Randy Weston

Pianist, Composer
Portrait of Randy Weston

Photo by Tom Pich/tompich.com


"I am truly blessed to have heard and spent so much time with the masters of our music during my rich cultural life of music. I am grateful to be a part of a great spiritual legacy. Thanks to the ancestors and the great musicians who have inspired me. Thank you very much."

Randy Weston spent most of his career combining the rich music of the African continent with the African-American tradition of jazz, mixing rhythms and melodies into a remarkable musical stew.

Weston received his earliest training from private teachers in a household that nurtured his budding musicianship. Growing up in Brooklyn, Weston was influenced by such peers as saxophonist Cecil Payne and trumpeter Ray Copeland as well as the steady influx of great jazz musicians who frequented Brooklyn clubs and jam sessions on a regular basis. Such musicians as Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington would have a lasting influence on Weston's music, both in terms of his piano playing and composition.

After a 1945 stint in the Army, Weston began playing piano with such rhythm-and-blues bands as Bull Moose Jackson and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. At the Music Inn educational retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1954, he took work as a cook during the summer, while playing the piano at night. The head of Riverside Records, Orrin Keepnews, heard him and signed Weston to do a record of Cole Porter standards.

Weston's recording sessions frequently included contributions from his Brooklyn neighborhood buddies Copeland, Payne, and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik. It was at this early juncture that he also began his long and fruitful musical partnership with trombonist-arranger Melba Liston (a listing of some of the albums on which they collaborated can be found in the Liston Selected Discography), a relationship that would continue until her death in 1999, forming some of Weston's best recordings.

Weston's interest in the African continent was sparked at an early age, and he lectured and performed in Africa in the early 1960s. He toured 14 African countries with his ensemble in 1967 on a State Department tour, eventually settling in Rabat, Morocco. He later moved to Tangier, opening the African Rhythms Club in 1969. It was in Morocco that Weston first forged unique collaborations with Berber and Gnawan musicians, infusing his jazz with African music and rhythms.

After returning to the U.S. in 1972, he lived in Brooklyn, traveling extensively overseas with bands that generally include trombonist Benny Powell and longtime musical director, saxophonist Talib Kibwe (aka T.K. Blue). A number of Weston's U.S. concert appearances were true events, including 1998 and 1999 Brooklyn and Kennedy Center collaborations with the Master Musicians of Gnawa, and a triumphant 1998 recreation of his masterwork suite "Uhuru Africa" in Brooklyn. Many of Weston's compositions, such as "Hi Fly" and "Berkshire Blues," have become jazz standards. In 2010, Weston's autobiography, African Rhythms, was published.

Selected Discography

Uhuru Africa/Highlife, Roulette, 1960-63
Blues to Africa, Arista/Freedom, 1974
The Spirit of Our Ancestors, Verve, 1991
Zep Tepi, Random Chance, 2005
The Storyteller, MOTÉMA MUSIC, 2009


The NEA Jazz Master talks about the music he loves.
Music up. Randy Weston: Well, that was a live recording. It wasn't intended to be a recording. But it was at Dizzy's café, Dizzy's club at Lincoln Center in 2009. And I was so happy to have a wonderful group. Unfortunately the great Benny Powell passed away. As Benny Powell's last recording T.K. Blue was saxophone, Neil Clarke and Alice Blake, and our guest was Lewis Nash, you see. So it was a very spiritual evening. We didn't play for a recording. The performance ended up being a recording, which I'm very happy about. Jo Reed: That was 2001 NEA Jazz Master and 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, pianist and composer, Randy Weston, talking his latest cd, The Storyteller. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nations great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed. Randy Weston is a path-breaking musician. For six decades, African music has been central to his work: he has collaborated with African musicians, brought American artists to Africa, performed across the African continent, studied its history and various musical traditions and even lived in Morocco for seven years. The result is a singular music explicitly steeped in African rhythms and married to African-American Jazz. Along the way, Weston has collaborated with some of the great artist of the 20th century. Poet Langston Hughes, for example, contributed to Westion’s brilliant five-part jazz suite "Uhuru Afrika" (Swahili for "Freedom Africa") written in 1960. Weston’s musical collaborators reads like a jazz who’s who; they include Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, and Melba Liston…Jazz Masters all. In 2001, Randy Weston joined that illustrious group when he was named a Jazz Master himself. Now, at the age of 85, he’s still going strong, in the past year, he published his auto African Rhythms and brought out a new CD, The Storyteller. Last week, he was named a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. He still plays in clubs and he keeps on touring. In fact, I caught up with him when he was in Washington DC to play at the Kennedy Center.I began my conversation with Randy Weston exactly where he begins his autobiography, African Roots. Here’s how he opens the introduction to his book. "I come to be a storyteller; I’m not a jazz musican; I tell stories in music." I was intrigued by that so when I spoke to him, I asked him to tell me more. Randy Weston: Yeah. Because the music is connected to the community, to the people. And all the songs have meanings, all the lyrics have meanings. And the history of our music going all the way back maybe to Buddy Bolden and before, they told stories when they played the music. And it was also a documentation of the people, each song, whether it was a blues, or a jazz piece, it's very important. So I like to tell stories about my life in music. That's why I use the term storyteller. Jo Reed: You’ve spent your whole career, and I don't think I'm stretching here, in creating a conversation between the music of Africa and the music of America. You recognized that the music of these two continents really are in dialogue. Randy Weston: Absolutely, because the African people brought the music when they were taken here. But wasn't recognized because they came in slavery, but that had that ancestral memory of music. And the African music is as old as Africa itself, you see. So how that happened is really a miracle, but wherever you find African people, where we've settled, whether it was Brazil or Venezuela, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, United States, you find this African spirituality and African rhythms in the music. And in music there's always a story of the people, what they love, they don't love, their dances, their joys, their sadness. It's the music, because music is the first language for us as a people. Because when we were brought here we couldn't speak English, or French, or Spanish, or Portuguese. We had to speak music. And that's the amazing part about the history of our music. Jo Reed: You're from New York. You grew up in Brooklyn. Randy Weston: That's correct. Jo Reed: In Bed-Stuy. And you grew up in a house filled with music. Randy Weston: A neighborhood filled with music. Music everywhere. You could walk down the street, there'd be a restaurant with a juke box in the restaurant, and you could hear Duke Ellington's Main Stem out loud in the streets. Juke box times there was no television, no disco. Everything was live. Musicians were very, very important. If you were a musician you would not go anywhere out without your shoes being shined, your tie, your shirt. So music was extremely important for us as a people. Jo Reed: Who did you listen to when you were coming up? Randy Weston: Oh, everything from the Black church on a Sunday, everything from the calypso, the blues, the jazz, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, I could go on and on and on. But we heard all kinds of music because our parents were the ones who introduced to the music, and they took us to the Apollo Theater to hear some of the great stars. So because of our parents, they were the ones who would bring-- could be an opera, could be some folk music. Could be some jazz music. So we had a wonderful training in music growing up. And it was very natural for us. Jo Reed: You had piano lessons as a kid, and it was straight up classical music. Randy Weston: Yes, that's correct, yes. Jo Reed: How would-- do you remember your teacher well? Randy Weston: Very well. <laughs>  She gave up on me, because I was not a very good student. I was very tall and a little awkward at my age, and I didn't want to practice scales, I wanted to get down with the blues right away. But she was a great lady. She was my foundation. Jo Reed: How did you come to jazz? Randy Weston: We lived it. It was in the community. See, in the African American community there was no separation between the musicians and the people, you see. So guys could be shining your shoes and whistling a Charlie Parker solo because it was music in our spirit, and the way we live, and the way we cook our food, the way we walk, the way we talk, it's music that came out of Africa. Jo Reed: When did you start playing jazz on the piano? Randy Weston: Well, gradually around 17 years old we had little small groups in Brooklyn. And we had giants like Max Roach and Eubie Blake, and Duke Jordan, so we had a lot of people to be inspired by. So we had small groups, and with those small groups we played dances, weddings, we played polkas, we do all kinds of music. But it started with local groups. Jo Reed: It was after World War II, you were drafted. You went to Okinawa. You were there for a year. You come back to New York. What was the music scene like then? Randy Weston: Oh, that's when the music that they call Bebop arrived. And when I heard the music of Dizzy and Charlie Parker I didn't know what kind of music that was. It was really incredible, something really new and exciting. But I fell in love with the music. And one of the keys for that that was Mr. Coleman Hawkins, because I love Coleman Hawkins. We did "Body and Soul" when I was a kid. I loved his rendition of "Body and Soul" so much I bought three copies. Got an advance from my father and my allowance, hid two and played one. And we're playing out loud in the streets so people could hear "Body and Soul." But because of Coleman Hawkins, he went from Fletcher Henderson all the way to Dizzy and Monk, you see. So he was helping me make that transition from the traditional music of the big bands to small groups, and the new modern music after the Second World War. Jo Reed: You took yourself up to the Berkshire Mountains. Why did you do that? What was it about the Berkshires? Randy Weston: I spent about ten summers up there. That was because what happened, the drugs and alcohol hit our community, and it was right after the Second World War, and it was a very sad time for me. And I was in my dad's restaurant, and which was between a liquor store and a bar. And there'd be fights on Saturday night, it was a terrible period. It was a depressing time, you know?  And a friend of mine who was a basketball player, he told me I wanted to get out of New York, go up to the Berkshires, take any kind of job. Just go up there, get fresh air, listen to the music, and they have great pianos, and that's what happened. And I went up there doing every kind of job you could think of between Great Barrington and Lenox, Mass. Came in contact with European classical music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra there seven weeks of the year, Jacob's Pillow with dance, chamber music, opera. I met young musicians studying European classical music, and so it was a wonderful place. And then after came the Music Inn, where I met some of the real giants of our music. I met Professor Marshall Stearns who wrote the book called, "The Story of Jazz." And he had a global view, a global concept of African culture, you see. So he brought people up there, like Mahalia Jackson, like John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Candido from Cuba, Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria, Geoffrey Holder from Trinidad  So I had the whole thing, this whole wonderful way of looking at African civilization, how it expanded despite slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Jo Reed: Randy, I thought we’d hear a little of you playing your own tune, "Berkshire Blues." <music> Jo Reed: So tell me, Randy, when did you write that? Randy Weston: Wow. What year did I … Why do you have to ask me that, Jo?  <laughs> Jo Reed: Sorry. Okay. Forget the year you wrote it. Let's talk about the mood you were trying to evoke with that song. Randy Weston: Yeah, it had to be in the late '50s you know… Jo Reed: What story were you telling with that song? Randy Weston: The beauty of the Berkshires. Jo Reed: Mm-hm. You really can see it. Randy Weston: It was such beautiful country, heard beautiful music. I met people who loved music, so it was a wonderful, wonderful atmosphere. And I wanted to capture that beauty, and that's what "Berkshire Blues" is all about. Jo Reed: And it was at the Berkshires where you first met NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews. Randy Weston: Yes, I did. Jo Reed: And he produced your first record. Randy Weston: Yes. Bill Grauer. Actually Bill was the-- he was the guy I really met first, Bill Grauer. But him and Orrin, they were partners, and they had a recording company called Riverside Records. And they were putting out piano rolls, sounds of sports cars, and some music of traditional Africa: music from West Africa, music from Ethiopia, music from Congo. So my contact with them was my first recording, but the same time I got exposed to African traditional music. Jo Reed: When was the first time you went to Africa? Randy Weston: My first time, in 1961. I went to Nigeria. Jo Reed: And what was that experience like for you? Randy Weston: It was incredible, because I went with 29 great artists, Lionel Hampton and eight members of his orchestra. I took with me the great Booker Ervin on tenor saxophone, and Scovey Sullivan on drums. We had people like Hale Woodruff, Langston Hughes, Martha Flowers, a prominent singer, Natalie Andaras, great concert pianist. We had Al Minns and Leon James from the Savoy Ballroom, and there were 29 of us and we spent ten days in Lagos to see what the relationship was between African American culture, music, philosophy, painting, sculpture, desires, politics and Nigeria. And it was wonderful for me because I've always dreamt of going to Africa like most of us have. That's my ancestral home. And when I went there I was so moved. Jo Reed: You ended up going back again, and again, and again. And finally ended up moving there. You lived there for 7 years. Jo Reed: What’s interesting, Randy. You spent as much time listening as you did playing music. Randy Weston: Oh, absolutely, because I did the state department tour. And I did 14 countries in Africa. And we toured West Africa and North Africa, and Beirut, Lebanon. And wherever I went I requested the traditional music of the people if possible. And I heard some incredible music which certainly influenced the way I play. Jo Reed: You opened a club in Tangiers called the African Rhythms Club. Randy Weston: Yes Jo Reed: But it wasn’t just African music that you played there, you really had a lot of American music, too. Randy Weston: We have a blues band from Chicago, we have singers from the Congo, singer Lingawi [ph?]. We had a Moroccan, the Gnawa musicians. So the whole idea was that what is the impact of Africa civilization on the world?  What happened when people left Africa, and what happened with music, you see?  And we have such a diversity of music, whether it's Brazil, or the Caribbean, or United States. But it's a common foundation, and that's the music of Africa. So in a way our music is different, but in a way our music is the same. And no better example of that was FESTAC in 1977 when there were 20,000 artists in Lagos for one month. And the very last concert was Mary McKeever, Stevie Wonder, and Osibisa. It was an audience of about 50,000 people. And at the end of the festival everybody said, "Our music is different, but our music is the same." Jo Reed: Gnawa music is very important to you. Can you explain a little about that music for us. How did you first hear it? Randy Weston: Right. Well, when I was in Morocco I met a young man. He was Moroccan, he taught English in Tangier. And he told me about the Gnawa people. These are people who originally came from West Africa and they were taken as slaves and soldiers up to North Africa, in like 16th Century. And they produce a powerful spiritual music. And I met them and I heard what we do. It is traditional form. When I heard their music I heard the blues, I heard Black jazz, I heard the music of the Caribbean, I heard the foundation which proved to me that the rhythms of Africa, they remained alive, but disguised in different forms, whether it's in Honduras, or Haiti, or Jamaica, or Trinidad, or Brazil, or Mississippi, or whatever the music is, it's the spirit of Mother Africa in that music. And that music is a healing force. It's a music that makes you grow, makes you feel good, you see. And it's a world music, yeah. Jo Reed: I thought we'd hear a little bit of "Blue Moses." <music> Randy Weston: Yes, that was influenced by the traditional music of Gnawa people. Jo Reed: How are those rhythms of "Blue Moses" particularly Gnawan? Randy Weston: Well, the Gnawa rhythm is like-- you see, traditional Africa they get their rhythms by listening to Mother Nature. And all of the insects, the animals, the sound of Mother Nature is rhythm in sounds. So African musicians are influenced by the environment of Africa itself. And you take the Gnawa rhythm is based upon the horse and the way the horse moves. There's a certain rhythm there, you see. So the music is why it's so powerful because it captures the nature of this very rich diverse continent called Africa, yeah. So all of traditional music is, it comes out of the nature of Africa itself. Jo Reed: Randy, we sit here in 2011, and world music as an idea is something we really take for granted now. But in 1960 you were one of the first people who were not just pointing out the roots of Africa in our music, but actually explicitly using the music in your own work.  Did you find people were open to this music?  How did people respond to it? Randy Weston: Well, you know, it's like in a way they've been cut off from the origins of our music, you see. Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, all the African American artists of the late 19th century and 20th century, they wrote music about Africa, and that's the way it was. But we got cut off from that, you see. And the various changes, integration, things like that happened. But my source had been really going back and listing to 1928 Duke Ellington, "Black, Brown and Beige," "Black and Tan Fantasy." Luckey Roberts, "Lullaby on the Nile." So you see the further you go back our ancestors were close to Africa because our grandmothers, our grandfathers were African people. So that transition, musically and spiritually, took place then. So I went back and listened to the early blues. I listened to early pianists like Jimmy Lancey and how they approach their music. And they had a rhythmic concept, a polyrhythmic concept of playing piano, of playing instruments, of using their hands, you know. And you see a musician, even when he-- even when I play piano and I'm playing, one foot is playing one rhythm, my hands are playing other rhythms, my head is going another rhythm. That's all Africa, you see. And it's been retained. But we don't realize that because we have so little information about the music of Africa. Jo Reed: You had a very long professional relationship with Melba Liston who-- a great trombonist in her own writing, composer and arranger. How did you two work together? Jo Reed: You were made an NEA Jazz Master in 2001. What was that experience like for you? Randy Weston: Shocking. Shocking. <laughs>  Because I was a big fan, a serious fan of this music. And I never, ever thought I would be a professional musician, much less getting a jazz master. So that's one of the miracles, and one of the beauties, and one of the mysteries of my life: how this guy who wouldn't take piano lessons and grew up with people like Art Tatum, and Earl Garner, and Fats Waller, all these giants, and I would end up being a Jazz Master as a pianist and a composer. So it was a really, a great moment in my life. Jo Reed: Well, 2001 was certainly a red letter year for you, Randy, because lord knows you've done a lot. But one of the things you did that year, and it just appeals to the romantic historian in me is you played at the reopening of the great library at Alexandria. What a thrill that must have been. Randy Weston: It was. It was. Because ironically myself and a bassist named James Lewis we were the only ones there representing the Western Hemisphere, not just the states, yeah. And it turned out because it was a wonderful bandleader in Cairo, his name was Salah Ragab, he passed away a couple of years ago. And he had a great jazz band. In fact, Sun Ra recorded with him. And I met him, and we got to be very close. And he recommended that I should participate with other artists at the opening of the library in Alexandria. So you know it was quite exciting for me. Jo Reed: Randy, you recently composed your autobiography, African Rhythms, which you co-wrote with jazz journalist, Willard Jenkins. And you kinda had to take a deep breath and look back on your 85 years of life. What was challenging about that for you? Randy Weston: I guess the only think I would say is my memory. Because I had to think about my life, and think about the places that music has taken me. And the people I've met through music are wonderful people. They're all over the planet. So I had to do a lot of searching in my mind, bring up my memory. But I was lucky because I had a lot of documentation at home which I could refer to: what happened in 1967, what happened in 1950, when happened when I was a little boy in the Black church with the bow tie and the short pants. So I had to go all the way back. And also give even more thought of the commitment and the sacrifices of my mother and father and that generation to give me those piano lessons, or to give me Africa, to keep me spiritually healthy, to make sure I was with the right kids in the neighborhood. So I had to do all of that. And Willard did a excellent job because he made me rethink it and go back, and bring out these stories. And when I told these stories it's like somebody else not myself, so much has happened. And again it's because of that love of music, you see. And what's so incredible, up until this minute how you meet the best people on the planet earth through music, it always amazes me. Jo Reed: Randy Weston, it was such a pleasure meeting you. Randy Weston: Surely. Thank you. Jo Reed: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming. Randy Weston: I really appreciate you very much. Jo Reed: Well, thank you. That was NEA jazz master Randy Weston. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpts "Berkshire Blues" and "Blue Moses" from the album ZEP TEP!, composed and performed by Randy Weston, used courtesy of Random Chance Records. Excerpt from "High Fly" from the cd, The Storyteller, written by Randy Weston and performed by Randy Weston and his African Rhthyms Sextet, live at Dizzy’s Club. Used courtesy of Motema Music. Our thanks to journalist, Willard Jenkins. The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U….just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, poet and NEA literature fellow Cristin O’Keefe Abtowitz. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. ADDITIONAL MUSIC CREDIT - PUBLISHING: Excerpts "Berkshire Blues," "Blue Moses," and "High Fly" from the album ZEP TEP!, composed and performed by Randy Weston, used courtesy of Black Sun Music [SESAC].