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Randy Weston: The Spirit of Our Ancestors

Ludovico Granvassu By

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African people have always known that you must be in tune with nature. Sometimes we forget that the first music is the music of nature, the sound of the wind, of the ocean, of the birds... So it was nature that gave us the first rules about improvisation.
To commemorate the Randy Weston, we've republished this 1999 interview that traces his life and career, from his birth in Brooklyn to the years spent in Africa, from his admiration for Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington to his collaboration with Melba Liston.

Every year, Harvard's Department of Music devotes part of its academic year to the study of great jazz masters. Thanks to this program, musicians such as Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Bowie, Steve Lacy, Illinois Jacquet, Lee Konitz, Andrew Hill, John Lewis, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Benny Carter and Clark Terry have been invited as "artist in residence" to join the Department for a semester and work with the members of the Harvard Jazz Band. Under the direction of Tom Everett, Joshua Redman, Anton Schwartz or Don Braden are among the musicians who, in recent years, have honed their skills in that Jazz Band.

This year, the artist in residence is pianist Randy Weston, a living legend. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Weston found himself at the center of a very musical environment, both in his family and in his neighborhood. So we started our interview from those early years.

Randy Weston: You know, music was always there.

AAJ: Do you mean that you grew up in a very music-oriented family?

RW: Not only that, the neighbourhood too... very musical. The whole area was into music... so not only my family, but the next-door family... we'd meet with young guys and we'd speak about music. It was all very natural. I really cannot say what is my first memory of music. It was always there.

AAJ: Do you at least remember what was the first record that you ever bought or that made a great impression on you?

RW: I think it was Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul. I must have been around 13 years old. I loved it so much that I bought three copies. Of course, there were many more great recordings but that one I still remember in a special way.

AAJ: At one point in your career you went to Nigeria and then to Morocco, but you traveled extensively throughout Africa. What was that made you want to know Africa inside out? Were there specific musical reasons that led you there or was it rather the interest in discovering your roots?

RW: I had heard African music when I was still in the States from a great drummer from Guinea. I really wanted to visit that continent but there was no particular African music that led me there.

AAJ: How was your music received by local people and musicians?

RW: I thought it was received quite well. I had already written "Uhuru Africa," I was already using rhythms like 6/8, you know, typical African rhythms. I had always had a love for the drums and in particular for the congas, the African drums. Sometimes I approach the piano as a drum. My first time in Nigeria I had a very good reception. It was an incredible experience.

AAJ: This has made me think about the nature of jazz that transcends national borders and can be appreciated —maybe from different points of view —in different places. Did you feel you were sharing a common ground with the African musicians you played with?

RW: Of course. Music is man's first language. Many people on this planet don't realize that. Music is a universal language, a language we can all understand. When you speak English, or Spanish or Italian or French you can only communicate with the people that know these languages. Sometimes even when you speak the same language you don't understand what people are saying, but with music you can go anywhere in the world and you can communicate. This is why music is called the sacred art. Music is the queen of all arts. This is how I approach music. I always tell people: "this is a language!" Actually it is the most important language. Music has the power to make peace, to heal. I have traveled in Africa, in the Middle East, in Europe, in South America, Asia... lots of places... and music is the language that people know me by and I have made friends that way, all over the world... because of music.

AAJ: Jazz is one of the truly American art forms that has become extremely popular abroad. However over the years many prominent musicians from the U.S. have had to go somewhere else to make a living or to find a recording company. Why was it difficult for them to survive in their own country?

RW: This is because jazz comes out of the African culture. Our ancestors were brought here in slavery. It is hard to accept that the descendents of slaves would create such music. On top of that we are a very small percentage of the population but this music is so strong, so powerful, so true, that it is hard to accept that it could come from people that were brought here in slavery and yet they could create such beauty. This is the reason, no question about it.

Not just us, but also artists like Duke Ellington had to go to Europe to get accepted... so did Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday... The tradition of our music is that it has always had a greater acceptance in other regions of the world than in America.

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