Randy Weston: ‘We Have To Go All the Way Back’

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Randy Weston at The New School in New York

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

“I don’t know how all this happened. I kept doing the same thing, telling the truth about our people.” He mentioned his dear friend and musical alter-ego, Melba Liston (1926–1999), who extrapolated the harmonies and voicings of Weston’s compositions for big bands and combos on such classic albums as Uhuru Afrika, Tanjah, The Spirits Of Our Ancestors, Volcano Blues and Khepera. “We had that same quiet pride in grandma and grandpa, always liking to go back. Most people today don’t know to go back. But I tell them the real power is the root of the tree. Not what you see. What’s under the ground. Which is Mother Africa.”

Weston paused, and said, “Also, I don’t know anything!”

It was impossible not to respond, “Well, you know something.”

He leaned forward. “But that something is so small when you’re dealing with the magic of Africa, the magic of Cuba and Haiti,” he said. “How all these Africans were taken away, and went like this”—he placed his large hands in front of him as though manacled—“and did this”—he splayed his long, tapered fingers downwards, addressing an imaginary piano—“and did this”—moved his hands in a silent drumbeat—“and did this”—cupped his hands around his mouth as if blowing into a horn. “How did that happen? When I first went to Nigeria, I said, ‘Do you know how blessed I am? My ancestors, my great-great-grandmother, came over on a boat from Africa, in chains.’ Next week I’m going to Africa in an airplane. I can put myself in that slave ship. I can go back thousands of years. I can see myself before slavery. I can see myself before corruption. I can see my mother a queen. My father a king.’”

Weston never has traced his genealogy to an African location. His father, Frank Edward Weston, born in 1894, descends from Jamaican Maroons who emigrated to Panama for employment during the construction of the Panama Canal. During the 1910s, he moved to Cuba from Balboa, his hometown; in 1924, he sailed from Havana to New York. He settled in Brooklyn, where he met Weston’s mother, Vivian, who recently had migrated from Southeastern Virginia. Weston depicted the milieu of his formative years in the brilliant tune “African Village Bedford Stuyvesant,” which concluded the recent New School concert, framing the harmonic language of Gillespie and Monk with Nigerian highlife beats.

“I’m a combination of my parents,” Weston explained. “My father, with his Panamanian-Jamaican roots—cooking, music, discipline, pride. My mother was quiet power—by example with the black church. They broke up when I was little. I’d be with my father during the week, and learned about Marcus Garvey, about Africa. On the weekend, my mother would take me to the movies, and on Sunday, take me to the black church, the most swinging place of all. We had calypso dances, blues groups on the corner. We could get lessons on piano or trumpet or violin in black institutions. Our parents took us to hear Duke, and Mary Lou Williams with Andy Kirk and Jimmy Lunceford.”

He was 13 when Coleman Hawkins’ iconic “Body And Soul” recording hit the streets. “I bought three copies, and kept two in cellophane,” Weston said. “I tried to play his solo on the piano. He’s the real deal for me. How do you go from Mamie Smith to Monk? I also tried to play like Basie. But only Basie had that sound, that touch, that when-not-to-play. He was also a stride pianist—like Monk was a stride pianist, but they created something different. You take the black church, the calypso, the blues, Duke, Basie, Art Tatum, put them in a pot and stir them up, and add Africa: That’s Randy Weston.”

What also characterizes Weston, in pianist/keyboardist Marc Cary’s view, is an alchemical ability to put tone, texture and rhythm at the service of his stories. “I put Randy with Duke and Earl Hines, coming out of them into some futuristic stuff,” Cary said. “He knows so much piano history, he can play whatever he wants. What he chose to be as a pianist fits what he’s trying to do. He’s not flamboyant. He approaches the instrument to communicate, through the language we know as jazz and beyond. And his left hand is always creating; all his songs have a dope bass line.”

Danilo Pérez, who hosted Weston at the Panama Jazz Festival this year and in 2006, said he admires his “orchestral approach, so connected to the drums and the flow of rhythmic development.” Pérez continued: “There’s always a dance to his playing; he completely controls the motion of the groove. There’s also the gravity of his sound, like nobody else. You can copy one of his chords, but it doesn’t sound the same. Like Monk and Duke, he creates compositions that stay with you, that feed his persona as an improviser, and always sound like a blues song. His music is so inclusive; you feel like you’re in a tribe.”

Unlike most of his generational peers, Weston steered away from bebop. “I loved Bud Powell, but not to play like him,” he said. “That wasn’t my way. I was closer to blues pianists. I adored Nat Cole, too.” After hearing Monk’s recorded debut on a 1944 Hawkins quartet recording, Weston said he “realized that Monk was the direction I wanted to go, and back to Ellington, back to Basie. Lester Young always said, ‘What’s your story?’ That’s the African American tradition. These giants had maybe four bars or eight bars to take a solo, but they had to tell a story, like the phrase Prez played on ‘One O’Clock Jump’ with Basie’s band—or Freddie Webster, when he did ‘You’re Not The Kind’ with Sarah Vaughan—but what a story!”

In 1944, Weston was a recent graduate of Brooklyn’s Boys High School, playing local calypso dances and jump-band gigs. Then he was drafted into the Army. After an eventful tour of duty in which he rose to staff sergeant, he returned to Bed-Stuy in 1947 to take over his father’s first restaurant, Trios, on Sumner Avenue, where he maintained a jukebox filled with everything from Satchmo to Stravinsky.

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