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 therehe 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.