By Mike Zwerin
Looking to the Past and
Randy Weston Tends the Family Tree of African Music
PARIS - He is known as ''the gentle giant'' and ''a school unto
himself.'' Randy Weston composed the jazz standards ''Little Niles'' and
''Hi-Fly.'' is style on the piano was somewhere between Art Tatum and
Thelonious Monk and for many years that was enough. His music grew more
African after a 14-country tour of the continent sponsored by the U.S.
State Department in the 1960s. By now, he has become a circuit as well as
a school unto himself.
He often takes the role of educator now, he plays folk and classical music
festivals and he lectures. This year he was invited to a Sufi festival in
Egypt. He went to Aswan to spend some time with the Nubians. ''African
music is an enormous tree,'' he says. ''Our past as well as our future. It
could have been completely destroyed when we were brought to the New World
as slaves. They even took away our drums. And I don't want to talk about
all those negative things going on. But its music is more present in our
lives than ever. Blues, samba, calypso, reggae, jazz, salsa, Africa is
Weston relates to Africa as though it's his hometown. He's a kind of
one-person African fan club. He says he learned early on that there is as
much African spirit in Morocco as in Ghana. ''Africa does not start south
of the Sahara,'' he says. ''Dividing it into black and north Africa is
kind of colonialist. What I love about Africa is its variety.''
Living in Tangier in the late 1960s and early '70s, he got to know Brion
Gysin, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and the rest of the intellectual
circle there. Bowles wrote a song for Weston's daughter, who was going to
school in Tangier; Gysin took him to the musical village of Jajouka in the
Rif Mountains. With a true air of wonderment, he says: ''How interesting
it is to learn about the origins of things.''
At 74, based in the family home in the Fort Green section of Brooklyn,
Weston spends, he says, ''less physical but more spiritual time'' in
Africa nowadays. There are plans to go to Paraguay, Chile and Marseille.
For Weston, who is 6 feet, 7 inches (2 meters) tall, traveling on the road
involves crushed knees on airplanes, bumping his head on hotel room doors
and curling up in beds too short for him. It is not always easy to retain
a high spiritual level. But the Gnawa of Morocco have been relating to
music on a spiritual level ''since the African empires of the 17th
century. And it wasn't easy for them either.''
The ancient African stringed instrument called the hag'houge originated in
ancient Egypt and came across the desert to Morocco with the Gnawa, who
were slaves. Its sound reminded Weston of Jimmy Blanton, who invented the
modern walking bass with Duke Ellington. Last year Weston won the Down
Beat magazine poll in the jazz composer category. He also connects to a
number of African devices, and the result is more than the sum of its
The new album ''Spirit!
The Power of Music'' credits the ''Randy
Weston African Rhythms Quintet'' playing with ''The Gnawa Master
Musicians of Morocco'' from Marrakech and Tangier. Some of them are
professionals, says Weston. ''They tell the history of their people with
music. Some are fisherman, some eat fire. They play for parties, weddings,
funerals, celebrations. All we Western musicians have to do is play good.
That's enough. But not for the Gnawa. They must be clean of mind and clean
of spirit. They are healers. They serve their people.''
He has traveled to concerts abroad with them. He is always amazed by the
strength of their desire for home: ''They want to get on the very next
plane back. After Paul Bowles hadn't left Morocco for something like 40
years, we came together to Europe to do an interview or something, and
when it was over, he said to me: 'Hey, I want to go back to Africa. Get me
out of here.' Africa does that to you.''
Weston is one of a diminishing number of jazz elders who contributed to
the basic shape of the music. He calls himself a ''dinosaur,'' and wonders
where they have all gone. Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, Gerry Mulligan, Al
Grey - he remembers calling on Willie (The Lion) Smith, who lived in
Brooklyn not far from his house, and the piano player Eddie Heyward lived
across the street. These people had very different personalities, but they
also had one very important thing in common: ''Music was the best part of
all of them. Of all of us.''
Musicians sometimes reflect on whether it is possible for an ugly human
being - psychically not physically ugly - to make beautiful music? Is
their music a lie, some sort of hustle? Or does music just make heroes of
us all? Weston has a good answer, but remember that he is the sort of
person who thinks music can save the planet: ''People react to pressure in
different ways. Some are more angry than others about being poor,
disadvantaged or overlooked for one reason or another. But I don't think
it's ever possible to make beautiful music if you are ugly inside. The
beauty must be there somewhere.
''It's very easy to get discouraged. You're going to have to choose
between money and the creative spirit. That's why we called our record
'Spirit! The Power of Music.' Music is spiritual, and its power cuts
across all that other nonsense. All musicians are healers. Music doesn't
Reprinted with permission Copyright (c) 2006