By Ted Panken
makes grand gestures behind the piano, he envelops the keyboard with his
and virtuosi authority. And when he speaks, he makes, big statements :
"Most of the music of the Western Hemisphere comes out of African
For close to half a century, Weston has paid homage to: his ancestors here
and abroad, illuminating African narratives and philosophy from a
perspective drenched in jazz. "I try to tell stories through music,
stories about our heritage, so people can get a deeper understanding of
who we are," says Weston, a giant in physical form and spiritual weight, a
humble scholar griot of magisterial bearing.
At 72, the 6-foot-7-inch Weston looks like he'd be equally at home
invoking musical spirits and teaching basketball's power forwards the
finer points of driving the baseline. But Weston leaves, the scoring to
the experts namely, arranger
Melba Liston and chooses to focus his energies on composing,
performing, recording and deep, informed reflection.
Weston works closely with
Melba Liston, a longtime friend and collaborator responsible for the
evocative sounds of his large ensembles.
Melba Liston arranged all of the material for the March recording of
Weston's new CD, Khepera,
a suite dedicated to Cheikh Anta Diop, progenitor of the
thesis that world civilization has its origins in Africa.,
Weston performs "African Sunrise," another
Melba Liston arrangement, in September at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Weston thrives on big projects of historic proportions. He enjoys the
challenge of playing multiple concerts in the same town; he rose to one
such occasion as artist-in-residence at the 1995 Montreal Jazz Festival,
where he appeared with a different group each night over five days. He
gathers hordes of musicians together to perform his works, like he did
this March for three nights at the Kennedy Center with the dynastic Master
Gnawa Musicians from Morocco -Weston's creative muses of the last 30 years
- plus his
quintet. He recently received a commission from the Doris Duke
Foundation to compose music for the singular choreographer Martha Clarke
to be performed in the year 2000.
The scope of Weston's 1998 activities mirrors the progression of his
roots-based, forward-thinking esthetic "seat I do is only an extension of
the '20s and '30s, when due to segregation, it was a total black community
of music and culture," he notes. "You didn't go the theater to listen to
jazz. You listened to the whole black experience. A show might have the
Duke Ellington big band, tap dancers, comedians, singers, vocal quartets.
I cannot emphasize how important that was for me. My dad always told me,
'Africa is the past, the present and the future.' Which means you have to
understand what your ancestors did. From my ancestors comes the truth.
Music cannot lie."
Weston's ancestral piano tree is comprehensive; his comments reveal much
about the antecedents of his sound. An orchestral approach to the 88 keys
is fundamental to his concept reflecting an enduring passion for Art Tatum
("the master of masters") and other early piano heroes like Willie "the
Lion" Smith, Luckey Roberts and Nat Cole-manifested in a dangerous left
hand. He notes that Tatum incorporated the harmonic extensions that became
integral within jazz after Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious
Monk. 'Tatum was completely advanced in the '20s and '30s," Weston
observes. "Most of the musicians who are credited with creating modern
music listened to him. You can hear everybody when you hear Art
"After Tatum," he continues, "it's Monk and Ellington." Their stark
intervals and evocative timbres are the first principles of Weston's
distinctive vocabulary. He phrases with a singular beat, dancing through
idiomatic African rhythmic figures with exquisite timing, inflecting lines
with touch ranging from hammer to caress. Like his mentors, he knows how
to transform notes and sounds into memorable melodies that tell compelling
tales, whether the vehicle is an elegant standard-form '50s classic with
definite changes and clear rhythms like "Hi-Fly," "little Niles" and
"Berkshire Blues," or a later African-influenced composition painting
vivid pictures with more spatial, indefinite harmonies, like "In Memory
Of," "Blue Moses" and "Chalabati Blues."
"I think Randy has reached a place where ideas transcend notes," his
Talib Kibwe, marvels. "Everything he does musically is an expression
of his life. We've done some tunes, even recently, where I'll ask
him, 'Man, what changes did you play there?' He'll have to look at the
piano to see what he's doing. It will be a very heavy altered chord, a
chord that's very abstract with different inversions-flat fives and nines
and sharp 11ís. But he's so beyond looking at music that way, it's just a
sound to him.
There's a whole story behind the tunes. See, a lot of guys give you the
music, run it down, and show you letter 'A' with some 16th-note triplets.
It's analytical. Randy never does that. He'll show me a tune, and might
say, 'OK this piece is called "Blue In Tunisia." This was my experience
when I went to Tunisia in 1963.' He'll talk about a piece of music from
that kind of perspective."
The teenage Weston first heard Monk on 52nd Street in a band led by
Coleman Hawkins, his earliest idol. "I was looking for something on
the piano anyhow," he recalls. "I grew up in Brooklyn with the great
bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, whose father was Sudanese. He also played the
oud, and when we were kids he'd take me to Atlantic Avenue in downtown
Brooklyn to hear musicians play the instruments of North Africa and the
Middle East, instruments where you could play eighth tones, in between the
notes. I would try to play like that on the piano, but Monk was already
doing it. Monk brought the mystery back into music, a kind of magic, a way
of saying you can play music beautiful by going this way. Music became
"Ellington is the master. Though I listened to Duke's orchestra from the
beginning, I didn't hear his piano much until later years. Like Monk, he
was always creating new, wonderful sounds from the piano. His
introductions, the things he could do in four to eight bars to bring in
the band, were incredible. Nat 'King' Cole for me was utter beauty. His
touch was fantastic, every note a jewel. And Count Basie was my very first
influence, a master of space and a master of the blues, which is the
essence of our music."
Gillespie showed Weston, already intimate with calypso, how to articulate
stride piano and bebop tropes in African language. "Dizzy brought back the
drum," says Weston. 'The hand drum was outlawed here, which is one reason
why I think we put the drums into pianos and trumpets and trombones and
the English language. Hearing Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie's Orchestra
in 1947 turned me around, and I've been working with hand drums ever
since. Chano was Cuban, but you could hear pure Africa in his drum sound.
It was a marriage, a complete circle. Dizzy used to come to Brooklyn a
lot, and I had an opportunity to see him and listen to him. I learned so
much. Dizzy was writing music about the ancient African empires, but he
was such a great comedian that people didn't realize what he was doing."
Indirectly, Gillespie's responsible for Weston's fruitful partnership with
Liston. "I went to hear Dizzy's orchestra at Birdland one night, and I saw
Melba Liston playing trombone," he remembers. "I'd never
seen a woman play a trombone before. She had an incredible, big sound,
plus Dizzy featured one of her arrangements, 'My Reverie.' It was so deep
and beautiful that when the band came off the bandstand I decided I wanted
to say hello. I guess it was meant to be. When we collaborate, I can play
a particular melody on the piano or give her a cassette, explain the
stories, say which instrument I may want to feature, then she's got it.
She can write something after that melody that sounds just like I wrote
it. She is able to get inside what I want to do, very original, very
fresh." Weston began playing professionally in 1949, making a career of
his avocation. Trying to escape a New York atmosphere increasingly
devastated by heroin, he spent the following summer cooking breakfast and
cleaning rooms at a Berkshires resort. Fortuitously, he met the
path-breaking jazz historian Marshall Stearns, who was giving lectures on
jazz history. 'Marshall was the first critic I encountered who started out
in West Africa rather than New Orleans,' Weston recalls. 'We became
close, and he encouraged me to perform the history of jazz with him. He
was a true jazz scholar with a pan-African concept-true in the sense that
he did his homework. I stayed a few extra weeks at the end of that first
summer when it was very quiet, sat at the piano, and that's when I
composed 'Pam's Waltz' and 'Little Niles.' Throughout the '50s, I had a
tremendous flow of musical ideas."
Already predisposed to African perspectives from his Garveyite father's
admonitions, Weston in the '50s took advantage of a connection with
friends who worked at the United Nations and met visiting officials from
different African nations. "I'd always ask about the music," Weston
remembers. "They might give me a tape or a book, and I slowly started to
learn. That was the inspiration for
Uhuru Africa. My father always told me to be around the best minds I
could find, no matter what the subject matter. I found people who could
construct a serious history of who we are and what we come from. People
like Dr. Willis James, who specialized in field hollers. From that direct
information, I was able to extract the similarities in what we do. There's
always the emphasis on the differences in us, but I'm looking for the
That credo was Weston's mantra on two apotheotic 10-day trips to Lagos,
Nigeria, in 1961 and 1963, during which he discovered highlife music, met
Nigerian drummer-guitarist club-owner Bobby Benson and played with young
West African musicians, including Fela Ransome Kuti, then a trumpeter.
(Weston celebrated the sojourn on 1963's
Highlife and the self-produced 1964 classic
African Cookbook.) In 1967, the State Department sent Weston's
sextet, including drummer Ed Blackwell, to Africa for a three-month tour
that turned into a six year residence in Tangier, Morocco, where Weston
ran his own club, African Rhythms.
"I went on a spiritual trip back home,' Weston recalls. "I wanted to hear
where I came from, why I play like I play, why we play music like we do.
We went to about 18 countries, and wherever we went we asked to experience
the traditional music of the people. Hearing the traditional music was
like hearing jazz and blues and the black church all at the same time. All
the music in Africa has a powerful spiritual base, coming from a respect
for nature, for the Creator, with deep meanings and serious laws. There's
no separation between the religious and the secular. There's a rhythm for
everything that happens in fife; every rhythm tells a story. Despite
slavery, despite leaving the continent for a few hundred years, we're
still able to create other kinds of music in other environments because of
that strong spiritual base, which is Mother Africa.'
Weaving stories within the framework of those diasporic cultural
transformations is the heart of Weston's art, never more so than on
Khepera. It took shape in the afterglow of Weston's 1985 Dakar
encounter with Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese historian / philosopher /
linguist / chemist whose investigations into the African origins of
ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian civilizations and the influence of Egypt on
world culture had inspired Weston for years.
Khepera is kind of mystical, kind of magical," he muses. 'I don't know
why it happened at this particular time. Maybe from meeting Cheikh Anta's
family in Paris, and more people who knew him. He was a brilliant, warm,
wonderful man. When I phoned and asked if I could visit, he answered, 'I
know your music; come by and see me.' I was in total shock! I met
him at his laboratory the next morning, and he spent an hour explaining
his ideas. I had already read his books, so I was attracted to the man
before I met him, but this sealed it".
You could say Weston's compositions and piano explorations have become
meta-musical metaphors of a world view. That's true," he says. "And I
understand my role better, I think.
After being in Africa, around traditional people like Gnawa people. I've
absorbed a certain amount of African spirituality into the music, and
stopped turning out a lot of things. I became more involved with trying to
learn more, trying to play a certain way which I still haven't found."
When Weston extols Africa, to paraphrase Valerie Wilmer, it's as serious
as his life. "Randy's musical side is one half of it, his spiritual side
is the other half, and both halves are inseparable," says
Benny Powell, Weston's trombonist for 15 years. "I think he's a brave
man to stick by his convictions. He doesn't go by what's popular-he never
did. His many years in Africa have changed his music. In European music,
the rhythm supports the melody, but in African music the rhythm is
predominant. Sometimes the Gnawa have been playing rhythms, and I've said
to myself, 'Now, what is he going to put with that and make it come out
tight?' In a few minutes, Randy's playing the perfect stuff. As he once
said to me, 'B.P., I'm just trying to put the magic back.'"
Every Weston performance-whether in a nightclub, an elementary school
auditorium, the Kennedy Center-addresses that element of ritual that
imparts magic force to music. 'In Africa, traditional people will tell you
that you've been chosen by the ancestors,' he explains. "In the West we
tend to emphasize how great we are, this or that one is a great musician.
But in Africa, playing well is only one part of the story. You have to be
respected by the community, to be clean in mind and spirit if you play
music, you may have to try to cure someone, and if you don't play the
right note, if your heart is not in the right place, you can injure that
person. African music is as old as Africa, which preceded Europe and
Western civilization. The music began there, and it began as a way of
thanking the Creator for the food, the drink, the tree that they cut down
to make the drum out of.
It takes it on another level.'
Reprinted with permission Copyright (c) 2006
Magazine and Ted Panken