Randy Weston: Music of The Earth

R.J. DeLuke BY

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I realized this was African culture. What we call jazz is African culture in America.
—Randy Weston
Pianist Randy Weston has long been known to be a student of his African heritage and proud of it. Born in Brooklyn, he has lived in Africa, been involved with musicians there—he has been involved with the entirety of its culture. An expert?

"I've lived there for years, man, and I know nothing," he says with a bold, generous laugh that speckles many of his comments. "I'm no expert on anything because you're dealing with the magic of mother nature."

Weston, 91, began his career like many others, learning, playing club gigs, then getting recording opportunities. The first in 1954 and the most recent last year, his 49th. His first most obvious nod to Africa was 1960's Uhuru Afrika, and along the way album titles included African Cookbook, Blues to Africa and The Spirits of Our Ancestors, among others. His latest may be his strongest at covering a wide spectrum of African beats, melodies and capturing a certain aura.

The African Nubian Suite is performed by the African Rhythms Orchestra arrangements by Weston, Melba Liston and T.K. Blue. It has 16 musicians and includes contributions from the poet Jayne Cortez, the writer Wayne Chandler, the Cuban percussionist Cándido Camero and others. There is spoken narration by Chandler throughout, conceived by Weston's through his experiences with the spirituality of Africa in music and poetry. He says the Nubians were the first humans on earth and the oldest of the great civilizations in Africa.

Through layers of rhythm and scotching solos, Weston's thunderous piano playing makes statements, helps carry rhythms and otherwise decorates. As he has done for so many years.

"It's so necessary. The older you get the more you realize the contribution Africa made to the western hemisphere," he says. "When you look at its amazing. What took place in Brazil. What took place in Haiti. Cuba. The United States. We need to know more about that. We want to tell the beauty of the African people and what they gave to the world."

He says the music was first inspire by a television program he saw that was about the discovery of a fossil in Africa. Some 4.5 million years ago, that scientists say came from a woman who probably walked upright. They dubbed it Ardipithecus.

"It's my love of life," he says of the suite. "My love of people. I love all people. Particularly African people because we've gone through so much bullshit, with a capital B."

"Africa was the very beginning of civilization. Music. Art. Painting. Laws. You name it... The whole idea is we're all connected to each other," says Weston.

His pride in his heritage stemmed from his father. "He was a great man. They said many lies about us [Africans]. I grew up with segregation. Racism. You name it. Even in New York. My dad told me you have to understand the history of the great African empires. You're only going to get western civilization wherever you go, whether it's a movie or school or books. My dad had many wonderful books when I was a child and he made sure I understood the great African empires. And he let me know we are an extension of that history. What we do goes back thousands of year of ancestral memory. How we create such beautiful."

He eventually started hearing jazz greats like his idols Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. But before that, there was rich music in his neighborhood, even though times were difficult.

"We were lucky. Our mothers and fathers were so incredibly into music. Not just my mom and dad, but in the neighborhood. Almost everybody had a piano. How, I don't know. Economically everybody was really struggling. But what they would do is bring the best music in the house. There was no category. They might bring in a spiritual. They might bring in some jazz. Might bring in some blues. They might bring calypso. They would take us to theaters to see the Ellington orchestra or the Count Basie orchestra. You had to be in the black church every Sunday. We had blues groups on the corner. It was so rich."

He relished all the music, but what jumped out at him was one saxophonist who usually wore a fedora and was becoming known as the father of the tenor saxophone.

"Coleman Hawkins is still my idol up until today. When I was a child, he recorded 'Body and Soul.' He never knew it was going to be a hit. He just played. I fell in love with the piece. I asked my dad to give me an advance on my allowance. I went to the record shop and bought three copies of body and soul. I hid two. I would put it on loud in our apartment. I had the windows wide open, So everybody in the street could hear 'Body and Soul,'" he says with that warm laughter.

Weston would go to see Hawkins in clubs and buy his records. Hiss passion led to finding another hero.

"I went to 52nd street one night to listen to see Coleman Hawkins. That's when I heard Monk. I didn't understand what he was doing. I thought he wasn't a very good pianist. But to be with Coleman Hawkins you had to be someone very special. I went back to hear Coleman Hawkins and Monk together. The first time I heard 'Ruby, My Dear' I was amazed. The beauty of the composition. The genius of Coleman Hawkins playing the piece. How do you go from the '20s all the way to Monk. For me, there's no such thing as modern music. Some music is eternal. There's no category.

He continued to see Monk and was awed. With a friend, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, who had played with Monk, they went out and sought other music. He was introduced to the oud. "Me and Malik would play in local bands. Sometimes we would experiment with sound. But with Monk I heard that certain sound. The closest to that is Duke Ellington. For me, those two are magic on the piano. The magic is Africa."

"I heard Monk and I said, 'That must be how they played music thousands and thousands of years ago.' That sound. That language. Different. Simplicity, but incredible complexity. I got to hear Monk and he influenced my writing."

Weston met Monk and was eventually invited to his home. The youngster asked many questions of the master, but, typical of Monk, there was no response. Weston remained nonetheless, perhaps there would be some gems of information that were not to be missed.

"I wanted to ask Monk every kind of question that a person like myself would want to know," he recalls. "Of course, no response. I sat there for hours. I couldn't leave the room. So I got the will power to get up. I said, 'I have to leave. Thank you Mr. Monk for inviting me.' He said, 'Listen to all kinds of music and come and see me again.' That's all he said during the hours we were together. I realized later it was the influence of ancient ... People communicate through vibrations, not necessarily the spoken word."

Weston returned a couple months later and Monk was more responsive, playing the piano for a couple of hours, allowing the younger man to observe and absorb.

"Monk was a high master. A high spiritual person and he brought back to me that magic in the piano. He's something special. When he plays, he's doing an African ballet, for me. People laugh at him playing. But when you look at the way he holds his hands and the way he approaches the piano. He approaches it like it's a percussion instrument, which it is."

At the time, he was working in his father's restaurant. He was a professional. In the neighborhood lived Max Roach. He would see people like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He then went into the Army for three years. Afterward, he ended up going north, into the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts and a place called the Music Inn. Located in Lenox, Mass., it was a place where musicians went to study music and art and life. The Boston Symphony Orchestra spent its summers in nearby Tanglewood.

From about 1950 to 1979, it was a place dedicated to the presentation and perpetuation of American music, particularly African-American, musical tradition. Music Inn presented hundreds of concerts involving top names in jazz, folk, blues and rock music.

"I was in the Army three years and came back. The same racism. Nothing had changed. Then they put that terrible heroin in the black community. The powers that be gave it to the artists. It killed us. You think after the second World War things would open up. A good friend of mine said, 'Why don't you go up to the Berkshires. Get out of New York. There's a lot of music up there.'

There he found chamber music, opera and more. "Everything was music. I was a dishwasher for a while. I cut down trees for a while. I made a small salary just to be there for that whole process. Then I met professor Marshall Stearns at the Music Inn. He was doing a lecture on music." Stearns was a jazz critic and musicologist who eventually founded the Institute of Jazz Studies.

Weston was working in the kitchen of a resort to make money. With two co-workers, he went to the Inn, where Stearns was teaching a class.

"I didn't know who he was. He was doing a class on the 'King Porter Stomp.' He played Fletcher Henderson's arrangement. Then he played Benny Goodman's arrangement. He said to the people, 'Do you hear the difference?' That's how I met Marshall Stearns, our first real jazz scholar. He was pan-African. He was a Euro American and teacher. But he was a historian of our culture.

He became the breakfast cook at the Inn and played music at night. It moved him into the world of music as a profession.

"From him [Stearns] and the early training from my dad, I realized this was African culture. What we call jazz is African culture in America. What we call calypso is African culture in Trinidad. It's the way we approach life. The way we do things is in the music. It's our culture. In the process of discovering it, you realize Africa is a mysterious, magical continent that we all come from... The continent is so rich in culture and music and diversity. Wherever the people have been taken, whenever they come in contact, they continue that tradition of producing art. They take it to Cuba. They take it to Haiti. They take it to Brooklyn and Mississippi.

"When I look at Monk or Duke or Louis Armstrong, these are spiritual people who the creator sent down to lift our spirits at a particular time. Being around these kind of people, I realize how little I know."

Over the years, Weston has played with many of the greats and received accolades from all the major jazz magazines. He's an NEA Jazz Master and has honorary doctorate degrees. For his work.

"It's an exciting time for me," he says after nine decades, "because I'm realizing how much I don't know about the music. It's amazing... I've had some incredible spiritual experiences with music in Africa that I never had any place else. I've had spiritual experiences in the African-American church I've never had anyplace else. Music can take you too a high spiritual level. So when I saw Coleman Hawkins and Monk played 'Ruby My Dear,' it wasn't just a solo. It was something else. Magic. You say, 'wow.'"

Says Weston, "I'm so grateful I met some of the giants of our music. That period, for me, that's our royalty. We will never reach that level. There are no more Art Tatums or Earl Hines or Erroll Garners, people like that. That's our royalty. I can listen to them. Thank god for the technology."

Of the young players that are there today, he says "They're good. I think I'm good. But I'm not royalty. I'm not the Pyramids. Monk is the Pyramids. Duke is the Pyramids. How can I be better than Duke Ellington?"

Photo credit: Dave Kaufman

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