Randy Weston African Rhythms
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The Order of Arts and Letters
for Randy Weston
by French Ambassador Bujon de l'Estang

April 3, 1998
Part of the speech:

As ambassador of France to the United States, I have the pleasure and privilege of welcoming you tonight to this medal ceremony of the order of Arts and Letters honoring four celebrated men of 20th-century music.

First of all, we are bestowing distinctions on three musicians, Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz and Randy Weston who, by their contribution to the music of our times, have considerably enriched and indeed revolutionized an entire musical language. We are also honoring the noted presenter George Wein, a musician in his own right, but also a remarkable producer who has succeeded in giving access to jazz music to huge numbers of people both in the us and in Europe, and particularly in France.

By way of preface to our ceremony and to the champagne celebration which will follow -by the way, Id like to interject that for this special occasion we will be toasting our honorees with a special cuvee of Paul Goerg champagne, called the cuvee "Lionel Hampton"- I should like to speak briefly about the award being given this evening, the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

France has a long history of official government distinctions for exceptional achievement. Well-known to French nationals, but much less heard of outside my country, these decorations, as they are called as a whole, include such societies, or orders, as the National Order of the Legion of Honor, the Order of Academic Palms, and of course the order whose insignia the honorees will receive tonight, the Order of Arts and Letters.

The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 specifically to recognize outstanding artistic work and the cultural influence of great artists and writers in France and throughout the world. Previous to the creation of this order, artists and writers could be officially recognized only through the Legion of Honor -and that in very restricted numbers.

Both foreigners and French nationals can be named to this order, which consists of three ranks -chevalier, officier, commandeur-, and is governed by certain age and promotion restrictions. A coveted award, it is given out twice annually to only a few hundred people worldwide.

...., Now permit me to introduce our third recipient, Randy Weston.
Your story begins in Brooklyn where your father had you study piano with various teachers and encouraged you to listen to jazz recordings. I should mention that at the time such personalities as Max Roach, Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan, and Wynton Kelly all lived in your neighborhood. You became attracted to rhythm and blues and as a youth you played in your father's restaurant which was frequented by numerous musicians such as George Hall and Art Blakey...

Your musical ability was initially recognized in 1954 with your first recording, a duo with the bass player Sam Gill, dedicated to Cole Porter. This record brought you into the public eye and in 1955 the magazine Downbeat named you  "The best new talent on piano."

Through your first meeting with Melba Liston, the American trombonist and arranger, you were introduced to the African musical tradition. From that time on a true passion was born within you which drove you to compose the suite called Uhuru Africa in collaboration with Melba Liston. In 1961, you visited Africa -Nigeria- and discovered African culture, a culture which has remained an integral part of your entire career and one whose champion you became. Acquainting yourself with the customs and ancient traditional music, you went on tour to Africa in 1967.

As a result, you were drawn to Tangier where you founded a cultural center, the African Rhythms club, in an effort to affirm and reposition an often neglected and misunderstood African culture. The veritable osmosis which occurred in the mix of musical experiences and musical colors, and the realization that an entire age-old, rich culture had been thrown aside made you a true pioneer. African music, thanks to the efforts of persons like you, became known to the western world, and to France in particular, which today is so much influenced by these rhythms and chants.

In 1981 in Boston you created the work entitled "Three African Queens", a mature work enriched by your travels. You became a musician without borders, such as Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, and your compositions, as theirs, have become standards.

You were present in the city of Nantes in 1992 during the les anneaux de la memoire, an event whose theme refers to the meeting of the two worlds five centuries ago "and the consequences of human exploitation." a true spokesperson, you also organized concerts with talks on the history of afro-American music and you performed, especially in France, in the company of traditional musicians.

 In the playing of the free gnaoua rhythm, you retraced the existence of the descendants of the brotherhood of black slaves brought from the ancient empire of Sudan and guinea to various Moroccan villages. A true initiation process for you, your experience led us to take note more profoundly of the physical, moral and spiritual trauma of these persons.

You championed the theme of meeting, of acceptance, and of mutual enrichment through your exquisite musical composition. You know the country of France very well, from having stayed there at length beginning in 1974, and your trips to French-speaking countries also brought you closer to French culture. You know how much France believes in upholding the rights of the human being, and your message for humanity was particularly well received there.

Randy Weston, this evening France would like to render homage to your music, to your free spirit and to the universal values that it carries with it.
Randy Weston, au nom du ministre de la culture, je vous fais chevalier dans l'ordre des arts et des lettres,...

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