For the most part, Randy Weston reached behind the boppers, drawing for inspiration on a solo stride tradition which he adapted to his own needs.
By Michael Ullman
Jonathan Swift might have called the late pianist Randy Weston, who died on September 1st at the age of 92, a man mountain. Six foot seven and with a frame to match, he looked down at the rest of us so persistently that he called his most famous composition “Hi Fly.” It’s an eccentric and good-natured piece, playfully based on a leap of a fifth. It sounds like someone skipping, or maybe a hiccup, and might have been based on Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” Weston introduced “Hi-Fly” at Newport on July 5th, 1958: he is one of the new faces on the album New Faces at Newport. “Hi Fly” took off. On the following April 15, Art Blakey recorded it at Birdland. In October, Cannonball Adderley included “Hi Fly” on his popular live recording at the Jazz Workshop. Slide Hampton, Art Farmer, and Dave McKenna waxed it in early 1960, but it was the 1961 performance by the wildly successful singing group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross that assured “Hi Fly” would become a jazz classic.
Weston would write other enduring tunes: the waltz “Little Niles,” dedicated to his son, “Saucer Eyes,” “Earth Birth,” “Gingerbread,” and “Berkshire Blues” among them. But he is best known today for his decades long celebration of Africa and African influences on American music. Though his early musical heroes were Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, for whom he wrote “Monk Steps” (Randy Weston, Pausa), he didn’t necessarily want to be considered a jazz musician. In his autobiography, Weston writes: “I come to be a storyteller. I’m not a jazz musician.” When he met his almost lifelong collaborator, trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, he insisted on telling the stories behind each composition before he showed her the music.
Still early in his career, in 1957, Weston delivered a series of lecture-demonstrations in which he explained jazz, as well as some aspects of African music, on college campuses. Those lectures might have prepared listeners for his 1960 big band recording for Roulette: Uhuru Afrika, with arrangements by Melba Liston. It opens with the chanting of “Uhuru Kwanza” (from Tanganyika) with lyrics by poet Langston Hughes, and then is heard in its original language over a chorus of drummers. The message is of a dawning day and a new Africa: “A young nation awakes! Africa.” The piece is in four movements, ending reassuringly with “Kucheza Blues.”
Weston spent many of his adult years in Morocco. (Less known is that, from 1974 on, he resided for almost a decade in Annecy, a lily-white small city nestled in the French Alps.) He was born on April 6, 1926 in Brooklyn to a woman he called “strong and independent in her own way” and to a Panamanian father who stressed their African heritage. Weston described his father as “a real strong, totally macho Caribbean brother.” His father wanted him to be a musician: he hired a teacher for his son, who was scales on the piano and some classical music. Weston tells us in his autobiography that he really learned from the musicians in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Reading about his mentors, jazz fans are left in wonder: “The individual homes of the musicians were also places of culture, places to learn: like Max Roach, Ray Abrams, or Duke Jordan’s homes … I met Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Leo Parker at Max’s house.” Before he was drafted and sent to Okinawa, Weston also heard Charlie Parker. Even better, Parker insisted that the lad play with him one night at the Three Deuces.
It sounds like an archetypal beginning for a jazz man. But Weston’s next step comes off as somewhat eccentric: he moved to the Berkshires, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and worked in a restaurant. The decision turned out more beneficial than one could have imagined. Jazz historian Marshall Stearns was giving lectures on jazz history in the area, and he asked the young pianist to collaborate. In the process Weston was introduced to the two-handed stride piano of Fats Waller and others. Another result of this experience was the creation of Weston’s often-recorded “Berkshire Blues,” one of his most memorable melodies. One can hear it on African Cookbook, on his 1965 recording Berkshire Blues, and with strings arranged by Melba Liston on Earth Birth. (I’d start with African Cookbook.) The co-owner of Riverside Records heard him and in 1954 Weston made his first recording as a leader: Cole Porter in a Modern Mood. In 1955, he was downbeat’s ‘New Star on Piano.’ Over the next few years he recorded with astonishing regularity: six albums as a leader between 1958 and 1960, including Live at the Five Spot with (astonishingly) the venerable Coleman Hawkins as his sideman.
Weston visited Africa in 1961, and moved to Morocco in 1967, where he opened a jazz club and then toured to make up for the money he lost in the venture. No matter: “This was more than a visit, this was a communion,” a friend observed of Weston’s stay in Africa. Through it all his musical heroes remained the same: Duke Ellington (pre-eminently) and Thelonious Monk. Weston pays tribute to Ellington virtually everywhere in his music, from the make-up of his arrangements to his spikier piano passages. His “Tribute to Duke Ellington” on Carnival: Live at Montreux 1974 is particularly special, an improvised evocation of some of Ellington’s most famous tunes, more of an adroit amalgamation than a formal medley.
His best-selling record is (perhaps ironically) the CTI session Blue Moses, on which he was asked to play electric piano. The album captures the sound of his compositions with opulent intensity. (Tanya is a quirkier big band recording with versions of “Hi Fly” and “Little Niles.”) To my ears, a better introduction to Weston, though it has none of his hits, is The Spirit of Our Ancestors, which begins with his astonishingly rich piano solo on “African Village Bedford Stuyvesant.” It’s a big-hearted, two-handed solo with a rumbling bass line deep in the lowest reaches of the piano. Boogie-woogie meets African drumming by way of a melody that is as appealing as many of his finest compositions.
Weston always went his own way. He was raised on bebop, the second language of his neighborhood. Yet he never sounded like Bud Powell or, for that matter, like his hero Monk. His closest approach to Monk’s sounds is on his introduction to “Babe’s Blues” (on Earth Birth). But, for the most part, Weston reached behind the boppers, drawing for inspiration on a solo stride tradition which he adapted to his own needs. African music gave him different goals, Weston wrote in 1960 that Africa “was either a place to be ashamed of or a place that people had tremendous fear of.” He decided he would use music to change those cultural perceptions. And he succeeded: over the decades he brought some parts of Africa to jazz fans, and jazz to the Africans who heard him perform. Weston was a rarity: a great musician who was also a great teacher.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. (He plays piano badly.)