Randy Weston, Jazz Giant, 1926-2018

Sep 3, 2018

Randy Weston, who died on September 1 at 92, was one of my early favorites among jazz pianists. Like his “biggest influence,” Thelonious Monk, as well as Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor, and Abdullah Ibrahim, Randy had a powerful touch that reflected the influence of Duke Ellington. (Ellington was sufficiently impressed with Weston's playing to produce Randy's album Berkshire Blues, in 1965.) In Weston's case, early influences also included pianists Count Basie, Art Tatum and Nat "King" Cole, and the arpeggiated improvising style of Coleman Hawkins. "I used to try to play the piano like Coleman Hawkins played the saxophone," he wrote in African Rhythms, the autobiography he wrote with Willard Jenkins and published with Duke University Press in 2010. These and other influences reflected a lineage that Randy traced to Africa and devoted his career to exploring through State Department tours of Africa and the Middle East in the 1960s, and during the five-year period in which he lived in Morocco between 1968 and ’73. The synthesis of African traditions and modern jazz that Weston achieved on albums like Uhuru Afrika, Highlife, African Cookbook, and The Spirits of our Ancestors, gave him a singular status among jazz artists of his generation. Here he is with his ensemble African Rhythms playing "Blue Moses," a Morrocan-influenced work he introduced in the early 1970s. 

Weston’s 6'7" height and gracious manner lent him a princely aura, and in the times I was in his company he was wonderfully personable and warmly enthusiastic. Conversation seemed to come easy to Weston, who began his autobiography by saying, "I come to be a storyteller; I'm not a jazz musician, I'm really a storyteller through music." Randy was born in Brooklyn, where his father, Frank Edward Weston, operated a restaurant that doubled as an informal Bed-Stuy community center. His father and mother, Vivian Moore Weston, were followers of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and the elder Weston inculcated in his son a sense of Africa as his musical birthplace and spiritual home. Randy devoted much of his life to exploring and establishing connections with the Motherland, and his early '60s albums, Uhura Afrika, on which he collaborated with poet Langston Hughes, and Highlife, celebrated West Africa’s newly independent nations and the inspiration Weston felt when he visited the Caban Bamboo Club in Lagos. “The music was so inspiring that at one point I jumped up and got the spirit…The music started getting more and more intense and the next thing I knew I could feel myself leave the earth. This music was so powerful I was literally levitating, or so I felt.”

Weston incited a powerful response among patrons at his concert in Cairo, Egypt, during his 14-nation State Department tour in 1961. "The concert we played there was just explosive," he recalled in African Rhythms. "Perhaps the most powerful performance of the whole tour. We played "African Cookbook" to end the concert...The vibes from the Egyptian people were so strong in that theater that at a certain point when [bandmember] Chief Bey took his drum solo...the audience got into it and simply took the rhythm away from us with vigorous handclaps. They were actually throwing our rhythms back at us, as if to tell us, 'We know that rhythm, that's our rhythm."

I saw Randy in concert numerous times, and enjoyed a few memorable meetings with him. In 2011, we were on a panel commemorating the 40th anniversary of the W.E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. There Randy acknowledged the leading role that his lifelong friend Max Roach had made in establishing the African American/Jazz Studies major at UMass in the 1970s. Max’s is the first name to appear in Randy’s autobiography, where on page one he wrote, “I hung out as an inexperienced, green piano player with the grandmaster drummer Max Roach, one of my Brooklyn homeboys.” He mentioned meeting Dizzy Gillespie, Leo Parker, George Russell, and Miles Davis at Max’s Brooklyn home and recalled, “One time I was over at Max’s house and Charlie Parker walked in. I had started writing my own tunes by this time and Max immediately put me on the spot. He said, ‘Randy, play some of your music for Bird.’ I was in total shock…The idea of playing something for Bird put me in total shock. This man was already a legend. But after I finished playing, Bird said, ‘Yeah, yeah, Randy, that was nice.” In 2008, Randy played his moving composition, “A Prayer for All of Us,” at Max’s funeral at the Riverside Church in New York. He and Max are seen here at the 1999 San Sebastian Jazz Festival in Spain playing Thelonious Monk’s, “Well, You Needn’t.”

In African Rhythms, Randy described Monk as “perhaps my biggest influence…When I heard Monk play the piano [with Coleman Hawkins in 1943], I didn’t get him at first, but he eventually opened the door for me, showed me the direction for our music, where we maintain all the traditions of African music and we create from there…When I heard him the second time I felt Monk put the magic back into the music; music became universal for me.” He said that Monk's composition "Misterioso," fairly reflected the sense of mystery that Thelonious helped restore to modern jazz in the 1940s. 

Randy was at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2010 to mark the Hartford Jazz Society’s 50th anniversary. In 1960, he'd been the first artist ever booked by the society, and at a brunch on the day after his Wadsworth concert, he talked about his career. A small gathering of fans peppered him with questions, and when I asked him about the quintet he led with Coleman Hawkins, Kenny Dorham, Wilbur Little, and Roy Haynes at the Five Spot in 1959, he warmed to the memory of the great saxophonist whom he called “my idol.” He was especially enthusiastic about the piano introduction that Gene Rodgers had played on Hawk’s classic recording of “Body and Soul.” It’s an often overlooked element of Hawk’s masterpiece, but not to the then 13-year-old pianist. In his autobiography, Weston said, “When he recorded his big hit version of “Body and Soul,” in 1939, I ran out and bought three copies; one to play around the house and I wrapped the other two up and hid them for safekeeping.”

Two prime examples of Hawk’s lineage, the Texas-born tenors Booker Ervin and Billy Harper, were prominent voices of Weston’s music for more than a half century. Ervin, a native of Denison, Texas, traveled to Africa with Randy in the sixties and was a featured soloist on the albums Highlife, African Cookbook, and a special guest of Weston's at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, which Verve released as the album, Monterey ’66. In African Rhythms, Weston hailed Ervin as the equal of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and said he was the only saxophonist who could adequately express the emotion that Randy sought to convey about his mother on "Portrait of Vivian." 

Billy Harper, who was born in Houston in 1943, began working with Weston in 1973, and appeared on the albums TanjahCarnival, Saga, and The Spirit of Our Ancestors. In 2013, they co-led a duo album for Sunnyside, The Roots of the Blues. Here they perform “Blues for Senegal” on WNYC’s Soundcheck.

Place was evidently important to Randy, whether it was Bed-Stuy, Morocco, Nigeria, or the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. In 1951, while battling the appeal of heroin, he escaped the drug-ravaged streets of Brooklyn and moved to Lenox, where he lived intermittently for the next decade, playing occassional gigs at Music Inn between stints as a cook and dishwasher at area restaurants. It's also where Randy connected with Marshall Stearns at the Lenox School of Jazz. The school convened for three-week periods during the summers of 1957-'60, and was a bellwether of the jazz education curriculum that began making inroads at colleges and universities a decade later. With Stearns, who was an early proponent among jazz historians of the music's deep roots in West Africa, Weston began a more formal study of jazz history and soon became Stearns's musical counterpart.

"Marshall Stearns had put together this pan-African concept and invited all these people to the Music Inn to speak and perform," he wrote in African Rhythms. "Eventually I wound up playing piano for Stearns's lectures. I was a young guy who could play piano a little bit like Thelonious Monk. Stearns's lectures would go from West Africa to the Caribbean to the black church, up through...Ma Rainey...all the way up to modern jazz...Marshall would do the speaking and I would demonstrate the various styles he talked about on the piano." The experience fired Weston's imagination and set him on the course he pursued for the next 60 years. "Those ten summers in the Berkshires were a real cleansing experience for me, and I was able to further develop myself as a player and finally gain the confidence to where I was able to reconcile myself to making music my profession."  He commemorated the period with "Berkshire Blues," which he's seen here playing at the New England Conservatory of Music. 

I'll pay memorial tribute to Randy Weston in tonight's Jazz à la Mode, and the three-hour program will be available through NEPR's On Demand stream until Monday, September.  Click here for the New York Times obituary, which links to additonal coverage that the Times provided of Weston's career.