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Interviews

Randy Weston: African Stories, African Rhythms

By Published: November 8, 2010
AAJ: Another role model you mention in the book is Sugar Ray Robinson, and he said, "Every move you make starts with your heart. That's in rhythm, or you're in trouble." That seems very appropriate for musicians too.

RW: Yeah, at that time all those guys listened to jazz music. Sport and music is the same—it's all rhythm and improvisation. For example, Muhammad Ali had [percussionist] Big Black
Big Black
b.1934
congas
train him when he fought George Foreman in Zaire. He trained to Big Black's drums.

AAJ: It seems, in the telling of your story, that your musical upbringing and the development of your African consciousness were one and the same.

RW: I had very strong training at home. I had a wonderful mother and father; they were my school. They brought all kinds of music in the house. They would take us to see Duke Ellington or Andy Kirk
Andy Kirk
Andy Kirk
1898 - 1992
composer/conductor
or Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
1910 - 1981
piano
. We had the black church, calypso, all kinds of music. They let us know it was all our music.

My dad always talked about Africa. He said you've got to go back to study Africa before slavery, before colonialism, and you'll find out that Africa civilized Europe. But they'd tell us in school that Europe civilized Africa, which was quite a contradiction. Thank God my parents gave us truth, they gave us dignity, they gave us pride and they gave us spirituality, which is so important.

In spite of everything, we were very dignified and we loved all people; we got that from home. But in our neighborhood it was like that.

AAJ: You say in your book that your parents' generation just loved music—all music—and you go on to say, "unlike today's generation." Why do you think there's less love of or appreciation for music among people today?

RW: Because the media is not showing anything. Everything is music for the young. For us, music covered all the ages with no separation; it was either good music or bad music. Everything is focused now on singers, and musicians are in the background. You don't have the wealth of compositions like we had— everything from Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern
1895 - 1945
arranger
to Duke Ellington to Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
. We don't have great composers like those today. But let's face it, so many notes of music have been played since the beginning of this planet, what can you really do that's new?

For me, our period of royalty was the '20s, the '30s, the'40s, the '50s and '60s— the music that was produced in that time was just mind-blowing.

AAJ: Apart from your first album, Cole Porter in a Modern Mood (Riverside Records, 1954), which was an album entirely of Porter's songs, you've always written and recorded your own material. Did somebody advise you early on to write your own material? How did this develop?

RW: It was a combination of a lot of things: my father making me take piano lessons, number one; growing up in a neighborhood where music was our survival as a people because we grew up in a period when were told your color is not good, you have no history—you know, real brainwashing in every possible way, from Hollywood to even the school system.

But the great music, Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan
1908 - 1975
sax, alto
, Duke Ellington, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
—this lifted our spirit and made us smile at a time when we should not have been smiling. Music was our very first language as an African people, and even during times of slavery when we couldn't speak to each other because they would beat us, we created music as our language. It's an incredible story and it really taught me about the power of music and how important it is.

AAJ: You say in your book that your father told you early on that you were protected in life, and how you always felt protected in life. It does seem that during the year you spent on Okinawa during WWII, you had no fear of the Japanese snipers. Did you never fear that you might not have left Okinawa alive?

RW: Well, that's funny because I think I must have been crazy. You know, when you're 18 or 19 years old [laughs]. I was lucky to have my brother-in-law there. He was a Seabee [engineer], and he told me what to do. That's what I mean by protected. When I look at my life and I think of the things that have happened to me, friends of mine who've been sick and who have died, I've been truly blessed. My father was right. He knew something, like fathers and mother always do [laughs].

AAJ: You talk about the influence of heroin, growing up in Brooklyn. The use of heroin among jazz musicians is part of the mythology, the romance even, of people like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
and Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
. How damaging was heroin in the wider community in which you lived at that time, post World War II?

RW: It was very damaging because we lived in a time when if a black person died, it wouldn't even be in the newspaper because a black person was not important. That's the kind of world we grew up in. Between heroin and alcohol, it destroyed the black community. After the Second World War, a lot of African Americans came back from the war hoping to have a better life, but still faced the same racism as before.

People always gave the drug to the artists, and that hasn't changed up until today. And they have an impact on the people. That's what happened, and I saw it happen with my own eyes, and that's why I was glad to be able to escape that and go to the Berkshires. When I look at my life, I think that was already arranged—how could I escape this and go to the Berkshires and do any kind of work and get away from the heroin and the alcohol? It was just amazing.


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