Best of birthdays to pianist-composer Randy Weston, who turns 90 today. I’ve had two opportunities to write longish profiles of him. The first occasion, in 1998, was a Downbeat cover story instigated by the release of Khepera; the second occasion transpired last September, when I had a chance to speak with the master at the Detroit Jazz Festival and at his home in Brooklyn — I’ve appended the text below (the article appears in the Jan. 2015 issue of Downbeat.
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In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms, Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.
Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.” Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.
“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”
Twenty-five years later, Weston wore an indigo suit at a Paris concert with a Gnawa ensemble and bluesman Johnny Copeland, supporting his 1993 release Volcano Blues. In attendance was a young Senegalese woman named Fatoumata Mbengue, an accounting graduate who had opened a shop containing a potpourri of objets and clothing from across the African continent. She noticed Weston’s attire and 6’7″ frame, thought he looked like a God, and resolved to meet him. Three months later, Weston stopped in and made some purchases. After a few more visits, he asked that her tailor prepare bespoke clothing in his size. She complied. Soon thereafter, she invited him to her home for dinner. Weston titled his next (1995) album Saga, after the store. Six years later, they traveled to Egypt to be married in a Nubian ceremony.
“I’m not sure I saw colors, but I felt them,” Weston recalled of his Tangier experience. He sat on a sofa in the ground floor office of his house in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, where his father ran a restaurant from 1946, when he purchased the building, until the 1970s. He faced a large-screen TV, sound off, tuned to MSNBC. It was the only part of that wall and the one behind him not covered with an array of photographs, posters, prints, honoraria, and other memorabilia from Weston’s seventy years as a working musician. An image of his parents hung over a large radiator near the front window, where patrons paid up after eating his father’s soul food and Caribbean fare. Weston’s wife sat at a large desk towards the rear, where the kitchen had been, taking care of correspondence, phone calls and other business.
“Blue was also Ellington’s color,” Weston observed. “His piano was painted blue. I played on it.”
Ellington is Weston’s lodestar, and the connection is tangible—he was romantically involved for more than a decade with Ruth Ellington, who lived in her big brother’s Upper West Side apartment. While he was visiting one evening, the maestro called, and she played him Weston’s popular recording “Blue Moses,” composed in response to his Gnawa experience. Ellington dug it, brought 20 of Weston’s compositions into his publishing company, Tempo Music, and signed him to Piano Records, his short-lived label.
The impact of Ellington—and Thelonious Monk—on Weston’s orchestral approach to the 88 keys is evident any time he performs. “I heard ancient Africa in Duke and Monk, Count Basie and Nat Cole, and earlier guys like Willie the Lion Smith and Eubie Blake,” Weston said. “They approached piano from an African perspective—polyrhythm, call-and-response.” He splayed his fingers down, indicating a percussive attack. “They held their hands this way. You’re not supposed to play piano like that.” He switched to straight wrists and curved fingers. “You’re supposed to play like this.”
Weston was still a teenager when he heard Monk on 52nd Street in a combo led by Coleman Hawkins, his earliest idol. “I was looking for something on the piano anyhow,” he recalls, citing expeditions to downtown Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, then a home to a sizable Arab-American community, with Sudanese-descended bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who would later play in Monk’s ensembles. “We heard instruments from North Africa and the Middle East on which you could play between the notes. I’d try to play like that on piano, but Monk was already doing it. Monk brought mystery, a way of saying you can play beautiful music by going this way. Music became universal.”
Ellington and Monk also shaped the aesthetic that bedrocked Weston’s sizable corpus of compositions, depicting individuals, places and rituals with memorable melodies built on stark intervals and evocative timbres. “They set the foundation that you’ve got to tell the story,” Weston said. “In particular, the story about African-American life. This was before the Civil Rights movement. Serious segregation. ‘African people contribute nothing.’ Both Monk and Duke wrote about their families, which I thought of in the ’50s when I wrote ‘Little Niles’ and ‘Pam’s Waltz’ about my children, or later with ‘Portrait of Frank Edward Weston’ and ‘Portrait of Vivian’ about my parents. And both were masters of the blues, which is a simple structure, but to create, you have to give yourself to it. Whether Ellington wrote for the Queen of England, or the Eurasian Suite or Liberian Suite—whatever he did—the blues was always there.”
He paused, perhaps considering that he himself has composed 43 blues, the import of which hit home after a visit to a cotton field during a sojourn to Mississippi with his wife. “It’s one thing to see a cotton field in the movies. But when you see it in person, you say, ‘My God—how did those people survive that to produce a Randy Weston?’”
Shy and awkward as a youngster because of his height, averse to full engagement with the physical demands of basketball, which he played at Boys High School, Weston immersed himself in music. He learned the fundamentals from a strict female teacher, who rapped his knuckles and said he’d amount to nothing, then began to flourish when a male teacher gave him popular songs that facilitated self-expression. By 17, he was playing local calypso dances and Greenwich Village gigs with guitarist Huey Long, who had recently left Earl Hines, and tenor saxophonist Stafford “Pazuza” Simon, a stalwart with Louis Jordan and Lucky Millinder. After completing an eventful tour of duty in the Army, where he attained the rank of staff sergeant, Weston took over his father’s first restaurant, on Sumner Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose bop-to-Stravinsky jukebox made it an attractive hang for musicians. Off-hours, he spent consequential time with high-level Brooklyn-based friends like Max Roach, who had Weston play an early composition for Charlie Parker, and George Russell, then generating such pieces as “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” for the Chano Pozo edition of Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra.
Still, Weston did not transition to music as a full-time profession until the early ’50s, when he took employment as a breakfast chef at the Music Inn, a culture-oriented Berkshires resort where he could practice at night. Soon, Weston met the pioneering jazz historian Marshall Stearns, whose history-of-jazz lectures and colloquia, which delineated the threads that connect traditional African music to jazz, offered a university-level education on Afro-diasporic culture. This “African cat,” as Weston calls him, asked the young pianist to accompany his presentations, and eventually to deliver them, an experience that Weston continues to draw upon when addressing audiences. Through Stearns, he encountered such avatars as—among others—the Sierra Leonean choreographer-musician Asadata Dafora, whose ability to incorporate traditional African drumming and dance in Western settings influenced, among others, Katherine Dunham; the calypso singer Macbeth, who introduced Weston to the notion of swinging in 3/4 time; ethnomusicologist Willis James, who specialized in field hollers; Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Langston Hughes; and drummers Babatunde Olatunji, from Nigeria, and Candido, from Cuba.
“My father told me to try to be around the best minds you can find, no matter the subject,” Weston said. Frank Edward Weston, a Jamaica-descended Panamanian who followed—and proselytized—the Pan-African ideology of Marcus Garvey. “Dad would stop people in the street and talk about Africa. He told me, ‘You’re an African born in America.’ He had books by African-American authors about ancient Egypt, ancient Nubia—the great African civilizations. I’d read them and dream.”
Sundays, Weston joined his mother, Vivian Moore, born in Virginia, at People’s Institutional AME Church on Monroe and Stuyvesant Avenues. “When you go in the black church, you’re in Africa,” he stated. “Dad’s fire was strong; Mom’s was quiet. She was very organized. Like everyone in the neighborhood, she knew the importance of music and dance.”
Three weeks before this conversation, at the Detroit Jazz Festival, Weston gave two concerts—one with a septet edition of African Rhythms, the other in duo with Harper, supporting their 2013 recital The Roots of the Blues (Sunnyside). At the latter event, on an oppressively hot, humid, cloudless Sunday afternoon, Weston wore a tailored indigo suit and a Panama hat on the Absopure stage, a convex amphitheater in which no bare spots were apparent on the unpadded concrete benches.
On “Blues To Africa,” conceived to the image of an elephant’s polyrhythmic strut, Weston made that elephant stomp and romp with dark, stabbing left hand phrases that complemented right-hand clusters, concluding with a taste of Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine.” He opened “Hi-Fly” with extemporaneous variations and comped a rolling bassline for Harper’s solo, feeding the chords from many angles, then referencing “C Jam Blues” as the tenorist ended. He launched his own declamation with a stride chorus, foreshadowing an extended, free-associative meditation that postulated a succession of clearly articulated, authoritatively executed ideas, some in tempo, some rubato, entering atonal areas on a final exchange before summing up with a rumbling cadenza. After a brief pause to remove his hat and wipe his face, the 88-year-old began a ruminative introduction to “Berkshire Blues,” making the piano ring with a variety of attacks and absolute command of touch.
On the previous day, after rehearsing horn parts for an evening concert by Weston’s African Rhythms Septet in music director T.K. Blue’s room at the Renaissance Marriott, Harper described the challenges and pleasures of their ongoing association, first documented on Tanjah, a Liston-arranged 1973 big band session, and the following year on Carnival, a live quartet date. “I never know what Randy is going to play or how he’ll play it,” he said of the duo. “He’s creating a whole composition, even if we’re playing the head. In the middle of something, we suddenly shift into a whole different thing, not the way the larger group has played it, or that I’ve ever played it. I just have to follow. It almost would help if I could jump into his head, but I did that once and said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here!’
“I think Randy’s personal development leads the music. It’s about him feeling a certain thing. Not necessarily ‘I want to play this feeling with the music,’ but ‘I’m feeling this now, and this is what the music says.’ To me, he represents the spirit of truth in history. It’s a story about what happened to the music, what happened to the people, from all the way back to the present, depending on where he is at a particular moment in truth and in time. One moment he might be in the era of Duke Ellington, at another in the era of Thelonious Monk, or at the beginning in Africa, or in the middle of Manhattan or Bedford-Stuyvesant. He’s different than any other musician I’ve played with.”
Himself aligned with Weston since the early ’80s, T.K. Blue elaborated. “Randy never tells you what to play, but he’ll paint a picture,” he said. “He’ll say, ‘This tune is Tangier Bay; the sun is coming up,’ not ‘Play F# or C#.’ When he plays the tune, I’ll ask him to hold his hands in place, to get a sense of what he’s doing harmonically and arrange it for the band. He’s no longer thinking in technical terms. For him, it’s a sound.”
Weston concurred with T.K. Blue’s observation. “All our earlier African-American greats had their own sound,” he said. “I loved how Coleman Hawkins’ sound changed from Fletcher to Dizzy and Monk. Once Monk put his whole hand on the piano, like BRRRMMM, and I asked why he did it. He said, ‘That’s the sound I wanted.’ Eubie Blake lived near here, and I’d visit him after we met at Music Inn—he’d get a certain sound.” At listening sessions with Russell, he assimilated the sounds of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Alban Berg. “It took me to another level,” Weston said. “What Schoenberg did—‘Pierrot Lunaire’—was interesting but kind of cold, but I fell in love with Berg’s ‘Violin Concerto,’ when I heard how he used the whole tonal scale but had more emotion, more feeling than Schoenberg. I loved Lulu and Wozzeck, too.
“But I can’t explain how my sound happened. It’s a combination of playing rhythm-and-blues and calypso dances, listening to African traditional music, falling in love when Dizzy brought in Chano Pozo. You absorb it all. People told me, ‘If you truly love your ancestors, they will feed you, they will guide you.’”
In the memoir, Weston is at pains to credit Liston with organizing his sound on recordings by ensembles of various sizes between 1957 (Little Niles) and 1998 (Khepera). They include Highlife, from 1963, inspired by Weston’s two eventful sojourns to Nigeria; Spirits of Our Ancestors, from 1991, on which Harper, Dewey Redman and Pharaoh Sanders play tenor saxophone, and Dizzy Gillespie performs “African Sunrise,” which Liston wrote for him in 1986; and Volcano Blues. “I could play her a particular melody, explain the story, say which instrument I wanted to feature, then she’d write something that sounded just like I wrote it,” he said. “She could to get inside what I wanted to do, very original, very fresh.” He expressed pleasure that Universal Records would imminently reissue their first big band collaboration, Uhuru Afrika, from 1960.
Interestingly, Weston has not researched the location of his ancestral home. “I took the easy way out,” he said. “To do a genealogy, you’ve got to check your mother’s roots, your father’s roots—the full story. I ask what preceded West Africa, what was the original civilization of the planet as we know it. I claim the whole continent as mine. Each area’s music is different, but you find a certain pulse from northern Africa all the way to the south. There are no boundaries.”
Weston’s current investigation of source origins is a program interpreting music contemporaneous to pioneering composer-bandleader James Reese Europe. “We’ll use banjo and tuba in trying to capture that period of 1910-13,” he said. “People need to understand that this is advanced music, that there’s no such thing as modern music.” Along those lines, within the next year he plans to record An African Nubian Suite, which he performed with African Rhythms at NYU’s Skirball Center in 2012. It includes a poem by the late Jayne Cortez, and narration by Wayne Chandler, author of Ancient Future: The Teachings and Prophetic Wisdom of the Seven Hermetic Laws of Ancient Egypt. One piece celebrates Ardi, as paleontologists nicknamed the 4½ million year old female hominid skeleton (Ardipithecus ramidus) unearthed in Ethiopia in 1994.
“Our story is that this lady is the oldest grandmother of the human race,” Weston said. “She walked upright, and after my little introduction, I have Howard Johnson imagine how she walked, all alone on tuba. The larger idea is: What happened when the first African picked up a tuba? What happened when the first African touched a piano? What did he do with it? Our ancestors created this music. How? We have that cultural memory in us, which we don’t realize we have. It’s an amazing story.”
So is the story of Weston’s life, as related to and organized by co-author Willard Jenkins. A French translation recently came out, and Duke University Press had just informed Weston that it would release a paperback edition of African Rhythms in January.
“It’s like reading about somebody else,” Weston said. “It signifies the power of music and where music has taken me—a miracle. All this stuff is a big surprise to me. I’m a dude from Bed-Stuy. I speak like a Westerner. I went to a Western school. I wear clothes like a Westerner. But if you only think the Western way, it’s limited.”