Sep 12, 2018
It was almost ten years ago that I got the chance to spend some time talking with Randy Weston prior to an appearance at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was a delightful conversation, as Weston spoke candidly about his travels across Africa and the many great musicians with whom he had the pleasure to play piano. When Weston passed away last weekend at the ripe old age of 92, jazz lost one of its greatest musical ambassadors.
Weston was one of many jazz musicians who came out of the army after World War II, and quickly established himself as a force, initially as an R&B/Blues piano player with the likes of Bull Moose Jackson (who also helped launch the careers of John Coltrane and Benny Golson). Falling under the spell first of Earl “Fatha” Hines and then of Thelonious Monk’s music, Weston was not long for that genre. By 1954 he had recorded his first album as a bandleader for Riverside Records.
Weston had a life-long interest in the diversity of Africa, and the musical connections he found with players across the continent were deep. He spend time there in the 1960’s, first on his own, then appearing on a State Department Tour, and finally living in Morocco from 1969 to 1972. He owned the African Rhythm Club in Tangier, collaborating musically with the Gnawan Musicians. His memoir, African Rhythms is essential reading for creating a sense of place and time.
Perhaps more than any other modern jazz musician, Weston worked to synthesize the music he found in Africa with the jazz he learned and loved. He found common ground in the shared poly-rhythms and harmonies, incorporating them in his music. The results were always creatively satisfying, must notably Music from the New African Nations Featuring The High Life, an album he made a few years after his first visit to Africa; and The Spirits of Our Ancestors, which brought in African musicians to play with jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie and Pharaoh Sanders. His best-selling album was the slick Blue Moses on CTI records, matching Weston with the likes of Grover Washington, Jr. and Hubert Laws. He often said he did not care much for the final result of that release, but he seemed to love its commercial success nonetheless.
As a composer, Weston had several tunes that became jazz standards – “Hi-Fly”, “Berkshire Blues” and “Little Niles” all have made their way into the canon. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2001. Active even in his final years, Weston left his mark on anyone who cared deeply about music, especially those seeking the intersection between jazz and what we now call “world music”
Podcast 639 is my musical tribute to Randy Weston. Musical selections include:
“Hi-Fly” from Live at the Five Spot
“Berkshire Blues” from Monterey ‘66
“Little Niles” from Little Niles
“Ifrane” from Blue Moses
“Chalabati” from The Splendid Gnawa Musicians of Morocco
“Blues to Africa” from Music from the New African Nations Featuring The High Life
“Niger Mambo” from Music from the New African Nations Featuring The High Life
“Blues Moses” from The Spirits of Our Ancestors
“Love, The Mystery of” from The Storyteller