RANDY WESTON'S VERY BIG WORLD
"To me," pianist-composer Randy Weston muses, "the greatest gift, the greatest honor a person can have is being able to play music. It's the highest gift one can have as a human being. You meet all kinds of people that you learn from - not just other musicians - and everybody has something to say. And a true musician, you take a little bit from here, a little bit from there. It can affect your playing. It can affect your direction. It can affect what message you want to say with your music. So music is, without question, a sacred art."
Perhaps that honor is especially great in Weston's case. Although in his younger days he played piano for fun and, sometimes, profit, he didn't expect to become a top-level professional. "I grew up with people like Eubie Blake," he observes, "and Willie 'the Lion' Smith was still around. And Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and Earl Hines and Art Tatum and Clarence Profit and Herman Chittison. There were so many awesome pianists. So number one, I never, ever thought I was gonna be a professional musician.
"I was in the restaurant business with my dad, but in the neighborhood, there was no separation between the musicians and the people who loved the music. The shoeshine boy could be shining your shoes and whistling a Charlie Parker solo. So there was no separation between the audience and the musicians. I just loved the music so much, and I was playing local gigs on weekends, maybe play a dance in downtown Brooklyn."
The environment into which Weston was born (in 1926) and raised - what he likes to call the "African village" known as the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn - was a musically fertile one, and this budding talent was welcomed into the local musician's clique. "I was fortunate because [drummer] Max Roach lived two blocks away from me. I'd go to Max's house all the time - there's Charlie Parker, there's Dizzy Gillespie, there's Miles Davis, there's [baritone saxophonist] Leo Parker, there's [composer] George Russell, there's Bud Powell, there's [pianist] Elmo Hope. And I'd go to Monk's house in Manhattan. It was that influence, I guess."
Weston's earliest inspirations were the famed jazz pianists of his youth, celebrated musicians who were revered in his community as both artists and role models. He treasured Count Basie's economy, wit, and unshakable blues foundation. He was moved by Nat King Cole's gift for revealing the beauty within every note he played. He was struck by Art Tatum's deep-in-the-keys attack and harmonic richness. In time, Thelonious Monk, who was more of a contemporary than these others, also had a discernible impact on Weston's evolution, with his judicious use of space and dissonance.
And then there was Duke Ellington, who influenced not only Weston's playing, but his overall approach to music. "He taught me the orchestral concept of piano," Weston credits, "and also his devotion, his love for his people. I've always been quite proud of our people since I was a little boy. And Ellington, he was incredible, because all his music was composed out of the African-American community in all its variations. Duke went even further, into Africa itself and the whole, entire world. So Ellington gave me the concept of how to tell the beauty of your people through music.
"And Duke was also a composer-pianist - like Monk, a composer-pianist," notes Weston, himself the composer of such often-played favorites as "Hi-Fly," "Little Niles," "Berkshire Blues," and "Saucer Eyes." "That made a big impact upon me, because usually when you play music you play standards, and after a while you write some tunes. But from them I got this concept that I can be a composer-pianist, and say things the way I would like to say them."
But perhaps the element that most makes Randy Weston what he is, as both an artist and a person, is the influence of African culture and thought. When he was just a young boy, Weston's father began instilling in him a proud, positive view of Africa and teaching him about the African Diaspora. From his father, Weston learned that the many musics made by African people all around the world possess more commonalities than differences, an awareness that lies at the core of his world view and artistic vision.
The elder Weston also taught his son to recognize the lives and contributions of those who came before, the "ancestors," a lesson that the pianist never fails to mention in his conversations or during his performances. "You want to know about Randy Weston? Let me tell you about Frank and Vivian Weston. Let me tell you what life was like for them. Let me tell you what kind of music they brought into the house. It was not just music written on paper. It was our way of survival. What they called jazz and blues, that was our survival force. It was also an extension of Mother Africa."
And so, what Weston calls "the spirits of the ancestors" serve as a cultural bridge from the past to the present (and the future), a living tradition upon which his music and his overall outlook are founded. "We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors," he emphasizes, "and Ellington knew this. That's why to me he was so great - and because he knew that the musician, in ancient African society, is also a storyteller. The storyteller let the young people know the history of their society."
Dedicated to learning this rich history and disseminating it through his music, the ever-inquisitive Weston embarked on a lifelong journey in pursuit of his heritage, what became, ultimately, a journey of self-awareness. "I said 'I want to find out why I play the piano like I do. So I had to go back to the continent and spend those years with traditional African societies. I learned that what we're doing today is very much like what our ancestors did in the villages thousands and thousands of years ago."
Weston made his first pilgrimage to Africa in 1961, then moved there in 1967, settling in Morocco. "I went as a student, number one, and I spent as much time living with the traditional people as possible. I simply ate, drank, and lived with these musicians, and traveled everywhere to listen to traditional music. I performed in fourteen countries in Africa, and everywhere I went I would look for and try to hear the traditional music, and it made an impact upon me."
From 1969 to 1972 Weston also presented music at his own African Rhythms Club in Tangier, Morocco. "We had a jukebox for the young people. You could hear Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Charles. Then we would play music at night. We had a blues band from Chicago, we had singers from the Congo. We approached the whole African rhythm concept as a global concept. In other words, what has Mother Africa contributed to world civilization, in particular, through music?
"And when you approach it like that, it's incredible. You discover what happened in Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad, what happened with these African people when they were taken to these different places. You learn how they maintained that cultural memory and created another kind of music, but the rhythms and the spirituality of Africa are always there."
He returned permanently to the United States in the mid-1980s - having spent most of the previous decade in Europe - refreshed and stimulated. "The magic of Africa is in my music now. I'm not playing any differently than I played thirty, forty years ago. Not doing anything new. But by being with those people, the spiritual power of their music has entered mine. And so when I play the piano now, that comes out. I can't explain it. It's something that is very mysterious, very magical."
Inspired by the traditional music he heard, studied, and absorbed during his African odyssey, Weston's original compositions are laced with pentatonics and modality, layered in polyrhythms, typically propelled by a loping 6/8 gait. Evocative titles like "The African Cookbook," "Blue Moses," "The Healers," "African Sunrise," "Tangier Bay," and "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant," whether performed live or on recordings, unfold gradually, deliberately, and inevitably. There is an inherent logic to these pieces, but there is magic and mystery in them as well.
Similar qualities infuse the music of the Gnawa musicians of Morocco. The Gnawa are descendants of sub-Saharan Africans who were brought to Morocco in the sixteenth century to serve as slaves to the Arab rulers. "The Gnawa people," Weston explains, "are the black Moroccans, whose history is similar to our history. Just like we created music in this country, they created another kind of spiritual music in Morocco." Their hypnotic rhythms and odes also are believed to have healing powers.
While living in Africa, Weston, naturally, was captivated by these musician-healers and forged with them an enduring cross-cultural communion. "When I was with the Gnawa people," he recalls, "we'd be together every single day. They'd come to my house, we'd eat food together, they'd play their music, I would go to their ceremonies. And sometimes I would play some of the lines with them. These lines are very magical, very beautiful. And when I say magical, I'm speaking of the magic of Mother Nature, 'cause Mother Nature is the master of magic and mystery. The thunder storm, the sun, the rain, Mother Nature is always improvising."
Weston's longstanding African Rhythms ensemble (trombonist Benny Powell, saxophonist-flutist Talib Kibwe, bassist Alex Blake, percussionist Neil Clarke) and the Gnawa have blended their magic before entranced audiences the world over, from Marrakech all the way back to Brooklyn, where they met for a landmark concert in September 1999. Performing at a local church, they were joined by Nigerian hand drummer Babtunde Olatunji in an event that, as Weston describes it, presented "three directions of African spirituality through religion - Islam through the Gnawa, the Yoruba with Olatunji, and the Black Church - to show the importance of spirituality for us as a people."
Weston is philosophical about the current "World Music" vogue. Decades before entertainment conglomerates even knew what to call it, forward-looking artists like Weston, John Coltrane, trumpeter Don Cherry, and multi-reedplayer Yusef Lateef were studying the music of different cultures and absorbing it into their exceptional art. But their vital and visionary contributions are unknown to most of the movement's current trend-followers. "You know," he reflects, "when you are an artist, you are supposed to be ahead of your time, and you're lucky if you're recognized while you're still alive. I think there is no better example of that than Ellington. I mean, goodness gracious, the work that this man has done! Just awesome! And they turned him down for the Pulitzer Prize. Imagine.
"You always have the usual format of creation and then commercialization," he observes, "it's the same thing over and over and over again. I think in many ways it's good because when people become exposed to Gnawa music, then they discover something about Morocco. When they discover Congolese music, they discover something about the Congolese people and the Congo. And maybe it might open the doors of understanding of other cultures. Of course, there is a commercialization going on. And in many instances Africa is ignored by using the term 'World Music.' So it has its good points and it's got its bad points." But call it what you will, Weston remains in the vanguard of the multiculturalist musical movement that he helped found.
Equally vague and limiting, in Weston's view, is the word "jazz," at least as it is usually applied. "I don't use the term 'jazz' in my music," he maintains, "because the word is very confusing, and it puts people at a certain level. If you are a 'jazz musician,' you automatically fit in a certain category. You can't go beyond that. Plus it doesn't recognize the ancestors. So I've never been happy with the word. It's used to describe our music, but like Duke said, we are 'beyond category.' We are musicians and we create music and it's a different message.
"I call my music 'African Rhythms' because my direction is Africa. When I perform my music, people will get a little understanding of what Africa has contributed to America, what Africa has contributed to South America, what Africa has contributed to the Caribbean. And when you make that approach, then it opens up a very big world."
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The September 1999 concert that united Randy Weston's African Rhythms Quintet with the Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco was recorded and released the following year on a CD titled, appropriately, Sprit! The Power of Music (Sunnyside).
© Bob Bernotas, 2000; revised 2009. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission.
Photo: Carol Steuer