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Randy Weston: African Stories, African Rhythms

By Published: November 8, 2010
AAJ: Turning to another very important figure in your career, Melba Liston
Melba Liston
was someone with whom you had a very long and fruitful musical association. For a woman trombonist who played in the bands of Gerald Wilson
Gerald Wilson
Gerald Wilson
in the '40s and the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie alongside John Coltrane, as well as playing with Count Basie, Dexter Gordon and Billie Holiday, and arranging your music for years, it seems remarkable that no book has ever been written about her extraordinary life. Does that not strike you as strange?

RW: Well, in a way it's strange, but then again the African- American woman had a more difficult time than we did. In addition to that, Melba Liston was never interested in being glamorous. All she ever wanted to do was write music. She never projected herself. She was a very quiet person. Even when she was writing arrangements for me, she would get her friends to go and buy clothes for her for the concert. She was a great woman and a great arranger but at the same time very laid- back. She was an incredible human being, but she was never interested in the glamour, so maybe that's one reason.

AAJ: She also led an all-female quintet in '58. What was that quintet like? Did you ever see it perform?

RW: Of course, I was even at their rehearsals. It was wonderful, but it was difficult for an all-woman band.

AAJ: One of your most celebrated works which Melba Liston did the arrangements for is Uhuru Afrika (Roulette, 1960), which is 50 years old this year. Are there any plans to celebrate the anniversary?

RW: Oh, in a big way! We're going to do a special concert on November 13th at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York. We've already assembled the orchestra. Only [drummer] Charlie Persip, [trumpeter] Clark Terry, [percussionist] Candido [Camero], guitarist Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
[reed player] Yusef Lateef and [bassist] Ron Carter are still alive. Charlie Persip and Candido are going to play. Candido's about 90 now and he's still playing great.

At the same time in 1960, 17 African countries got their independence. So, this is the 50th anniversary of freedom from colonialism for 17 African countries, so we're going to have all of Africa there at the concert to celebrate. It's very important.

AAJ: When that album came out it, was banned in South Africa. In the years since the ending of Apartheid have you had the chance to perform the work in South Africa?

RW: Not in Africa, no. I've done it twice in New York: I did it in Lincoln Center and I also did it in Brooklyn. This will be the third time coming up.

AAJ: Why did you not perform that music more frequently? The first time was in '72, and then you didn't perform it again until the '90s. Was it just logistically too complicated?

RW: It's kind of a big work; we had 28 musicians, [poet] Langston Hughes did the text, we had [opera singer] Martha Flowers and [Broadway performer] Brock Peters. It was a big work, so I never really did it that much.

AAJ: So this must be very exciting for you to perform it once again, no?

RW: Of course. I'm very, very happy. Actually, it started with the Kansas City Museum. They wanted to honor Uhuru Afrika, and they put Melba Liston's robes that she worked in on display, and they put my first African robes on display. They have a whole display on Uhuru Afrika. But they didn't realize that it was the 50 year and I didn't either, so when they contacted me it was an incredible coincidence. But, you know, Melba Liston was originally from Kansas City, so by honoring her they honor Uhuru Afrika, so it all came together. Then we all discovered, hey, that was 50 years ago [laughs].

AAJ: You talk at length in your book about your many trips to Africa. You met a lot of interesting people, one of whom, Ghanan drummer Guy Warren [Kofi Ghanaba], made quite an impression on you. Max Roach waxed lyrical about Guy Warren when he first came to Chicago and then New York in the '50s, saying that he was way ahead of what everybody was doing.

RW: He was a great, great percussionist. His song "Love, the Mystery Of" has been my theme song for many years. We finally played together, oh, maybe eight or nine years ago in New York. I had TK Blue, Billy Harper
Billy Harper
Billy Harper
, Alex Blake and Neil Clarke and Guy Warren—Kofi Ghanaba—and he paid me a great tribute. He said, "Man, you can play African music." He was brilliant. He was so important—way before Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria, Guy was before that in Chicago, and another percussionist from Ghana called Saka Aguela, who lives in Philadelphia. So I met these two giants, and they were the ones who exposed me to African traditional music.

You see, the drum had been outlawed in America during slavery because it was used to espouse freedom, and it was communication. So these guys were very important in bringing the drum back. That's why the Afro-Caribbeans were so important; they brought the drum back.

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