A Fireside Chat with Randy Weston
“ ...music was created in Africa and then spread to Europe and spread to other parts of the world. Most people don?t understand or realize that. ”
In my youth, a television news magazine aired a feature on how the map of the world we, as kids, were taught in school was in fact, biased. In reality, Europe and America are not nearly as vast as they seem in the Thomas Guide and Africa and Asia, not nearly as insignificant. South Africa, for instance, is nearly twice the size of Texas and has a stock exchange that is among the largest in the world. But South Africa, even with pop culture's politically correct fondness of Mandela, is a world away. To history, it must even be farther. And that is why Randy Weston has fought to educate musically, the history of Africa, unbiased by Euro-American stigmas. For that, Weston has been rewarded with mainstream obscurity, critical categorization, and corporate malice. I have a heavy heart most days because of such things. Perhaps in time, we will learn. Until then, may I present, Randy Weston, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Randy Weston: My father wanted me to play music. I loved music, but I didn't think I had any talent. I was lucky to have parents who made sure I took music lessons.
FJ: I was of the understanding that Wynton Kelly was a cousin of yours.
RW: That is right. We were very close. He was playing like that at fifteen years old. Yeah, at fifteen, he was already playing like crazy. He was also a very fine organist. We used to go to his uncle's church and he would play the organ for us. Wynton had perfect pitch. He could hear anything and play it. He was a genius. What a great, great musician and a beautiful human being.
FJ: Your profound relationship with Thelonious Monk has been chronicled as well.
RW: My first real hero of music was Coleman Hawkins when he did 'Body and Soul.' I loved Coleman Hawkins so much that whenever he played in New York, I would go to hear him. I also would experience that he also had the best of the younger musicians. I heard Hank Jones with Coleman Hawkins. I heard Sir Charles Thompson with Coleman Hawkins. I heard a number of people. When I first heard Monk, I heard Monk with Coleman Hawkins. When I heard Monk play, his sound, his direction, I just fell in love with it. I spent about three years just hanging out with Monk. I would pick him up in the car and bring him to Brooklyn and he was a great master because, for me, he put the magic back into the music.
FJ: People fear and condemn what they don't understand.
RW: They sure do.
FJ: Monk fell victim to that due in large part to his reticent personality.
RW: They said that he couldn't play. His thought of a different way to play the piano than what everybody else was playing, so they said that he couldn't play and they recognize him as a great composer. But I heard his piano. When I heard the way he played the piano, that is why I love what he does. People put all kinds of labels on people, but the people who knew, they knew Monk was a master, an absolute master of piano and composition. When I heard him do that, it made me want to be closer to him to learn because when you are with masters like Monk, Duke, and Dizzy and people like that.
Growing up in New York, I would just go and hang out with these people. So from Monk to Eubie Blake to Bud Powell, every night, I was with the greats. But Monk was the one that really reached me because of his sound. He put the magic, for me, into the music. For me, his music is very natural, very logical, a combination of both. He didn't play a lot of notes. He didn't have to play a lot of notes. He made statements. All of the songs had meaning. He wrote songs about his family. He was a great composer and a great pianist, but he had a different approach. You see, Fred, my first love was Count Basie and what I loved about Basie was that he knew the importance of space. Basie was a master of that and so was Monk. I love them both for that. Ellington also had that sound, that incredible sound, that magical sound on the piano. They would get sounds that are not really in the piano. That's what I loved. To me, he was incredible.
FJ: Do you miss Melba Liston?
RW: Oh, my God, yes. She is with me every second of my life. What a great, great woman. Her commitment to her people, like Duke and Basie and all the older people, they not only just made music, but their music was also a commitment to African people and African-American people. That is why she was so rich. She has written for Motown and for Dizzy and she did concerts with symphony orchestras with me. She was a total arranger, but she had the commitment of her people and this is the key because you can play great, but if you lose you people, something is missing. She paid for that. She sacrificed for that.
FJ: There is a rather sinister tendency in the mainstream media to discredit the contributions of black musicians by breaking their legacies apart into bits and pieces.
RW: That is a great point. Music is free. There is so many directions to go in music. You can be an entertainer or whatever. For me, my music is African rhythms. That is what I call my music. I have been trying to project the history of our music, which is Africa. But as far as categories are concerned, it all depends on each artist. My point is that music is free. You can do or not do. If you want to categorize, you do that. If you don't want to, you don't. That is what is so wonderful about music because there are so many different directions you can go.
FJ: There are antagonists who would claim you have, to a fault, placed too much of an importance on African rhythms.
RW: I have a lot of young people who come to me and thank me for my persistence and my consistency with African music and showing the whole connection and showing that music first happened in Africa in the first place. Before there was a Europe and before there was an Asia, African people created music and we come from that. I have a lot of young people today that come to me and thank me for the work that I have done through the years to show the importance of African heritage, which has enriched the whole, entire world.
As far as Africa is concerned, my father, when I was six years old, he said to me, 'My son, you are an African born in America. Don't let anybody tell you that you are anything else but that. Look in the mirror and look at me and describe what you see. Therefore, you have to know your history as an African.' And therefore, as a boy, I was always reading about Africa before colonialism, before the exploitation and during the time of great African civilizations. My dad started me at a very early age and so I had no choice.
Plus, he made me take piano lessons. I was lucky to have two great parents. It all came from them and everything I do is based on what they taught me. All music began in Africa. All music began in Africa. The ancient Egyptians had schools of music. They were the first ones to write music. They were master instrument makers of harps and flutes and horns. So the whole concept of music was created in Africa and then spread to Europe and spread to other parts of the world. Most people don't understand or realize that.
Wherever I go, I try to explain that if you love music, you have to know where it came from. Music was based upon spiritual values. In other words, you can't have a civilization unless they had music. African traditional societies have music for every single activity. So our ancestors brought that concept, even in slavery, they brought that concept to the Americas. So whether we were taken to Brazil or Cuba or Jamaica, whatever, that whole concept of Africa continues. All the names, whether you say jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba, salsa, all these names are all Africa's contributions to the Western hemisphere. If you take out the African elements of our music, you would have nothing. But Africa has been put down so much that we have not had a true history of Africa when it had its great civilizations. So that is where music came from, Africa in the first place.
FJ: Why does modern history being taught in schools today, ignore those contributions?
RW: That is not modern. That has happened from the time we arrived. When you are taken away from your home and you are taken as a slave and your history is taken away. That is not something modern. When I was a kid, luckily, I had strong parents at home that made sure that I knew my history. But at the schools and at the movies, Africa was a place of people who had no culture and no history and the whole world has come from African civilization. Everything has come from African civilization, but you have to take time to read and study and listen and watch and I did all that. When I heard Monk play the piano, I heard African music. You don't hear nothing like that in Europe. It doesn't exist. In traditional African society, there is music for every single activity and that is where we come from. That is why, because of slavery. When you are defeated and you are taken as slaves, the first thing they do is take away your history.
FJ: Is it fear of the black man?
RW: Just ignorance, omission. If you don't get it in school and you don't get it at home, you don't know any better. I would chant like Tarzan just like all the other kids. I didn't know any better because it is not being taught. All humanity comes out of Africa. All people come out of Africa. Africa has enriched the whole, entire planet. Once people start to realize that, then they would have a different way of looking at us. They say that jazz began in New Orleans. That is ridiculous. This music began thousands of years ago. It was just carried on to European instruments, European languages. We have just not had the true history of Mother Africa, which has enriched the whole planet.
FJ: You have made the journey to Africa numerous times.
RW: Yes, I was there this year.
FJ: Has Western civilization changed the face of Africa and have those changes been positive?
RW: That is a very deep question because when I go to Africa, I go for the ancestors. I go for the spirits. I don't go for the people that are there. What I mean by that is, of course, I know people there and of course, I have good friends there and of course, we have the chaos and the sickness and the wars and all the terrible things, but when I go to Africa, I go for the ancestors. I look for the elders. I look for the elder musicians. I look for the monuments. I read the books of the civilizations, of the spirits, and of the ancestors. That never changes. But for me, I have been very fortunate. I have been to fourteen countries in Africa and performed there. Everybody has been very beautiful to me, very wonderful to me, just wonderful. But when I go, I go for the ancestors.
FJ: Your music has gone undocumented for a handful of years.
RW: The big companies just forgot about art. Everything now is about money. The big corporations have taken over everything now. The artistic people in the company had the leave or they went into another direction. But they don't have people who know about the music anymore. Now, it is just money. If you hit a piece of metal and it sells, they're happy. Now, everything is sales. They no longer record artists anymore. Now, it is what is going to sell a million. That is what is important, whereas years ago, it was art that was important and that is why we had so many wonderful recordings. It is all money now, all profit. If it sells, it is great. Most of the companies now only have bureaucrats. They don't know anything about this music. They don't know anything about the history of this music. The few who did know had to leave. All I can tell you, Fred, is that I have been blessed. I don't have not one complaint. I just turned 77 on Sunday. Unfortunately, Babatunde Olatunji died on my birthday. He died 7:30 Sunday morning. I have been blessed because I have been around some of the most fantastic people on the planet. I have become a composer and become a pianist. I couldn't ask for anything more.