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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, Julian "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.

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