Octojazzarian profile: randy weston
For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is pianist and composer Randy Weston.
VERSE: I was recovering at home from a heart attack in 2001. A visiting rep from HIP was taking down my personals, you know, weight, height, generally how to prescribe treatment. He asked me what I want to be, presuming I wanted to lose weight, like that. Thinking of Randy Weston I replied, “six-two & 220 pounds.” He looked totally confused as my wife cracked up. As the guy left the phone rang. It was Randy Weston. True story.
REFRAIN: From Brooklyn with the blues; from jazz to the mother continent making all stops (even Capt. James T. Kirk’s “next star to the right and straight on till morning.”). That’s what Randy Weston’s music does for me. Tough to describe as the music is in constant flux, dynamic as opposed to static. The sources from which it culls boggle the imagination: Nigeria, Morocco, where he owned a nightclub, Tangier, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, the American South, the Church and always the Blues, or more precisely the Blues all ways.
Randy, in his eighth decade of garnering experiential data, has no intention of either quitting or even looking back. “There is so much more [to be heard] so why stop now,” he said.
Randy’s first love was not the piano. “I wanted to play basketball,” the six-seven --I lied to the HIP guy-- musical giant said. “It was my father, Frank Edward Weston, a barber, who insisted I take piano lessons. He often said that we were Africans born in America and that I had to learn about my forebears. And that one day I would have to journey back. I thank him for [all] that everyday.”
Return he does and each time he comes home with new musical discoveries. I saw Randy at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal late last century with a group of musicians representing a people I had never heard of prior. “I met the Gnawans in 1967 and we’ve traveled all over the world,” he said. "2008 is the year the African community in Tangier honors me in return. We intend to talk about my club in Morocco, which I had for three years, called African Rhythms Club, and also the Festival we gave in Tangier in 1972. We presented over 200 African and American groups including Max Roach’s Group, Odetta, Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, Mandrill, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew. It was a cultural success, but an economic disaster.” He laughed then said “not bad for a guy from Brooklyn -- opens a club and lives in Morocco, gets involved with the culture and now they want to honor me.” He sounded humbled by it all.
You’ve no doubt read of musicians surrounding him as he matured, but to see the glint in Randy’s eye when he recounts them, it’s worth retelling. “We had a very hip community in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant] Brooklyn: there were Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan, Len Gaskin, Percy Brice, Kenny Dorham, Eubie Blake, Ray Abrams, Ernie Henry, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Stitt and so many clubs. But most of all there was Max.” That would be drummer Max Roach, the southern transplant. “Max was so important that we are celebrating Jazz In Brooklyn for four days from April 25-28 and we are dedicating them to him.” (Events will be presented at Concord Baptist Church, Boys & Girls High School, Brooklyn Historical Center and Medgar Evers College.)
But I digress. In 1967 the Randy Weston band went on a State Dept. tour of 14 African countries. The personnel was: Dexter Gordon, tenor sax, Ray Copeland, trumpet, Bill [now Vishnu] Wood, bass, Ed Blackwell, drums, Chief Bey, African percussion, son Azzedin, then 15, went along.
Randy picks up the story: “Among the stops we made were Cameroon, Niger, Liberia; Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Beirut, Lebanon. We did the history of jazz starting with Africa, the Caribbean, the Black Church, and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ That all came about because of my association with Marshall Stearns.” Stearns was one of the original historians and authors of this music we call jazz. His vast collection became the basis of the Institute of Jazz Studies currently housed at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University. “Jazz started to take a back seat [to other popular music] in the fifties and I wanted to move to Africa anyhow. I might have picked Nigeria because I had been there, but the Biafra War was going on.”
After writing the required report of that tour Randy received calls from people in Morocco telling him how much they had liked his music. Would he come back? He did -- this time with just the trio of Wood and Blackwell. He ended up staying seven years. “Prior to the State Dept. tour I requested that I would like to hear as much indigenous music as possible. When it was possible the request was honored.” He went to Tangier. “The best school in Morocco was there; that’s why I moved there.” While in Tangier he met a Moroccan who had heard Randy was interested in traditional Moroccan music. “He suggested I listen to the Gnawa,” Randy related. “Up to that point [‘67] I had never heard of them.” A meeting was arranged for Randy to meet a Gnawan named Abdullah El Gourd who worked for the Voice of America. “He spoke not only English, but also French and Spanish; he said he was always interested in the history of his people and he played a traditional instrument with three strings called the hadjouj (formerly the guimbre). It was like hearing Jimmy Blanton. He would come by and bring some of the older Gnawa; we’d make tapes.”
Just as important were the stories of their own intra-African slavery, crossing the Sahara, or by boats from West Africa to North Africa (now sometimes referred to as the Middle East). “Some were put on ships and transported across the Atlantic and others were left behind. Gnawa was created within Morocco from the Songhay and Mali empires. When the Berber people heard this music they gave it the name of Gnawa.” Randy has seen to it that the world recognizes Gnawan music the name of which exists only in Morocco.
When I asked if jazz is really African music, which I personally do not believe, Randy replied that “the entire world comes from Africa, the cradle of civilization, farming, mining, gold, diamonds. As we migrate we take various instruments and cultures with us and we integrate with the established cultures. Thus the African Diaspora: tango in Argentina, cumbia in Colombia, samba in Brazil, reggae in Jamaica, steel drums in Trinidad, and Afro-Cuban [everything] in Cuba. The Egyptians created music to keep them in tune with the universe. Think of the music of the spheres where every planet’s orbit has it own frequency. Music is the basis of spirituality and healing.”
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. there was Duke Ellington’s early band, the so-called Jungle band, James P. Johnson’s piano concerto Yamekraw, Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha and James Reese Europe, whose early 20th century band not only got him to Europe as the first Black band over there (WW I) but was also the subject of a weekend of music presented at City College by Randy.
For Randy it’s not that jazz is or isn’t African music, “it’s a matter of helping me understand how the music had the power to influence the entire world and how Ellington and Thelonious Monk followed that tradition. The slaves came here with nothing; their freedom, their instruments, their communication were taken from them. And yet the music survived. You can’t explain it; it comes from God. You get your first lesson in your mother’s womb; the second lesson is the Black Church. That’s directly from Africa.”
Ellington and Mary Lou Williams created religious music as their final offerings, a sort of giving back to their creator what He/She had given them: their musical gifts. Randy made it even more personal. “When first I met Art Tatum he was doing so much that I felt it was coming from someplace other than himself. I was afraid to shake his hand. Tatum, Nat King Cole and Count Basie are like musical prophets.” I understood Tatum and Cole for creating new directions, but why Basie, I asked. “The blues. I have written some 40 blues. It’s our language. [Among our] people there are those who come on the planet to lift our spirits, people like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong.”
Randy’s father was a (Marcus) Garveyite, who taught him that “we are responsible to give something back to our homeland, Africa. We never leave our mother and Africa is our mother.” She seems to keep on giving. “There are rhythms on this planet we haven’t even heard yet.”
CODA: The long-running Randy Weston Ensemble consists of T.K. Blue (Talib Kibwe), saxophones; Benny Powell, trombone; Neil Clarke, African percussion and Alex Blake, bass.
T.K Blue: (28 years) “[From Randy] I have learned that African culture and music has influenced not just the United States. I have gotten books on the early African presence in Asia and Europe. I recently discovered that the Pope who started the celebration of Easter was African. You wouldn’t know to look at his images now; all the African traces have been removed. All that Randy saw about Africa was from the Tarzan movies; that wasn’t enough for him. He passed that [curiosity] on to us. As a result I moved to Paris to learn French so that I could better communicate on some level with West Africans.”
Benny Powell: (He says 28 years; I figure more like 33) “Randy Weston is among the wisest people I’ve ever met. You will never hear an unkind word uttered from him. When he plays the ‘hits’ they are different each time. For instance, ‘Hi-Fly,’ on which I am featured, has gone from a medium tempo to a ballad. That’s why I love playing with him; while we do have a set schedule he will change up. Most of us have been together for quite a while but we are still learning from each other. I never ‘met’ Randy; I encountered him. When you encounter a person you feel that you’ve known them for a long time. We walk on parallel roads and then our paths cross.
"I was in California working with Merv Griffin and told Randy that I wasn’t totally fulfilled. I asked to consider me if he needed a musician. He called me to work the  Spoleto Festival-Charleston, SC. I had other commitments and turned him down. I said to myself, ‘You damned fool. You tell the man you’re drowning in California for lack of culture, he throws you a life raft and you throw it back at him.’ [Happily] He called again we’ve been together ever since. His character, like his figure, is head and shoulders above everybody. When I was on tour with him and on dialysis [Benny has had a kidney transplant] he made sure that I had a bed on the bus to myself while he had to fold himself into a seat. He prepared me for Brooklyn and their clannish attitude toward people from New York [Manhattan] even though I was there to participate in the Brooklyn Consortium’s festival at the personal invitation of [founder] Alma Carroll, [singer] Joe’s wife. He soothed the situation in the Addis Ababa airport when they were dumping out my bag and throwing things away. Playing with Randy is never just a gig; it’s an adventure.”
Special thanks to Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz Talks hosted by Dr. Lewis Porter whose one-on-one with Randy Weston was part of the impetus for the above article.