that, besides the traditional rhythm section-plus-horn lineup, it also incorporated strings, harp, percussion and the spirit of omniversalism. The band was documented at its height in a CD titled Erosonata, recorded in 1996, a banner year for Washington and Omniverse. Not only was the band omnipresent at local clubs and festivals then, but Washington was also invited to perform his internationally-flavored, 90-minute Millennium Suite in Atlanta, in conjunction with the Olympics being held there. If reality is omniversal, Washington says, we can relax because there was no beginning and there"s no end. "So we"re here, maybe as a fluke, and that"s fine, but why don"t we start to treat each other like this is a precious time, a precious experience." But in order for that to happen, people need to change their view of the world. They need to become more aware, he said. Education is key. "Young people are entitled to a broad education," Washington says. "If they were introduced to great thinkers like Hegel or Kant or Frederick Douglass, you wouldn"t have a George Bush as president. It wouldn"t happen." Life and death decisions Washington"s foray into activism began while attending Stanford University during the Johnson Administration. Already against the Vietnam War for military reasons he"d learned at Howe, Washington became appalled after questioning a visiting senator one day. "Here this guy was going to make life and death decisions and didn"t even know half the shit that was going on. That did it for me. On that day I became a vehement Vietnam antiwar protester." Ultimately, Washington and three other students got kicked out of the university for inciting about 150 students to take over the president"s office. "We demanded that the school do certain things to not cooperate with the military." He was later readmitted to the school. Washington was born in New Jersey. When he was 3 years old, his family moved to Gary, Ind., where his father, a urologist, was transferred. His parents divorced when he was 5, and he spent the rest of his childhood living between Indianapolis, his mother"s home, and Gary. Both parents remained involved in Washington"s life. "My father taught me how to think about the world and to recognize bullshit when I hear it," he says. "And not to take yourself too seriously, but seriously enough that your opinions matter." Washington"s musical influence came from his mother"s side. "In the early "50s, my grandparents would invite black musicians passing through town to stay at their house." One of them was Willie Smith, an acclaimed saxophone player of the 1930s and "40s. "His music just drew me." Washington"s passion for music waxed until high school, at which time he took the first of several 180-degree turns by attending Howe. "At Howe, guys in military bands weren"t considered serious, so I kept my interest in music totally hidden." After high school, Washington attended Stanford and got a BA in philosophy. After graduation, he took another 180 and became a professional musician. He also got married and had a family - a boy and a girl. In 1969, he was offered a record contract in Germany and made plans for moving his family there. Two months before they were scheduled to leave, however, tragedy struck. His wife was killed in an automobile accident. Feeling it was now more important to be at home with his children, Washington gave up the traveling life of a musician and took a job with an electrical engineering firm in Palo Alto. He eventually became the firm"s financial analyst. Two years later, he started his own company, Advanced Telecommunications. "I discovered that I could do this thing called business and do it well." He sold the business at a profit in 1982. After spending 18 months as a stockbroker, Washington became the majority owner of a hotel-buying business. "We bought dilapidated hotels and tried to make them first-class properties," he says. Washington sold the last of his properties in 1988, left San Francisco, his home for the last 25 years, and returned to Indianapolis for a visit. Speak out clearly "It was so comfortable to be back," Washington recalls. With his kids now grown, and a financial nest egg to fall back on, he was free to relocate and become the musician he had once dreamed of being - the final 180. He has remained here since. Washington recently married Katharina Dulckeit, a philosophy professor and Hegel scholar at Butler. They reside on the Northside of Indianapolis. Katharina accompanied Washington to the Chatterbox in October where he performed with his current band, composed of piano, electric bass, drums and flute. Dressed in a traditional African shirt and sporting a silver bracelet and two silver hoops in his left ear, Washington led a mildly attentive audience through an assortment of jazz standards, from Davis" "Seven Steps to Heaven," to a funky, moody "Girl From Ipanema," by Jobim. As the band soloed, Washington often stood in the entryway, opposite the piano, with his back to the wall, one arm cradling his tenor sax, eyes closed, digging the sound. Aside from his monthly engagements at the Chatterbox, Washington doesn"t perform much these days, nor does he spend much time composing. "I haven"t done a convincing piece of music for about four years," he says. "I will again." Until some of the important political issues of today are settled, however, Washington says he can"t sit down with a clear conscience and write music. "What"s called for today is language, language to speak out clearly and unequivocally against the abysmal ignorance of our leaders."