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Randy Weston: African Rhythms

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Without the influence of those before me, there wouldn
No musician has been more devoted to exploring the connection between Afro-American classical music (jazz) and the ancestral spirits and rhythms of the African continent than Randy Weston. The Brooklyn-born pianist began his professional career nearly 55 years ago as part of the bebop revolution in New York, playing with Art Blakey, among others, in a manner that synthesized the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell with those of his earlier influences: Count Basie, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington, ;and developing a personal approach to the piano once poetically described by Langston Hughes as “a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet [which] emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea.”

Weston was one of the first musicians to broadly investigate the music of black America with the socially conscious interest in the cultural heritage of his people, which he credits his parents (“a wonderful mother and father very proud of their heritage and our ancestors’ contributions to civilization”) with instilling in him. “My father said ‘We are an African people’,” he recalls. “Just because we left a few centuries ago doesn’t mean we’ve changed. We are still an African people and to understand ourselves better and understand the world better, Africa being the first civilization, I’ve got to study and learn about what happened a thousand thousand years ago. So as a boy I was always going to libraries, and my father would have at home books to learn more about my history, my heritage, because I certainly wasn’t getting it in the schools and it wasn’t happening in the movies. I used to get the early Folkways recordings - prison songs, field hollers, the old blues - so I was already searching. So there is definitely an obvious connection that the music came from my ancestors who brought that concept of music and life from Africa.”

“I first discovered African culture in the States with the jazz and the blues, with Cuban music, with the calypso,” Weston goes on. “ But I didn’t recognize the connection because I hadn’t had contact with the traditional music of Africa yet.” That connection became obvious after the pianist’s first visit to the land of his ancestors in 1961. He says, “When you look at world history and you see the African retention in what we do here, in what we do in Jamaica and Brazil, you hear it in the music. You hear the rhythm, you hear the call and response, you hear the humor. All those basic elements of traditional African music we’ve retained, but being in different parts of the world and speaking different languages, we didn’t necessarily identify with the continent.”

Weston insists that, even though he is often credited with bringing the music of Africa to the fore in jazz, it was simply a natural evolution in the music’s continuum. “People like Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington, the great artists of the ‘20s, William Grant Stills, people like that did a lot of composition about Africa. They knew the connection; so it’s not something brand new, it was just something that got cut off. Without the influence of those before me, there wouldn’t have been any Randy Weston. If I didn’t spend those years hanging out with Thelonious and listening to Ellington, hearing Art Tatum, hearing the boogie woogie giants, all that rich, rich music, there wouldn’t be a Randy Weston. From our masters, our elders, our ancestors, we learn how to play this music and learn its possibilities, so without them there wouldn’t be me. I’m just simply standing on the shoulders of the great people who came before me.”

Weston has been instrumental in bringing the music of his American ancestors back to Africa and merging it with the continent’s rhythms and traditions. “I don’t present it to them as jazz, I present it to them as this is African classical music in America. You may not recognize your music after it crossed the Atlantic, I say,” he laughs, “but we’re going to bring it back to you and let you hear what happened when we left and came into contact with other cultures, with other kinds of instruments and created this music. So that’s what I tell them. This is your music, you just may not recognize it, but it’s your music. I’ve been very fortunate to have been very successful in Africa. I perform in about 18 countries and the people have been really appreciative of what we do. I always have a kind of basic African rhythm underneath in my music so the people can identify with it.”

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