Q & A ALERT: Randy Weston – ‘African music is for the world’


The great jazz pianist talks about racism, discovering Africa and the power of music to change lives


Legendary jazz musician Randy Weston at the piano in 2007 Photo: AFP

Legendary jazz musician Randy Weston at the piano in 2007                                           Photo: AFP

The power of positive thinking is something the great jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston has never had to learn. Now aged 88, he exudes a wise benevolence which sees the good side of everything. Even the memory of the racism that marked his early life is something he recounts mildly, without rancour.

It’s as if Weston is attached by a hidden umbilical chord to some secret source of nourishment, and it soon becomes clear what that is. “You know, every day I give thanks for the culture I grew up in, in Brooklyn,” he says. “Our parents would bring all kinds of music into the house, it could be Billie Holiday or Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. They used to take us to the Apollo Theatre to hear shows.” Was it mostly jazz they listened to? “Oh no, it was all kinds, jazz, calypso, gospel. It was all part of our African-American heritage, even if we didn’t play it. And we heard classical music too, when we went to the opera.”

Young Randy soaked it all up, and soon began taking lessons. “It was something everybody did, it was a requirement not just in my household, but the neighbourhood.” One gets the sense of a constant effort at self-improvement in the black community, coupled with a pride in their cultural roots. “When I was six my father said to me, ‘My son, you’re an African born in America. The only history you’re ever going to hear is the one about colonialism and slavery, but you need to learn about the great African empires.’ So we would go to the museum and look at the artefacts from Nubia and Ghana. I used to dream as a kid of these things.”

Getting in touch with his roots wasn’t just a matter of learning a suppressed history. The young Weston was inculcated into a whole way of thinking about music. “We look on music as something that has a role in the community, not just for entertainment. A musician is a storyteller and healer, he makes music for a baby being born, music for harvesting. African music is rooted in the sounds of Mother Nature, of wind and bird songs and animal sounds. Even the instruments are rooted in daily life. You don’t go to the shop to make an instrument, you make one yourself, with whatever is around you. That’s how it was in Africa, and wherever African people have been taken they’ve kept their memory of art. You see the same thing in Cuba and Venezuela and Brazil.”

All this would bear fruit in Weston’s own music, but first he had to master African music in its local, acceptable form: jazz. And that wasn’t easy, at a time when the bar was set so high. “You got to remember this was the time of great jazz pianists like Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Eddie Condon, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum. These are our royalty. So I never thought I could turn professional. Of course I was playing before that, at local gigs and dances and so forth. But faced with that perfection and originality I was bound to be a little timid, until I realised I had something to say.”

Reaching that point took some time. Weston escaped from Brooklyn, which after the war had become infested with drugs and alcohol, to the peace of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. There, at the Music Inn, a resort founded by jazz historian Marshall Stearns, he honed his craft as a pianist and learned about jazz’s African roots. Not until he was 29 did Weston feel ready to break into the profession, touring with various bands and eventually forming his own trio. He released his debut album, Cole Porter in a Modern Mood, in 1954.

Then in the 1960s came the reunion with Africa he’d always dreamed of. “First I went to Nigeria in 1961, with 29 American artists including the poet Langston Hughes, who I wrote a piece with, and Lionel Hampton and Nina Simone, and two dancers from the Savoy ballroom. I went back to Lagos in 1963 and I felt so comfortable, like I’d never left. In 1967 I was asked to do a tour by the State Department, and Morocco was the last stop. I felt a special bond with that country, because they also had experienced slavery. Our slavery came from over the Atlantic, theirs came from over the Sahara desert. I had a club in Tangiers for three years. We would bring over blues bands from Chicago, singers from the Congo, from Brazil, from Niger. I wanted to reflect the fact that African culture has become a global culture.”

It’s only when I ask Weston whether things are better now than in the days of segregation that his optimism dims. “No, because we’ve forgotten the roots of our culture. I always say to young musicians, if you study the roots of music you will have more respect for your elders and your ancestors. The more they learn it, the more they appreciate what African music has given the world, but the problem is it has zero representation in the media.”

But Weston can’t be gloomy for long. “I think when the dust has settled people will go back to the music that is for all times. The great thing about African music is it’s not music for the young, or the old, it’s music for everybody. We have this situation in the modern world where music is something you choose just to please yourself, but with us, music is always for the people.”

Then in the 1960s came the reunion with Africa he’d always dreamed of. “First I went to Nigeria in 1961, with 29 American artists including the poet Langston Hughes, who I wrote a piece with, and Lionel Hampton and Nina Simone, and two dancers from the Savoy ballroom. I went back to Lagos in 1963 and I felt so comfortable, like I’d never left. In 1967 I was asked to do a tour by the State Department, and Morocco was the last stop. I felt a special bond with that country, because they also had experienced slavery. Our slavery came from over the Atlantic, theirs came from over the Sahara desert. I had a club in Tangiers for three years. We would bring over blues bands from Chicago, singers from the Congo, from Brazil, from Niger. I wanted to reflect the fact that African culture has become a global culture.”

Source:Ivan Hewett | Telegraph.co.uk

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