Randy Weston: African Stories, African Rhythms

Ian Patterson By

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In over 60 years as a leader, pianist Randy Weston has achieved an incredible amount. He has recorded nearly 50 albums and has been hailed in the process as the natural heir to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Three times he has been voted Downbeat's composer of the year, and his compositions have been recorded by the likes of Ahmad Jamal, Cannonball Adderley, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Abbey Lincoln, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jimmy Heath amongst others. In 2001, his significance in the jazz world was officially recognized when he joined an elite group of musicians designated as NEA Jazz Masters.

His love affair with Africa has long flavored his music, and his collaborations with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco are particularly celebrated. Over the years, Weston has been invited to play in some of the holiest of sites, from thousand-year-old Japanese shrines to England's most celebrated cathedral—recognition of the spirituality that emanates from his music. He has played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach and Roy Haynes. His music was banned in South Africa during the apartheid years. He has rubbed shoulders with Fela Kuti and Muhammad Ali, and he ran a jazz club in Morocco where he spent six years in the late '60s and early '70s.

At the age of 84, Randy Weston could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but that wouldn't be his style. In fact, 2010 is proving to be one of the most significant years in his long and distinguished career. In June, his trombonist Benny Powell passed away, marking the end of an association that had lasted 27 years. In August, the Apollo Theater paid tribute to Weston's contribution to music. The same month, Weston led a special concert in Marciac in celebration of James Reese Europe, an African-American soldier who was the first person to bring jazz to France over 90 years ago. November, 2010 will see three noteworthy events: first, a big-band concert at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Weston's acclaimed album Uhuru Afrika (Roulette, 1960); second, the release of his autobiography, African Rhythms (Duke University Press, 2010), and third, the release of a new CD, The Storyteller (Motema Music, 2010).

All About Jazz Randy, African Rhythms is a fascinating read so congratulations to you and Willard Jenkins, who helped put it all together.

Randy Weston: Thank you very much. It's been an incredible life in this world of music—the places music takes you and the people that you meet. I've been truly blessed.

AAJ: All About Jazz would like to pass on its condolences for trombonist Benny Powell, who passed away in June. What are your abiding memories of Benny?

RW: Oh, I called Benny "Ultraman." Benny Powell was not only a great trombonist. He had an illness and he was on dialysis, and many times when we toured he had to go to hospital to have his blood cleaned and he'd come back to play with us. He'd be so tired and his legs would be so weak. I'd say, "Benny, go get some rest," but he'd just get up on the bandstand and play so beautiful. He never, ever complained.

AAJ: Benny was with you for a long time, wasn't he?

RW: About 27 years.

AAJ: In fact, your African Rhythms Quartet with, saxophonist T.K. Blue, bassist Alex Blake and drummer Neil Clarke has been together for a very long time. To what do you attribute the longevity of your musical relationship?

RW: Well, because we love our ancestors and we're all interested in the origins of our music, in our elders and how this music happened. We give each other books on African culture and civilization. We have a great respect and a great love for the artists and our people before us and I think that's what's kept us together.

AAJ: In the book you talk about the black role models who inspired you growing up—people like Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Hazel Scott. Who for you are the black role models for young people today?

RW: Oh, it's the same, you have to go back [laughs]. I just did a wonderful concert on August first in Marciac, France. I did the music of James Reese Europe, a soldier in World War I and the first man to bring jazz to France.

AAJ: And the first black American to play Carnegie Hall, in 1912, with 125 musicians and ten pianos no less.

RW: Yeah, you know we've got to go all the way back to ancient Egypt, ancient Nile valley civilization; we can't compare with today.

How this music happens is something that amazes me—Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins—these people are our royalty. I'm still doing research and trying to figure out what they had to go through with the racism. With severe problems, they managed to produce this beautiful music. Fashion, too—people like Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstine used to dress so well and they set an incredible pattern of pride and dignity. We don't have that today.

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 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 or Mary Lou Williams. 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 to Duke Ellington to Cole Porter. 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, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—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, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Rollins. 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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