Dr. Cornel West describes the work of Salim Washington as a “new synoptic vision of what jazz can be and do. The fundamental spirit behind this music…lives on in new ways and novel sounds.” Salim adds, “When you play, if the people are with you, you can feel it…a transformation occurs that casts away all boundaries.”
A native of Memphis, TN, the “very colorful” (Pharoah Sanders) saxophonist began what would become a life-long musical journey at age eight, when his family moved to Detroit. A local gang recruited Salim, but his tenure with them did not last long; the leader’s abilities on the trumpet inspired Salim to leave that crew behind in pursuit of music. Salim also spent time in the church during his formative years, which taught him that music could be viewed as a “vehicle through which spirit travels. It animates the soul [and] allows for a transformation into a sacred time and space where the boundaries and concerns of the world are pushed down and love is brought up higher.”
After graduating from high school, Salim moved to Boston to attend Harvard University. While in Boston, he honed his abilities on the bandstand in Billy Skinner’s Double Jazz Quartet, Jamyl Jones’ Worlds Experience Orchestra, and his own Roxbury Blues Aesthetic (RBA), and later joined the Source of Life Arkestral Revelation (SOLAR). The latter group took Salim away from his studies and into the turbulent south, where they toured before the saxophonist eventually returned to Harvard to finish his degree (he eventually earned a Ph.D from the institution).
After leaving Harvard, Salim moved to New York to begin a professorship at Brooklyn College, where he is currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies in American Music, and a Professor of Music. Salim is highly in-demand as a lecturer and clinician, and has shared his knowledge in the United States, Lebanon, and Ireland, and in Paris in settings ranging from the most prestigious institutions of higher learning (Bill Evans Conservatory, Ecole Musical Nationale du Moçambique, the Sorbonne) to prisons. He has also spent time studying local strains of jazz abroad in both Brazil and South America.
Salim heads the Harlem Arts Ensemble, and has recorded four albums as a leader: Love in Exile (Accurate Records), Harlem Homecoming (Ujam Records), Live at St. Nick’s (CimpOL), and Strings (Cadence). He has also performed and/or recorded with the likes of Randy Weston, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Tolliver, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and many others.
According to Salim, jazz is “not just a disembodied art form, but it’s something that exists for people in specific places and times for specific reasons. This is a spiritual music because its birth comes from times when the social, political, and economic realities [for Black people] were full of terror and oppression. Yet in the face of this, there was a certain kind of nation-building, [there was the] establishment of culture and institutions that aided in our survival of that terror. That spiritual essence is what I’m intimately involved with as a musician.”
This Sunday, Salim will present his final concert in New York before moving back to Africa. This farewell celebration will feature the saxophonist passing the torch to the gifted young reedsman Darius Jones, and will include contributions from the pianist Donald Smith, the bassist Mark Helias, and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey.