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Randy Weston: Music of The Earth

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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.

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