Recorded in Monterey, California. The Monterey Jazz Festival of 1966. "I
think this is the best band I've ever had. We were together almost 3
years. It was Booker Ervin on tenor saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet;
Bill Wood was on bass; Lenny McBrowne on drums, and Big Black on congas.
It was very difficult for us to be recorded because it was a very strong
African message. I'm talking about around maybe 1963, '64, '65 during that
period. So it was hard for us to get gigs, you know. And so finally, our
last appearance together was at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the same night
as Duke Ellington, the same night as Carmen McRae. So you know we had to
play strong. And it was an incredible band because number one, we had
Booker Ervin. Booker Ervin, for me, was on the same level as John
Coltrane. He was a completely original saxophonist. I don't know anybody
who played like Booker. But Booker, he was very sensitive, very quiet-not
the sort of guy to push himself or talk about himself. You know what
happens with Black artists-they (the industry) can never let too many come
out at the same time. There was a big emphasis on Sonny Rollins and John
Coltrane. And everybody was into Coltrane but meanwhile Booker Ervin was
kind of left out. He was a master saxophonist, and the song I wrote for my
mother, Portrait of Vivian, only he could play it; nobody else could play
In fact, the African Cookbook, which I composed back in the early 60's,
was partly named after Booker because we (musicians) used to call him
"Book," and we would say, "Cook, Book." Sometimes when he was playing we'd
shout, "Cook, Book, cook." And the melody of African Cookbook was based
upon Booker Ervin's sound, a sound like the north of Africa. He would kind
of take those notes and make them weave hypnotically. So, actually the
African Cookbook was influenced by Booker Ervin. By the way. Ervin was
from Texas and he had the typical big sound from Texas. I don't know why,
but for some reason many great tenor saxophonists come from Texas and they
have all got this big sound. For instance, Billy Harper is from Texas,
Dexter Gordon, Frank Haynes. I could go on and on and on.
Ray Copeland, we went to Boy's High School together. We were in the very
first band that I ever played in as a kid. I was 17 years old, and so was
Ray. Ray became a wonderful musician. He played at the Roxy Theater. He
recorded with Thelonious Monk. We were very close. Our families were
close. We grew up together in Brooklyn and we played in the Berkshires
together along with Booker Ervin. Ray was special because he was really
Brooklyn although he was from Virginia. He was also a very fine arranger.
So on this recording these are Ray Copeland arrangements.
The arrangements are based on my piano style. So Ray was a very important
influence in my life. I was a very important influence in his life, and
when we toured Africa in 1967 he was the musical director of the band. We
toured for 3 months. So Ray was extremely important. a great musician, and
even more so, he was a great teacher. He loved to teach students. He was
also at another institution. But Ray, being so sensitive, those schools
were not very kind to him. They took his methods, they took his way of
teaching, then he had to leave. So it was really a sad example of a great
musician who, finding it hard to get work playing all the time, went into
the universities and then gave everything he had to his students until at
a certain point he was gotten rid of. The next bass player was Bill Wood.
He was from Detroit and he was a very strong bass player, and during this
period we were young; we had the opportunity to spend time rehearsing and
praying together. So he had a very strong sound and we worked on a lot of
African rhythms together.
The drummer was Lenny McBrowne. He is pure, authentic Brooklyn like Ray
Copeland. Lenny McBrowne lived right around the corner from my house on
Lafayette Avenue and Downing Street He was a wonderful drummer. He studied
with Max Roach, and he worked with Kenny Burrell and a lot of other
musicians. So Lenny was a very good drummer and a very supportive drummer.
In fact, we did our first film together on jazz dance going back into the
50's. Lenny and I go back quite a ways.
Big Black -very interesting story about Big Black, because at the
time -I'm talking about 1954 on, especially the early 60's- I was
doing more and more pieces about Africa. I was working with different
percussionists. Montego Joe was one, Chief Bey was another. But, one night
we were playing at Birdland. At that time Birdland was open on Broadway. A
guy named Jimmy Davis -he was involved with an African group in Harlem- he
came up to me. He said, "Randy, I have a very great drummer sitting with
me. Can he come in and play with you?" I said, "What's his name?" He said,
"Big Black." I said, "Big Black! That's a strong name!" So I said, "Yeah,
okay." Sometimes with musicians you never know. Sometimes a guy will come
in and sit in and play, and he'll be great; and sometimes he'll be
horrible. So you always have to feel. So Big Black came in and he set up
his drums. The program was arranged in such a way that I was getting ready
to play a ballad at that time and he never forgot that. Anyway, I heard
him and realized that he was a great talent, plus he had a different way
of playing the drums, because almost everybody that I knew of -except
Chief Bey -was playing the drums with the Latin concept. The skin on the
drum is very tight, you know, very strong like Tito Puente, and Machito,
which is African but especially Latin. The Latin element is stronger. Big
Black had like a whole African concept. So when he joined the group we had
a perfect group musically speaking. And at that time I wasn't playing that
much piano. I didn't have that much confidence as a pianist. I was
concentrating more on my compositions. I had such great musicians with me
I didn't play very much, which I used to be criticized for. If you listen
to my early recordings with my groups, you don't hear me playing much. I
was so knocked out to have those guys playing my music that I never played
that much, you see?
So this sextet was very special, and today, 1993, its even more special,
because we were one of the first to project a really strong African
message with our music.
My influences certainly were Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie when he had
Chano Pozo, a Black Cuban. Chano Pozo was the greatest drummer in Cuba.
When Dizzy had Chano play with that big orchestra playing bebop and modern
music-when I heard the mixture of the two -I realized that was the way I
wanted to go.
We played local clubs and we also were involved in the "History of Jazz"!
We were the first ones to take the "History of jazz" not only into the
college circuit, which we did in the 50's (before Big Black joined) but in
the early 60's we did concerts in the schools.
What I did was this. I took my briefcase and my tie and my suit and I went
to the Board of Education in Brooklyn. I saw three ladies. One was a
Jewish Lady, one was a Hispanic lady, one was an African-American lady. I
sold them on this program. I told them that this is a program where we
bring the "History of Jazz" into the school system, we play for the kids,
45 minutes. It breaks some of the monotony of school. We gave them a
history of Africa. We gave them a history of jazz. What we would do was we
would start with African rhythms, then we would go to the Caribbean, then
the Black church, then we would do "The Saints Go Marchin' In" and we
would do a whole history of the music for the kids. The kids really would
get involved. So all three of these ladies agreed. They said, "Its a great
program." We went to Local 802. We got them to put up a certain amount of
money. Ray Bryant was very close with a brother named Harley Russell, who
was vice-president of Pepsi-Cola. At that time, he was the only Black
vice-president of Pepsi-Cola. We went to him and we got Pepsi-Cola to put
up money. Well, we ended up going 40 concerts in the elementary school
system. Sometimes we would do concerts at 7 in the morning, 8 a.m. or 9
a.m. And Ray Bryant had a group. I had my group. Nadir Kamar had another
group. Finally, Pepsi decided on just two, which was my group and Ray
Bryant's. I think we had the strongest. Ray Bryant did his history because
he had very strong blues and gospel roots. I did my history taking the
African route, you know. And it was really wonderful. As far as pay was
concerned, we just made union scale. We didn't make very much money. But
we got to these kids. For example, we would demonstrate the 1920's blues
because the blues is the whole essence of our music. So we would do a song
by Ma Rainey; she was like the mother of the blues. So Big Black would
sing "C.C. Rider," for example.
Unfortunately, Pepsi-Cola went on strike that year and we never got funded
since. But we made a tremendous impact because our group was tight, our
group was strong. At the time some people could not accept Africa, you
see. I was writing many songs with African themes and African names. Even
Big Black's name at that time was very controversial, because then there
were people who were still afraid to be called Black.
But it was a very powerful group and it was my best group and today, well,
listening to the music I hear today, I realize that we were just ahead of
our time in what we were doing. But it was really, really great.
This concert at Monterey, it's so important because of Cecil Payne. We go
back so far that Cecil's father had a tailor shop and my father had a
barber shop and we were right next to each other and we shared the same
bathroom as kids. But Cecil was already a fine musician. He was well known
in Brooklyn with Max Roach and some of the other guys, you know. So for
this particular concert at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Booker Ervin had
decided to go on his own. He had decided to form his own group. So in the
sextet we have Cecil Payne playing baritone with Ray Copeland, which we've
done many times. Booker Ervin is listed as "guest star." He knew all the
music, but at that point he had planned to form his own group. So instead
of him being part of the group, it was "Randy Weston sextet featuring
Booker Ervin as guest star." The music he plays and that all the guys
play, you can hear just how beautiful and modern it is.
If anybody were to ask me which of my recordings are the most important,
I'd have to name this one first, because the musicianship was so high we
stayed together for 3 years, and we knew each other. Most of the things
I've done since have been with larger groups. But this was a small group.
And for the fire, the dynamics, and for being together -when you hear the
recording, Big Black and Lenny McBrowne sound like one drummer! That's
from playing together for 3 years. you see. And there's a certain cohesion
that happens when you're together. Also, after this recording the band
broke up. Lenny McBrowne decided to live in California. Booker Ervin went
and got his own group. I came back to New York, and then, shortly after, I
was chosen to do the African tour. This is why this recording is so
1993 By Randy Weston as told
to Rhashidah E. McNeill
Randy Weston's album "The
Spirits of Our Ancestors"
(Verve 511 857-2)
was released to great acclaim in Japan in 1992, and later that year was
awarded the prestigious silver prize at the jazz Disc Awards, sponsored by
"Swing Journal." Randy himself attended the awards ceremony, held in Tokyo
on January 14, 1993. For Randy, his six foot seven inch frame wrapped in a
black tuxedo, this night was undoubtedly one of the proudest moments in
his life. He was immediately besieged with requests for more interviews
than he could possibly ft into his short stay.
I, myself, took him the very next day (January 15) to perform a spur of
the moment piano solo concert at a small hall called "Nonk Tonk" in
Morioka, more than three hours trip by bullet train from Tokyo. Randy had
yet to play an official concert here in Japan. That night, while he was
dazzling the full house with a rendition of Little Niles, a sizeable
earthquake suddenly occurred in the area. The audience seemed to panic for
a brief moment, but Randy did not take his hands away from the keys and
continued his brilliant performance. He simply turned to the audience and
flashed them a smile that said everything was alright, and continued
playing all the more fervently. The audience, as if under a magical spell,
calmed down until the moment Randy finished his performance when they
showered him with applause thunderous enough to bring the building down.
On the return train to Tokyo after the concert, I learned that Randy was
in possession of valuable tapes of his performance recorded live at the
1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, and that they had never been released to the
public. Randy went on to tell me that these historic tapes captured one of
the best performances of the great tenor sax player, Booker Ervin, who
died in 1970. Ervin had played with Charles Mingus from 1958 until 1962,
before becoming a member of Randy's group from 1963 to 1966. However, his
recordings with Randy Weston during this period were few, and these
performances can only be found on Colpix and Randy's own label Bakton.
When Randy called the tapes "historic and valuable," this was no doubt
part of the reason.
Well, here they are, the historic and very valuable live tapes that Randy
was talking about, pressed into the album that you now hold in your hands.
According to my research, the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, the ninth such
festival, was held for three days over the weekend of Friday the 16th
through Sunday the 18th of September. The performers that year included
the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Don Ellis Orchestra. Gil Evans Orchestra, Denny
Zeitlin trio, Carmen McRae, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Randy
Weston's sextet with guest star Booker Ervin, performed on the last of the
three days, Sunday night the 18th. Among the members that played
with Randy that night were longtime musical companions Cecil Payne (born
1922) on baritone sax and Lenny McBrowne (born 1933) on drums, both
natives of Brooklyn, New York. (Randy Weston, himself, was born in
Brooklyn in 1926.) Trumpet and flugelhorn player Ray Copeland (1926-1984)
was born in Norfolk, Virginia. but moved to Brooklyn when he was in his
teens; he, too, played with Randy since the mid-1950s, and was fully part
of the above gang. Bass player Bill Wood, on the other hand, was born in
1937 in North Carolina and gathered acclaim in the Detroit jazz scene in
the latter part of the '50s. He forged his way to New York in 1962, and
soon after caught Randy's eye.
Tenor giant Booker Ervin was a regular member from the very inception of
the sextet Randy formed in 1963. However, his performance with the group
at Monterey was to be his last, as he had announced that he was leaving
the group to go out on his own. To that end, he was billed as a "guest
star" for the festival and they brought back their old friend Cecil Payne,
to complete the sextet. Conga player Big Black (born in Georgia in 1934)
had become a regular member of the group when, in early 1963, he visited
Randy backstage at Birdland in New York where he was playing and was asked
to join the group then and there.
Actually, Randy himself broke up the group, with his line-up that had
continued since 1963, and made the performance at the festival their last.
In January of 1967, Randy planned to travel to fourteen countries in West
Africa for a three month tour as a musical envoy dispatched by the
Department of State of the United States of America. (Randy ended up
actually emigrating to Africa after the tour, basing himself in Tangiers
in Morocco until 1973.) So for Randy, this performance at the West Coasts
historic Monterey Jazz Festival, in fact, tolled a fond farewell for quite
a long time to his musical compatriots as well as to the United States of
Randy Weston's set begins with an Introduction from the Festival's
producer, Jimmy Lyons. First, he calls Randy onto the stage, then one by
one each member of the group is introduced; as each comes on stage and
begins playing his instrument in succession, the opening number The
Call is built up from scratch. Although not a long number, it is a
powerful spiritual, a signal for unity. This, along with all of the
numbers they performed that day, is a Randy Weston original, and it was at
this Monterey Jazz Festival that it was given its first public
performance. (A longer version of this title can be heard on the
Spirits of Our Ancestors" album)
Next comes Afro Black. Its a composition Randy wrote in 1963 for
conga drummer Big Black. In the second half of the piece, Big Black is
prominently featured in a conga solo, and along with his performance on
the last number African Cookbook, it can be considered one of his best
performances. It is a number which also serves as a showcase for the
talents of each member of the group; in the first half, Cecil Payne, Ray
Copeland, and Booker Ervin trade solos, and you can also hear piano and
drum solos as well.
The next number, Little Niles, is a beautiful waltz and probably
the most well known of Randy's compositions. It was written in 1951, not
long after the birth of his first son, Niles (Azzedin Weston,
percussionist, born August 12, 1950), to whom it is dedicated. It features
strong, emotional piano playing by Randy.
Portrait of Vivian is a ballad Randy wrote for his mother Vivian,
who died in 1986 at the age of 83. According to Randy, during this
performance of Portrait of Vivian, Booker Ervin became so overpowered by
emotion, he finished his solo with tears flowing from his eyes. Randy also
asserts that this is indisputably one of Booker's masterpieces.
Berkshire Blues is a blues waltz, the first performance of which
can be found on the
Bakton issue of the October 1964 recording. The Berkshires is an area
of Massachusetts famous for its summer music festivals, but Randy worked
there every year since 1950 as a chef in a resort hotel during the summer
season. By night, he treated the guests to his piano performances and in
doing so, met such important people as Duke Ellington, poet
and producers from Riverside Records. Thus, the Berkshires was, for Randy,
a very important and memorable starting point for his career. Featured in
the Berkshire Blues are solos by Randy and Ray Copeland on flugelhorn.
This title was also recorded again in 1989 and can be found on "Self
Portraits -The Last Day"
(Verve 841 314-2).
Blues for Strayhorn needs little explanation; it is Randy's aural
portrait of Billy Strayhorn, whom Randy became close with through his
family-like association with Duke Ellington. Randy played this tribute at
Strayhorn's funeral in 1967, at a church on 91st Street in New York City.
In the performance of this piece at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Randy
turns the stage over to Cecil Payne after his own gentle piano solo.
The set ends with an exciting, twenty-five minutes rendition of African
Cookbook. The composition is played in 6/8, and a dialogue of
percussion instruments is followed by a succession of solos by the band
members. Randy has said that he wants to help out the spotlight on the
African culture and music that he has admired for so long, and African
Cookbook is a testimony to that desire. He has lived and breathed this
devotion to Africa in his music continuously, and in 1992 was presented
with the Jazz Disc Award, silver prize, for his opus "The
Spirits of Our Ancestors".
With that in mind, I hope you enjoy listening to the brilliant African
1993 Kiyoshi "Boxman" Koyama