In Memoriam: Randy Weston

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Pianist Randy Weston (1926–2018) performs at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

In 2016, when pianist Randy Weston was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, he said that he viewed his life’s work as a kind of musical recipe.

“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,” he said in an article that initially ran in the August edition of the magazine that year.

It’s a fairly apt summation of the elements that impacted the way Weston—who passed away on Sept. 1 at the age of 92—approached his chosen instrument and the music to which he devoted his life. As with most mottos, though, it doesn’t fully capture the depth of feeling and acuity in his playing, formed from years of study of the jazz and classical canon, as well as his longtime advocation of the African roots in all modern music.

Bassist Christian McBride, who recorded with Weston on the 1997 album Earth Birth, put it this way: “While many naively spoke of the connection between African and African-American heritage, he was someone who actually spent extensive time playing, studying and maintaining a business in Africa—experiencing many cultures there first-hand and bringing those experiences back to America to share with all of the musicians who learned from him. He was one of the only musicians many of us knew who could seamlessly thread the sounds of the Yorubas to bebop.”

Weston’s interest in both the music and history of Africa was ingrained in him at an early age. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, his parents—mom, a domestic worker; dad, a restaurateur originally from Panama—encouraged him to study his ancestral homeland at the same time he was taking piano lessons. And they supported him as he started his music career following high school and a stint in the Army.

Along the way, he found notable mentors, including his neighbor Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and jazz scholar Marshall Stearns. Through their friendship and teachings, Weston began to develop his singular playing style: a fluid, yet reserved, approach that built a percussive, angular flow off of a stride-blues foundation. He could swing with the best of them, but seemed most comfortable blending with the steady polyrhythms of the Gnawa music of Morocco or the spirited throb of highlife from Ghana.

His interest in blending the sounds of modern jazz with African rhythms began in earnest during the late ’50s and flourished on early albums, like 1961’s Uhuru Afrika, which included poetry from Langston Hughes, and 1963’s Music From The New African Nations. Around that time, he also was conscripted to tour the western and northern parts of the African continent by the U.S. State Department. He often would return there during his life, including spending a few years living in Morocco, where he taught and helped run the African Rhythms Cultural Center.

“His association with African musicians and the time he spent traveling the continent gave him a wealth of information,” remembered trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, who performed with Weston on and off during the past four decades. “A lot of other guys did similar kinds of things, but didn’t seem to absorb it the same way. Randy would hear the balafon [a percussion instrument that originated in Mali] and understand that it was as much a piano as the piano was.”

Weston kept up a steady output of recordings and performances throughout his long life, including his most recent work, The African Nubian Suite, a live large-ensemble album captured in 2012 at New York’s Skirball Cultural Center that aimed to trace human evolution back to its African roots in the Nile River delta. He also was playing concerts until very recently, with his last appearance occurring in July in France.

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