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Down Beat Magazine
February 2005
By  Willard Jenkins
Freeing His Roots - 2010  more >>


FREEING HIS ROOTS

 

The making of Randy Weston’s landmark opus "Uhuru Afrika"      | real | wm |  
 

Weston titled the work Uhuru Afrika, or Freedom Africa, in celebration of several new African nations gaining their independence. This provided the suite with historic thrust. Weston engaged Liston to arrange his opus.

In preparation, Weston gathered other vital resources. Earlier in the '50s he had connected with Marshall Stearns in the Berkshires, where Weston worked as a cook at Windsor Mountain resort. At the nearby Music Inn Stearns helmed an unusual series of intellectual programs and history of jazz sessions. Weston was struck by Stearns' African roots approach to jazz history. The historian/educator soon recruited the pianist to act as stylistic demonstrator for his jazz history presentations. Through Steams' programs Weston connected with numerous black intellectuals and artists. Among these were Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who forged a friendship with Weston.

In '58, as Weston mapped Uhuru Afrika, he sought Hughes' participation, asking him to write a freedom poem. Hughes' poem became the invocation. He also asked Hughes to write lyrics for the song "African Lady," the second movement. "Langston's poem set a tone for that recording session," Weston said. "We were talking about freedom of a continent that has been invaded, its children taken away, the continent of the creation of humanity, and Langston felt it, he knew it."

Weston next sought to translate Hughes' freedom poem into an African language with continental commonality. Wondering how this was possible in a continent of more than 900 different dialects, Weston went to the United Nations. "I was anxious to use an African language because I was quite upset by the Tarzan movies and how they depicted Africans," he said. "I spent time at the United Nations and met several African ambassadors and asked them what language I should choose to represent the whole continent; they said Kiswahili."

The 6'7" Weston was quite a vision striding the U.N. corridors, where he encountered Tuntemeke Sanga of Tanganyika (pre-colonial Tanzania). Weston's friend Richard Jennings, now retired from U.N. service, who along with trumpeter Bill Dixon founded the U.N. Jazz Society, identifies Sanga as a decolonization emissary. "[Sanga] was a petitioner," Jennings said. "During that time of decolonization, different groups and individuals would come in and speak to the [U.N.] trusteeship counsel on decolonization, [Sanga] was one of those petitioners speaking to why his country should be decolonized."

"Sanga was a professor of Kiswahili, so he translated Hughes' freedom poem [into Kiswahili]," Weston said. "We wanted Brock Peters to do the narration of the opening freedom poem, but Tuntemeke Sanga's voice was so wonderful, and his Swahili so perfect, that we used him on the recording."

Weston struggled to find a record company willing to record his magnum opus. These Hands and Jazz A La Bohemia, recorded in March and October 1956 respectively, concluded Weston's Riverside deal. He cut Little Niles for United Artists in October '58.

"I had signed a three-year contract with United Artists, but they weren't ready for Uhuru Afrika," Weston said. "They said, `If you do a popular Broadway show, then we'll let you do Uhuru,' so I went for it."

He settled on the music from Destry Rides Again. Despite Weston's indifferent attitude toward the music, the results are distinctive. The trombones included Bennie Green, Slide Hampton, Frank Rehak and Liston, who did the arrangements. Weston fondly recalls one of Destry's saving graces: It was his lone recording with drummer Elvin Jones.

United Artists balked at recording Uhuru, but Weston found an ally in his label quest: Sarah Vaughan's husband and manager, C.B. Atkins. "I didn't have a big name, I was just playing trio at the time," Weston said. "I told C.B. Atkins my idea, and he went to Roulette Records and talked Morris Levy into it."

In writing the four movements of Uhuru Afrika, Weston beckoned the ancestors. "My cultural memory is of the black church, of going to the calypso dances, dancing to people like the Duke of Iron, of going to the Palladium and hearing the Latin music, and probably even going back further to before I was born," Weston said. "I collected my spirits, asked for prayers from the ancestors and tried to create what came out of me."

Weston consulted earthly sources for inspiration as well. "I spent time in the Berkshires with the African choreographer Osadali Duforum," he said. "He inspired me to collect African traditional music; it was a natural process of listening, but not necessarily listening with your ears, almost like listening with your spirit. When I wrote Uhuru Afrika, it just came out of a magical, supernatural process."

The work is in four movements. "Uhuru Kwanza" signifies African people determining their own destiny. "African Lady" was dedicated to the African woman; and "Bantu" signified a coming together. The final movement, "Kucheza Blues," is for when all of Africa gains its independence, leading to a tremendous global party. Liston wrote the arrangements, but even with all her creative powers, parts were still being copied the day of the first date. "At my house the day before the recording, guys were writing parts all night long," Weston remembered. "The poor copyist's ankles were completely swollen, we had to carry him down two flights of stairs in a chair, put him in a cab and take him to the studio."

On Nov. 16, 1960, the recording began at Bell Sound in Manhattan. Producer Michael Cuscuna, who has twice reissued Uhuru Afrika, described Bell as "a gigantic room," possessing no particular magic. Awaiting those charts was an amazing assemblage of musicians, painstakingly selected. "The key people were Melba's associates from her big band days, saxophonist-clarinetist Budd Johnson and trombonist Quentin Jackson," Weston said. "When we'd do a big band date, Melba picked the foundation people. We added Gigi Gryce, Sahib Shihab, Cecil Payne, Jerome Richardson and Yusef Lateef on reeds and flutes; Julius Watkins on French horn; Clark Terry, Benny Bailey, Richard Williams and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and flugelhorn; Les Spann on flute and guitar; and Kenny Burrell on guitar."

Africa is civilization's. heartbeat, so the rhythm section was of utmost consideration. "We wanted a rhythm section that showed how all drums come from the African drum," Weston said. "Babatunde Olatunji played African drum and percussion; Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba expressed the African drum via Cuba; Max Roach played marimba; Charli Persip and G.T. Hogan played jazz drums; and we had two basses, George Duvivier and Ron Carter."

Surviving musicians don't recall arriving to the session with many preconceived clues about the cultural significance of the session. "Randy had talked about what he was going to do, but basically I had no idea until we got to the studio," Persip said.

Once he arrived and spied the prodigious group of percussionists on the date, Persip's musical collegiality took over. "I listened to the other drummers, and I played with them. I tried to blend in with them and at the same time play my part, accompanying the ensemble."

"When you hear all those drummers [in the intro], it's a building process; first is the African thumb piano, the original piano," Weston said. "Then I'm playing the jaw of the donkey percussion instrument. After that comes Armando Peraza on bongos, then Candido, Olatunji and Charli Persip. And then all the drummers play together."

Carter was a new kid on the block, having hit town the previous year. "Uhuru Africa was my first awareness that when you go to a date you don't have any instructions and you should just be prepared for whatever is on the music stand," the bassist said. "It was a surprise to be in the midst of all those guys."

Seeing all those percussionists was rather daunting, as Carter calculated his role. "First I noted the pitch of all those drums. You've got congas and bongos, African drums by 'Tunji. My first concern was if I could find notes to play out of their range, because it takes a hell of a mixing job to get the bass notes out of that mud. By the same token, respecting and honoring George Duvivier's presence, I wanted to see what his approach was going to be when those [drummers] started banging around. Was it going to be like mine, or different in terms of where to play our parts; when the drums lay out, how do we handle the ranges now that we have the space? It was a real lesson in section bass playing, not having played with another bass player in a jazz ensemble before."

To express Hughes' lyrics for "African Lady," Weston engaged two beyond jazz singers, baritone Brock Peters and operatic soprano Martha Flowers. Terry recalled Flowers as "a marvelous singer," with whom he and Liston had worked on Quincy Jones' Free And Easy. Flowers was immediately at ease when she arrived at Bell Sound and spotted Terry and Liston. "When I heard about this music and saw the score, I felt a great sense of dedication to this work. Politically, it made a great musical statement, and that fired me up," Flowers said from her Chapel Hill, N.C., home. "[`African Lady'] wasn't written in a high key where my voice would sound operatic. It was written in a medium key where my voice had a mellow quality that would lend itself to jazz or music that wasn't considered classical music."

Weston was thrilled with the date, "because everybody captured the spirit of Africa. Once,
we needed a certain kind of percussion sound and some guys used Coca-Cola bottles. Everybody contributed their ideas because when I record I like to get the musicians' input. Sometimes they can see or hear things that I can't hear, so I always like to keep it open. There was a tremendous sense of freedom."

Hughes' invocation established a reverent tone. "When they heard the Langston Hughes poem it was quite dramatic, because that was during the period when Africa was either a place to be ashamed of or feared, you were not supposed to identify with Africa," Weston said. "Hearing `Freedom Africa,' they knew that freedom for Africa is freedom for us."

Uhuru Afrika was recorded and released prior to Weston's first trip to Africa in 1961, when he was part of a U.S. cultural delegation that included Hughes, Flowers, Olatunji and others to a festival in Nigeria. In 1963, after a second trip to the continent with artist Elton Fax, Weston teamed up with Liston for the Highlife: Music From The New African Nations (Colpix) record. In 1967, he toured throughout Africa on a State Department trip. The last stop on that tour was Morocco, where he eventually settled during 1967-'72.

Uhuru Afrika has been reissued on vinyl and CD, and last year as part of a Weston Mosaic Select box. These were labors of love for Cuscuna. " I became a Randy Weston completist, and Uhuru Afrika was the hardest to find as a young collector," Cuscuna said. " I was ecstatic when I finally secured a copy. So much music in the '60s used Africa superficially as window dressing, but this was the real deal - an honest, well-written, well-researched fusion of jazz and African music. When I launched the Roulette CD reissue series, I was going to put that one in no matter what."

In 1998, 651 Arts presented Uhuru Afrika in Brooklyn, at the Majestic Theater. Liston and Weston's music director, T.K. Blue, pieced together the original charts, which were in disarray from the arranger's various relocations. Several of the original musicians, including Terry, Payne, Candido and Olatunji, played the reunion. One of the high points of the evening came when Weston wheeled shy Liston--confined to a wheelchair after a 1985 stroke on stage for bows.

As underrated as Weston himself, Uhuru Afrika was a landmark undertaking. Lateef remembered it as "discovery and invention in the esthetics of music, because there were decades of knowledge in the studio. I look at it as an amalgamation of abilities that were exchanging ideas and formulating the outcome of that music. A romance of experience happened at that session."

 

Reprinted with permission Copyright (c) 2006 Down Beat Magazine and Willard Jenkins

 

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