6 April 1926
Brooklyn, New York, New York, United States
1 September 2018 (aged 92)
Randy Weston (April 6, 1926 – September 1, 2018) was an American jazz pianist and composer.
Weston's piano style owes much to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Beginning in the 1950s, he worked often with trombonist and arranger Melba Liston.
Described as "America's African Musical Ambassador", he has said, "What I do I do because it's about teaching and informing everyone about our most natural cultural phenomenon. It's really about Africa and her music.
Randolph Edward Weston was born in 1926 to Vivian (née Moore) and Frank Weston and was raised in Brooklyn, New York, where his father owned a restaurant. His mother was from Virginia and his father was of Jamaican-Panamanian descent, a staunch Garveyite, who passed on the Pan-Africanist leader's Afrocentric, self-reliant values to his son. Weston studied classical piano as a child and took dance lessons. He graduated from Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant; his father sent him there because it had a reputation for high standards. He took piano lessons from Atwell, because unlike his former piano teachers, Atwell allowed him to play songs outside the classical music repertoire.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Weston ran a restaurant that was frequented by many jazz musicians. Among his piano heroes are Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum , Duke Ellington, and his cousin Wynton Kelly. But Thelonious Monk made the biggest impact.
In the late 1940s Weston began performing with Bullmoose Jackson, Frank Culley and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. He worked with Kenny Dorham in 1953 and in 1954 with Cecil Payne, before forming his own trio and quartet and releasing his debut recording as a leader in 1954, Cole Porter in a Modern Mood. He was voted New Star Pianist in Down Beat magazine's International Critics' Poll of 1955. Several fine albums followed, with the best being Little Niles near the end of that decade. Melba Liston provided excellent arrangements for a sextet playing several of Weston's best compositions: the title track, "Earth Birth", "Babe's Blues", and others.
In the 1960s, Weston's music prominently incorporated African elements, as shown on the large-scale suite Uhuru Afrika (1960, with the participation of poet Langston Hughes) and Highlife (full title: Music from the New African Nations featuring the Highlife), the latter recorded in 1963, two years after Weston traveled for the first time to Africa, as part of a U.S. cultural delegation to Lagos, Nigeria. On both these albums he teamed up with the arranger Melba Liston. Uhuru Afrika, or Freedom Africa, is considered a historic landmark album that celebrates several new African countries obtaining their Independence.
In addition, during these years his band often featured the tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin. Weston covered the Nigerian Bobby Benson's piece "Niger Mambo", which included Caribbean and jazz elements within a Highlife style, and has recorded this number many times throughout his career.
In 1967 Weston traveled throughout Africa with a U.S. cultural delegation. The last stop of the tour was Morocco, where he decided to settle, running his African Rhythms Club in Tangier for five years, from 1967 to 1972. He has said, "We had everything in there from Chicago blues singers to singers from the Congo…. The whole idea was to trace African people wherever we are and what we do with music."
In 1972 he produced Blue Moses for the CTI Records, a best-selling record on which he plays electric keyboard. As he explained in a July 2018 interview, "We were still living in Tangier, so my son and I came from Tangier to do the recording, but when I got there, Creed Taylor said his formula is electric piano. I was not happy with that, but it was my only hit record. People loved it." In the summer of 1975, he played at the Festival of Tabarka in Tunisia, North Africa (later known as the Tabarka Jazz Festival), accompanied by his son Azzedin Weston on percussion, with other notable acts including Dizzy Gillespie.
For a long stretch Weston recorded infrequently on smaller record labels. He also made a two-CD recording The Spirits of Our Ancestors (recorded 1991; released 1992), which featured arrangements by his long-time collaborator Melba Liston. The album contained new, expanded versions of many of his well-known pieces and featured an ensemble including some African musicians, with guests such as Dizzy Gillespie and Pharoah Sanders also contributing. The music director was saxophonist Talib Kibwe (also known as T. K. Blue), who continues in that role to the present day. The Spirits of Our Ancestors has been described as "one of the most imaginative explorations of 'world jazz' ever recorded."
Weston produced a series of albums in a variety of formats: solo, trio, mid-sized groups, and collaborations with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco. His most popular compositions include "Hi-Fly", which he has said was inspired by his experience of being 6' 8" and looking down at the ground, "Little Niles", named for his son, later known as Azzedine, "African Sunrise", "Blue Moses", "The Healers", and "Berkshire Blues". They have frequently been recorded by other prominent musicians.
In 2002 he performed with bassist James Lewis for the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt. During the samw year he with Gnawa musicians at Canterbury Cathedral at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Weston also played at the Kamigamo Shrine in Japan in 2005.
On June 21, 2009, he participated in a memorial at the Jazz Gallery in New York for Ghanaian drummer Kofi Ghanaba, whose composition "Love, the Mystery of…" Weston has used as his theme for some 40 years.
In 2013, Sunnyside released Weston's album The Roots of the Blues, a duo session with tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. On November 17, 2014, as part of the London Jazz Festival, Weston played a duo concert with Harper at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Kevin Le Gendre in his review said the two musicians reached "the kind of advanced conversational intimacy only master players achieve."
In 2015 Weston was artist-in-residence at The New School in New York, participating in a lecture series, performing, and mentoring students.
Weston celebrated his 90th birthday in 2016 with a concert at Carnegie Hall, among other activities, and continues to tour and speak internationally. He performed at the Gnawa Festival in Morocco in April 2016, took part in the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, on June 2, and was among the opening acts at the 50th Montreux Jazz Festival. In July 2016 he was a keynote speaker at the 32nd World Conference of the International Society for Music Education in Glasgow.
An African Nubian Suite (2017) is a recording of a sold-out concert at the Institute of African American Affairs of New York University on April 8, 2012, Easter Sunday, with Cecil Bridgewater, Robert Trowers, Howard Johnson, T. K. Blue, Billy Harper, Alex Blake, Lewis Nash, Candido, Ayodele Maakheru, Lhoussine Bouhamidy, Saliou Souso, Martin Kwaku Obeng, Min Xiao-Fen, Tanpani Demda Cissoko, Neil Clarke and Ayanda Clarke, and the late poet Jayne Cortez. Describing it as an "epic work", the Black Grooves reviewer wrote that The African Nubian Suite "traces the history of the human race through music, with a narration by inspirational speaker Wayne B. Chandler, and introductions and stories by Weston in his role as griot…. Stressing the unity of humankind, Weston incorporates music that 'stretches across millennia'—from the Nubian region along the Nile Delta, to the holy city of Touba in Senegal, to China's Shang Dynasty, as well as African folk music and African American blues…. In these troubling times when our nation is divided by politics, race and religion, Weston uses The African Nubian Suite as a vehicle to remind us of our common heritage: 'We all come from the same place – we all come from Africa.' As eloquently stated by Robin D.G. Kelley in the liner notes: 'There are no superior or inferior races, no hierarchies of culture, no barbarians at the gate. Instead, Africa—its music, land, people, spirituality—tie us all together as a planet.'"
Randy Weston died at his home in Brooklyn on the morning of September 1, 2018.
In October 2010, Duke University Press published African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston, "composed by Randy Weston, arranged by Willard Jenkins". It was hailed as "an important addition to the jazz historiography and a long anticipated read for fans of this giant of African American music, aka jazz." Reviewer Larry Reni Thomas wrote: "Randy Weston’s long-anticipated, much-talked-about, consciousness-raising, African-centered autobiography, African Rhythms, is a serious breath of fresh air and is a much-needed antidote in this world of mediocre musicians, and men. He takes the reader on a wonderful, exciting journey from America to Africa and back with the ease of a person who loved every minute of it. The book is hard to put down and is an engaging, pleasing literary work that is worthy of being required reading in any history or literature school course."
In 2015–16, Weston's archives were acquired by the Jazz Research Initiative in collaboration with the Hutchins Center, Loeb Music Library, the Harvard College Library, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Randy Weston Collection comprises hundreds of manuscripts, scores, videos, films, photographs, and more than 1,000 tape recordings, and among its highlights are correspondence with Langston Hughes and Alvin Ailey; photographs with Dizzy Gillespie, Pharoah Sanders, Muhammad Ali, and Cornel West; and records of his African Rhythms Club in Tangier, Morocco, from 1967 to 1972.
Awards and honors
1997: Order of Arts and Letters, France
1999: Swing Journal Award, Japan
2000: Black Star Award, Arts Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana
2001: NEA Jazz Master
2006: Honorary degree, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
2009: Giants of Jazz concert in his honor with Monty Alexander, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, Barry Harris, Mulgrew Miller and Billy Taylor.
2011: Guggenheim Fellowship award.
2011: Honored by King Mohammed VI of Morocco for "lifelong engagement with Morocco and deep commitment to bringing Morocco's Gnaoua music tradition to the attention of the Western world"
2011: Honored by Congressional Black Caucus Foundation at the Jazz Issue Forum and Concert during the 40th Annual Legislative Conference
2012: Honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Colby College
2013: Honorary degree, New England Conservatory of Music
2014: Doris Duke Artist Award
2014: JJA Jazz Award, Trio or Duo of the Year: Randy Weston - Billy Harper
2015: JJA Jazz Award, Lifetime Achievement in Jazz
2016: Malcolm X Black Unity award, National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO) with the International African Arts Festival (IAAF)
2016: DownBeat Hall of Fame.
2016: United States Artists Fellowship Award
2017: National Jazz Museum in Harlem Legends Award
Weston has traveled throughout Africa and lived in Morocco, and the musics of these nations have influenced his work significantly. He has performed with Moroccan gnawa musicians, touring with them in 2006.
"When Randy Weston plays, a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet, emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea." ~Langston Hughes
No musician has been more devoted to exploring the connection between Afro-American classical music (jazz) and the ancestral spirits and rhythms of the African continent than Randy Weston. The Brooklyn-born pianist began his professional career nearly 55 years ago as part of the bebop revolution in New York, playing with Art Blakey, among others, in a manner that synthesized the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell with those of his earlier influences: Count Basie, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington, and developing a personal approach to the piano once poetically described by Langston Hughes as “a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea.”
Weston insists that, even though he is often credited with bringing the music of Africa to the fore in jazz, it was simply a natural evolution in the music’s continuum. “People like Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington, the great artists of the ‘20s, William Grant Stills, people like that did a lot of composition about Africa. They knew the connection; so it’s not something brand new, it was just something that got cut off. Without the influence of those before me, there wouldn’t have been any Randy Weston. If I didn’t spend those years hanging out with Thelonious and listening to Ellington, hearing Art Tatum, hearing the boogie woogie giants, all that rich, rich music, there wouldn’t be a Randy Weston. From our masters, our elders, our ancestors, we learn how to play this music and learn its possibilities, so without them there wouldn’t be me. I’m just simply standing on the shoulders of the great people who came before me.”
Weston has been instrumental in bringing the music of his American ancestors back to Africa and merging it with the continent’s rhythms and traditions. “I don’t present it to them as jazz, I present it to them as this is African classical music in America. You may not recognize your music after it crossed the Atlantic, I say,” he laughs, “but we’re going to bring it back to you and let you hear what happened when we left and came into contact with other cultures, with other kinds of instruments and created this music. So that’s what I tell them. This is your music, you just may not recognize it, but it’s your music. I’ve been very fortunate to have been very successful in Africa. I perform in about 18 countries and the people have been really appreciative of what we do. I always have a kind of basic African rhythm underneath in my music so the people can identify with it.”
That underlying rhythm is prominent in Weston’s working group, the African Rhythms Quintet, a distinctive unit in jazz that eschews the American trap drum kit, substituting the multi-percussion of hand drummer Neil Clarke in its place. The group’s unique rhythmic sound is further enhanced by the idiosyncratic style of Alex Blake’s often-strummed bass, the very personal vocalized sounds of New Orleans-born trombonist Benny Powell and the exotic voice of alto saxophonist/flutist Talib Kibwe and/or Texas tenor Billy Harper. “We are more of a family,” the patriarchal pianist proudly proclaims. “We’ve been together a number of years and there’s a lot of respect and love between us and a lot of respect for our ancestors and what came before us. We play music, but we try to understand a little bit more about African civilization, in music, in poetry, in architecture, in philosophy. Things we usually don’t get in school, so we’ll give each other books. They’re not only great musicians, they’re also very much interested in our culture, so we have a great time together.”
Weston’s recent CD Spirit! The Power of Music (Sunnyside, 2003) unites the band with the Gnawa musicians of Marrakesh and Gnawa musicians of Tangier in a synthesis of African and American music, in the tradition of his earlier recordings Uhuru Africa, Bantu, Tanjah Blue Moses and African Cookbook. Weston’s close association with the Gnawa people goes back to the years he lived in Morocco and he has been deeply influenced by their culture. “Gnawa represents the strength and spirituality of African culture because of their history of being taken as slaves and soldiers, crossing the Sahara Desert and settling in Morocco. They’ve created a very powerful spiritual music, just like African Americans have in this country, because the Creator is extremely important in traditional societies. So with the Gnawan people I’ve experienced some incredible music. They have communication with nature, with the Creator. They play games in music, they do rituals in music, they eat fire in music, they tell history in music and they dance and tell jokes and do everything with music and it’s wonderful for us because we are experiencing a tradition that is thousands and thousands of years old.”
The disc documents a year 2000 concert in which Weston is reunited with the group with whom he first recorded eight years before, on the Verve album The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church. The moving music is transcendentally spiritual and indicative of the leader’s power to obliterate artificial barriers erected by a categorization-craving industry and bring together not just musicians but the people who listen to them. “It was a very special evening,” says the pianist, whose six foot seven stature and dignified demeanor bring a regal ceremonial air to all of his performances, “because (though not heard on the CD) Babatunde Olatunji with his group opened up the concert and after that it was ourselves and then the Gnawan people. What was so wonderful was that we had these three religions, Christianity, Islam and Yoruba, in music and the church was just packed with people. It was so spiritual, all this wonderful music together. So it was quite, quite the evening. One I’ll never forget.”
Randy Weston: African Rhythms : By Russ Musto, All About Jazz
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.
Octojazzarian : Randy Weston
With a performance career spanning 60 years, Weston is one of the world's foremost pianists and composers, a true innovator and visionary.Encompassing the vast rhythmic heritage of Africa, his globally influenced music continues to inform and inspire.
"Weston has the biggest sound of any jazz pianist since Ellington and Monk, as well as the richest, most inventive beat," states jazz critic Stanley Crouch, "but his art is more than projection and time; it's the result of a studious and inspired intelligence…an intelligence that is creating a fresh synthesis of African elements with jazz technique".
Some of Weston’s best known compositions include "Hi-Fly," "Little Niles," "Berkshire Blues," "African Sunrise," "The Healers," "Blue Moses," and "African Cookbook." With over 40 CDs in his discography and a long list of accolades and awards, Weston continues to tour internationally. This past November he appeared in Salzburg, Austria; Szeged, Hungary; and Fès, Morocco. In March 2009 he performs in Paris, France.
Performing Diaspora : Randy Weston 2009
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