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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.

AAJ: Do you think the situation has changed in the last years?

RW: Not in the media and not in the schools. When we'll see a major TV channel playing a great jazz artist at 8PM on a Saturday night, when we'll see the history of jazz music in the schools, when we'll see a Hollywood movie dedicated to the life of a jazz artist then we'll have a change. But until this happens we are not going to see any difference. We are in a technological society, in which people are influenced by what they see, and we don't see much jazz on TV (or you see it very late at night and often on a small station); we don't see any real jazz in Hollywood movies nor in the schools.

I am sure that at some point this will change. I believe that you can't hide something as beautiful as music.

AAJ: Speaking of jazz popularity, at the beginning jazz was a very popular form of music, it was music people were dancing to. At one point, though, jazz became a very technical music and probably alienated most of its popularity. What do you think is the situation now?

RW: You see, after the start of the second World War, they put a 20% tax on dancing places because of the conditions and necessities of the conflict. For this reason, most of the places where people used to dance closed down and jazz became more of a listening music, rather than a dancing music.

When we grew up we played at a lot of dance clubs; african-american people and all other people, they all love to dance. It was a completely different expressive direction than playing at concerts. You had to make romance on your instrument —this is something that is almost completely forgotten about: these days you listen to lots of music and people are just playing technique... who can play fastest and all that stuff. Before, instead, you had to play romance; you had to play for a woman and move her. In the music of all our ancestors, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, there was lots of romance and this is completely missing today.

AAJ: You have mentioned the obsession with technique of many musicians of today. Do you think modern musical education can be considered —at least in part —responsible for this situation?

RW: This is why it is important to bring artists to the schools; this is why it is important to have the history of this music taught in the schools. This is the result of one great advance of technology: today we can buy CDs with the music of the '20s and the '30s. This enables you to study jazz seriously, as an art form. But one should not only study the notes and the technique; it is important to analyze what was the life of the African-American people like at that time; the great segregation, the great racism. This music was for them a form of survival. It was not only music. It was culture. People today don't realize that. They all say, "Oh, I really love jazz!" but they don't know its history. We should realize that this history is the struggle of the people, it is the result of tremendous sacrifice but also of tremendous dignity and pride of people that could produce these big masterpieces and —yet —they could not stay in hotels, they could not ride trains. This is what today is missing: the spirituality of the music, something that you can't get in the conservatories where everything you learn is notes, scales and techniques. When we grew up, instead, music was a very spiritual experience for us. Of course those great masters are not here anymore but we have their recordings and this is why I always encourage young students to do their research. We should all also study African music, because what we are doing today is also the result of what happened before us. It is necessary to see the connections. When that happens musicians have a better sense of direction. They won't forget romance; they won't forget love, family, people.

AAJ: In the younger generation what are the musicians and styles that attract your attention?

RW: There is a great deal of very fine young musicians, but now I am discovering the musicians of the '20s and the '30s which I never really understood up to now, and I am more excited with Duke Ellington or Art Tatum than I have ever been before. These are the men that created this music. We cannot do better than them; we have to learn from them. So to answer to your question, even though there are all these fine young musicians I spend most of my time listening to the great masters of the past, like Louis Armstrong of Billie Holiday.

AAJ: Among the great masters of jazz music, Thelonious Monk has had a special importance for you. What kind of personal memories and what musical lessons of Monk do you bring with you?

RW: Monk put the magic back into the music. Monk and Ellington were my favorites. They could capture the serious sound of the piano. Monk was also a tremendous composer. His compositions, his harmonies, his sense of rhythm, his sense of silence are magnificent. Monk had an orchestral conception of the piano. When he played I could see images; he was a great storyteller. He was a real innovator but —at the same time —you could always hear the blues tradition underneath. He was a completely original human being. He was clearly ahead of his time but this is what happens with great artists. However he was lucky to live enough to get to see people appreciate his music. Some artists, unfortunately, are not so lucky. I know how that feels. I cannot compare myself to Monk, but in the '50s when I was doing African music people did not understand what I was doing. Thirty, forty years later things have changed. You have to live long enough to see these things happen.

Monk was also an example for me. I was very impressed by his great dignity. There was a period were he could not work for something like six years, but he kept playing his music... Ellington did the same ... they never compromised. They kept producing their music, beautiful music until they died. Even when he wasn't working, when he had no money to live, Monk never complained, never begged. I really admired him. Any time I was at his house he was always very proper, very elegant, immaculate. The musicians of that period were not only very spiritual in their music, but also in the way they acted and appeared.

The musicians of those days were very open. Monk would show you anything. I could go to Monk's any time and the door was open. The same with Max Roach... They loved to have younger people come by. This is what I mean by spirituality.

AAJ: You just said that part of the greatness of artists like Monk or Ellington lies in the fact that they never compromised. They had a way to express themselves, to tell a story, through their instruments and they did not change it. What do you try to tell people through what you play?

RW: I try to celebrate our ancestors. For many people ancestors are not important. They only think about the "now." Maybe they also think about their parents. I try to do just what Ellington was doing: telling stories about our people through music. In the '20s and the '30s all those musicians wrote music about their people: the African-American community, so I never stop to myself but I try to speak about the people before me and around me.

When you go to Africa you realize that —there —musicians are also historians: through the music they play they tell stories about the people. Similarly I do not try to be just a musician, I try to be a story-teller: when people hear me they will think about Duke Ellington, they will remember Monk, they will look for Dizzy, Gillespie, Count Basie... I feel this is my role because I was a big fan of music even before becoming a musician. I always fought for music; I always got upset because musicians did not have proper conditions to live... This has been my job and the Creator has given it to me. Maybe some people think this is old music, but we have a great respect for our elders and ancestors: they had the courage, the perseverance, the genius to create this incredible music. All the great masters have showed us how to make great music: Ellington told us to make music beautiful playing this way, Monk showed us to play that way, the same did Basie, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum and all the others. We write music because we want to continue this tradition and keep our music so special and different from any other. Whatever I write and I play I want Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington to be proud of it.

AAJ: European classical music has been transmitted in written form because Western European culture has always been transmitted this way. In the African societies, on the contrary, the traditions were passed to the younger generations orally. If this is the case, then, one can always find a little bit of the narrator's personality in the stories that are told. A similar phenomenon can be found in improvised music: you have the standard, the theme of which is always the same, and then the musician can add a little bit of his or her personality interpreting it in a personal way.

RW: That is true, but it is also deeper than that. Music is the voice of Mother Nature, and Mother Nature is always improvising. Today differs from yesterday; tomorrow will not be like today...

AAJ: Let's speak about your collaboration with Melba Liston. The first time you met her was at Birdland when she was playing for Dizzy Gillespie's band. The band that night played a tune of yours as arranged by her. So, since the beginning, there has been a very intense musical tie between you two.

RW: She has been able to bring out the best of me. Between us there was magic. It is difficult to explain why and how, it is just like that. Maybe because she is a woman, and woman can be more sensitive, when she would prepare an arrangement of my music, it would sound as if I myself had arranged that tune.

AAJ: Melba Liston has been one among a few female jazz players of her generation. Today the situation is improving but there still is a great imbalance between the number of male and female musicians.

RW: The problem is that women had been excluded for too long from many things. However, if you look at pianists there were many female players. However they would be more likely to play in black churches where the community gathered. Maybe there were not many trombone players like Melba, but women were always there but you usually do not hear about them because they were more community players than stage players.

Photo credit: Roberto Cifarelli

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