Randy Weston

  African Rhythms                      AUTOBIOGRAPHY

 

AFRICAN RHYTHMS  -  The  Autobiography  of   Randy Weston      Order here >>
Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins
352 pp., 51 b&w photographs
ISBN 978-0-8223-4784-2
Publication Date: November 9, 2010

Duke University Press   more  >>
Interview with Randy Weston on YouTube  more >>>
Interview with Willard Jenkins on YouTube  more >>>
 

 

From the Back Cover

 

“African Rhythms is unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Randy Weston -pianist, composer, bandleader, activist, ambassador, visionary, griot - 
takes the reader on a most spectacular spiritual journey from Brooklyn to Africa, around the world and back again.

He tells a story of this great music that has never been told in print:  tracing its African roots and branches, acknowledging the ancestors who helped bring him to the music and draw the music from his soul, singing praise songs for those artistic and intellectual giants whose paths he crossed, from Langston Hughes to Melba Liston, Dizzy to Monk, Marshall Stearns to Cheikh Anta Diop.

And in the process, Mr. Weston bares his soul, revealing a man overflowing with ancient wisdom, humility, respect for history, and a capacity for creating some of the most astoundingly beautiful music the modern world has ever experienced.” 

- Robin D. G. Kelley  

 

 

 
Cover photo by  Carol Friedman

 

Anecdotes and excerpts
Composed by Randy Weston,  Arranged by Willard Jenkins
Reprinted with permission from www.openskyjazz.com


Part -  1   2   3   4   5   6



Part 1

Thus we begin a series of anecdotes in this space from our book African Rhythms, leading up to the publication date. One important figure in the life of Randy Weston is the great poet-author-social commentator and world traveler Langston Hughes. You’ll find several mentions of Randy in Arnold Rampersad’s epic two-volume biography of Hughes and the pianist-composer speaks very fondly of his experiences with the writer, such as this tasty anecdote from their friendship.


After "Uhuru Afrika" [Weston’s 1960 opus recording for United Artists, since reissued several times including most recently as part of the Mosaic Records "Randy Weston Mosaic Select" box set; for Uhuru Afrika Langston Hughes penned the liner notes and wrote lyrics for the suite’s lone vocal selection "African Lady"] Langston and I stayed close.


In fact when he died in 1967 at a French hospital in New York his secretary called and said "Randy, in Langston’s will he wants you to play his funeral with a trio." I thought ‘man, Langston is too much!’ They had some kind of religious ceremony someplace else, which I was unable to attend. But the ceremony Langston really wanted and had specified in his will took place at a funeral home in Harlem. It was a big funeral home that seated over 200 people with chairs on one side of the place. In the other room was Langston’s body, laid out in a coffin with his arms crossed.


The band was Ed Blackwell [drums], Bill [Vishnu] Wood [bass], and me. They had arranged for us to play in front of the area of the funeral home where the guests sat, surrounded by two big wreaths. Ed Blackwell got very New Orleans, very superstitious about the setting. He said "man, I’m not gonna touch those flowers. It’s weird enough we’re here in the first place." So we had some guys move the flowers so we could set up the band.


The people filed in and had a processional to view Langston’s body. Lena Horne was there, so were Ralph Bunche, Arna Bontempts, and a whole lot of dignitaries. We set up the band and I went outside for a minute to get a breath of fresh air. Langston’s secretary came out and said "OK Randy, it’s time to start." I said "where’s the minister?" He said "there’s no minister, you guys start the service!" I stayed up all night the night Langston died and wrote a piece called "Blues for Langston" because I knew he loved the blues more than anything else in the world. He and Jimmy Rushing, those two guys really made an impact on me about the importance of the blues and what the blues really meant.


Before we played I stood up and said "well folks, I wrote this blues for Langston Hughes since he loved the blues so much, so we’re going to play the blues." We played one hour of all different kinds of blues and in between selections Arna Bontempts read some of Langston’s poetry. The funniest thing I remember about it was that Lena Horne told me later "ya know, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know whether to pat my foot or not…" But the story is that Langston put us all on. Two weeks later I got a phone call from his secretary who said "Randy, I forgot to tell you, Langston said to be sure the musicans are paid union scale!"


Stay tuned to this space for further anecdotes from African Rhythms, detailing the rich life and singular life and times of NEA Jazz Master composer-pianist Randy Weston. As the longtime member of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band, trombonist Benny Powell has said "…With Randy Weston we don’t play gigs, we have adventures...".

 

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Part 2


I
n our ongoing series of anecdotes from the book African Rhythms: the autobiography of Randy Weston, Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins, forthcoming, published by Duke University Press.


In one of the early chapters of our book Randy talks about the influence of the ancestor grandmaster drummer Max Roach. Max was a few years older and at the time (mid-late 1940s) much more experienced on the jazz scene than Randy but the two were fast friends and frequently hung out at Max’s place. Recalling those times, here Randy details a Miles Davis encounter.


"…Like I said, there were a lotta giants around Brooklyn back then, many of them living in my neighborhood. I mentioned [pianist] Eddie Heywood, who lived directly across the street. Max Roach’s house was two blocks away. George Russell was living in Max Roach’s house at the time. Miles Davis, who was the same age as me, had just come up from East St. Louis and he was a struggling young musician who didn’t have any money at the time, so he lived in a small place in the neighborhood on Kingston Avenue with his wife and young children.


I used to hang out at Max Roach’s house on Monroe Street all the time. Max’s house was a magnet for the new generation of musicians who emerged in the late 1940s, what the writers and fans called the bebop musicians. I remember George Russell would be there working on "Cubana Be Cubana Bop", which Dizzy Gillespie later made famous with his first Afro-Cuban flavored band. Miles would always be there at Max’s house as well because he was working with Charlie Parker at the time and Max was the drummer in that band; Duke Jordan, who was living in Brooklyn, was the pianist and Tommy Potter was the bassist. So Charlie Parker’s rhythm section was all Brooklyn guys.


I remember a really nice moment with some of these guys. In 1947 when the great trumpeter Freddie Webster, who was a big influence on Miles, died so prematurely, George Russell, Miles Davis, Max and me all got in my father’s car and we drove out to Coney Island by the ocean. While we strolled reminiscing on Freddie, Miles took out his trumpet right there on the beach and played a beautiful tribute to Freddie Webster that I’ll never forget!"

 

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Part 3

This time we focus on Randy’s experiences at the historic 1977 FESTAC, the African world Festival of Arts and Culture held in Lagos, Nigeria. Randy’s experiences are particulary pertinent now because the African nation of Senegal will host FESMAN ‘09, the successor to FESTAC and thus the third African world festival, in December ‘09.


FESTAC ‘77 and another hang with Fela…

In 1977 I traveled [to Africa] on my own to join a delegation of artists and great thinkers at the FESTAC event. FESTAC ‘77 was actually the second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The organizer’s idea was to bring over black representatives of the global arts and culture community from across Africa and the Diaspora, including places as far away as Australia, which sent some Aborigine artists.


Once again I traveled to Lagos, which by that time was a bit different place than it was when I was there in the 1960s. For one thing cars had literally taken over the place and the traffic was horrendous around the clock. Ethiopia was the host of FESTAC ‘77 even though NIgeria was the site. The Nigerian government reportedly put up huge amounts of oil money to stage this event. The whole idea is that we are one African people, that was the goal of FESTAC. No matter if we’re in Mississippi or Havana or Australia, or wherever…


They invited about 20,000 artists from across the globe. I only wound up playing once, at least officially, though I did jam with Fela; but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sun Ra was there and he played once. There was so much great artistry at this conference that you didn’t need to play more than once. Representatives from the entire black world organized this thing. They hosted colloquiums throughout FESTAC on everything from education to health to music, all things involved with African people. It was designed to develop a sense of global unity. FESTAC lasted one month, throughout January. I stayed most of the month because I had come individually on my own; I didn’t come with the American delegation because I was living in France at the time.


The array of folks there was incredible. For example I’d have breakfast and my tablemates might be Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Queen Mother Moore, and a heavy Sufi master named Mahi Ismail. Imagine me hanging out with those cats! When he arrived Stevie came into the hotel with his guitar, walked in the lobby, sat down and started singing and playing his guitar.


Fela was one of the main people I wanted to see while there, and like many African musicians he had his own club called The Shrine, just opposite his village in Lagos. Fela’s club was really big, it must have held about 1,000 people and the night I went there it was packed. When I got to Fela’s village he was sitting in a corner, holding court and eating away. I’m stepping through all kinds of women, all surrounding this dude. It was quite a scene. He saw me and said "Randy, come on and have some food." We talked awhile then it was time for him to perform, so he put on his stage costume and we were stepping around all these women to get outside. As we’re walking through this village it was obvious Fela was like a king to these people.


We entered The Shrine and this place, along with Bobby Benson’s joint, really became my inspiration for wanting to open up my own club. Fela got his band together for the performance and he called me over and said "Randy, you sit there." He had an English film crew capturing his every move. He started playing this little rhythm on the piano, then the band came in and he grabbed his saxophone. The rhythm was totally infectious, but you have to hear it live, you have to be where people are dancing to this band to fully appreciate this groove.


At one point in his performance Fela grabbed the mike and said "Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my brother from America," and they brought me onstage. So we jammed a bit. Next thing I know he’s talking on the mike again and he’s got me by the hand and he’s cursing out the military — and there were military guys in the club! I wanted to get the hell off that stage with a quickness ’cause those cats don’t play! Man, Fela was fearless, but I was sweatin’… what this guy DIDN’T call the government… and he wouldn’t let go of my hand! The people were cheering him on!


One week later, after we had all left, the soldiers raided Fela’s village and destroyed the place. They threw his mother out of a window, beat him up and took him to prison, and raped all his girls. But when he came out of jail Fela was the same, still defiant. He said "I’m the president of Africa"; he was against all that stuff that was in opposition to the true Africa, he was incredible.


As for FESTAC, which was over by the time all that madness happened to Fela, the final night was Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, and Osibissa in a stadium with 50,000 people in the stands. As I always say, we’re all a part of this, all our music is different, and all our music is the same. But this FESTAC thing was too powerful, it was too big. The white press gave it absolutely no coverage… But this was the most fantastic event I ever participated in up to that point


 

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Part 4

This tour was a really big deal for me because other than the service it was not only my first time leaving home, but also my first time going down south on the blues circuit. The pay was $25 a day, which sounded like a lot of money at first
- remember, this was 1949.
Out of that $25 you had to pay your room rent and buy your meals; but for me I was still living at home and this sounded like a golden opportunity to travel. It was the same for
[drummer] Connie Kay and he and I quickly became tight friends. We were similar in height and worked great together on the bandstand as a rhythm section, overcoming the bass player’s obvious shortcomings.


The tour started in the fall and one of our first memorable gigs was in Washington, DC.  This was during a period when battles of the bands were quite common and very popular.
In DC the battle was Bullmoose Jackson versus Ruth Brown’s band, which had Willis "Gatortail" Jackson on sax.
Willis was like [Bull Moose’s strawboss] Frank "Floorshow" Cully, one of those entertaining bar walkers who would hold that one continuous note while removing his clothes and stuff like that. But Willis Jackson was a better saxophone player than Floorshow, who was just one of those guerillas, all show and bluster, little substance.
The first time I saw those cats lying down on the floor battling, playing one note and meanwhile taking off their shirts and ties was something I had never seen before and it was pretty corny to me. But the audience ate it up!
This was some real black showbiz of the day. Ruth’s band probably won that battle because Bull Moose was more of a crooner, with a sweet and tender voice, a very romantic kind of singing, not exactly a hardcore blues shouter or a dynamic crowd-pleaser like Ruth. Bull Moose sang the blues all right, but Ruth and Willis were more dynamic performers.


We played the whole black circuit on this tour, from the Eastern Seaboard down to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and over to Mobile, Alabama, New Orleans, Houston, and Oklahoma City; those were the stops that stood out in my mind.
I also remember playing in places in North Carolina where there was hay on the floor with folks dancing on the hay.
We played in joints where the piano had maybe two working octaves and the bandstand was so tiny that the piano couldn’t fit onstage and I’d have to sit in the audience to play. But it was a learning experience and we quickly learned that although that $25 a day sounded like great pay in the beginning to a young inexperienced guy like me, after we paid for our rooms and our meals we had hardly any money left.
Floorshow was also an incurable gambler who would take our payroll and gamble with it, leaving us short sometimes. So we never had any real money.


This was way before civil rights so we were staying in all-black hotels.
Another memorable gig was in Mobile, Alabama where we played in a place that had never had a black band before.
When we arrived there was a state trooper posted outside this ballroom where we were to play.  Floorshow’s advance publicity photo had preceded the band and it pictured him with his saxophone up in the air; he fancied himself as an acrobat of the sax and he would often jump in the air while holding that one note. The state trooper at the door asked us "which one of you guys is this guy" pointing at the photo. We all said "that’s Floorshow" because he was a real pain in the ass that was always making us crazy so we wanted to get even.
The trooper looked hard and said "we better see you do this tonight" pointing straight at Floorshow, "or we’ll take your ass to prison!" Welcome to Mobile! Right away we knew this could be a hot night in Alabama.


We got to the gig and right at the start of the show Bull Moose is singing these syrupy romantic ballads and his usual blues.  All of a sudden these overly excited white women started rushing the stage - and remember, this is Ku Klux Klan country!  Needless to say this shook us up and we kept trying to tell Bull Moose to change the tempo, change the songs, or do something to lower that heat! 
There were actually women sitting on top of the piano!  Thankfully nothing happened but we did a whole lot of sweating that night, and it wasn’t from the room temperature.


 

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Part 5

The Gnawa Connection

The Gnawa actually have a close kinship with African Americans; they’re our brothers and sisters.  Their ancestors came from the same region of Africa as the great majority of African American ancestors. While our ancestors were brought to the Americas and the Caribbean aboard Atlantic slave ships on the Middle Passage, Gnawa ancestors were crossing the Sahara to North Africa in bondage.
Some of the same faces you see on the Gnawa in Morocco you see in the U.S. and you would never know the difference until they opened their mouths.
My Gnawa friend M’Barek Ben Outhman from Marrakech, who has made tours and records with me in recent times, could be a brother from Brooklyn, could be from Cleveland… until he starts to speak.
The physical characteristics of African Americans and the Gnawa are very close.


I once met a Congolese filmmaker named Balufu Bakupa Kanyinda who insisted that the Gnawa story is the most important story in Africa to have been revealed to the rest of the world in the 20th century. I asked him "what do you know about Gnawa, you’re from the Congo"? He said "man, let me tell you, the story of the Gnawa migration to Morocco proves that black institutions, black civilizations were so powerful that even if we were taken away from our homeland, taken away as slaves, we created new civilizations."
That was also quite an interesting observation to me because when I first came to Morocco the Gnawa were viewed as street beggars, undesirables.
Moroccans initially tried to discourage me from having anything to do with Gnawa. They’d ask me ‘what do you see in these people?’ Everywhere you go the black folks are always on the bottom. But now the Moroccans are all touched by Gnawa; all the young, educated Moroccans are all influenced by Gnawa culture… black culture.
They’ve now seen the importance of Gnawa traditions to overall Moroccan culture.


The way I met the Gnawa is in retrospect one of the many mysteries of life I’ve encountered along the way.

In 1968 my trio, with Ed Blackwell [drums] and Bill [Vishnu] Wood [bass], played a small performance at the American school [in Tangier, Morocco] where my children Pam and Niles attended. I met one of the teachers there, a man whose name I forgot almost as quickly as I learned it and that’s where the mystery begins. I only saw this man once after this initial encounter, yet he was very important as far as my introduction to Gnawa culture.

That day after our performance at the school this teacher came up to me, introduced himself, and said ‘Mr. Weston, I’ve heard you’re interested in traditional music. You haven’t heard African music until you’ve heard the Gnawa.’  Needless to say he certainly got my attention with that comment.


I told him yes, I was certainly interested in knowing more about these Gnawa people. We arranged a time when he could come to my apartment and when he arrived he brought one of the Gnawa with him, Abdullah el-Gourde, who played the guimbre
(genbri, haghhough). Abdullah and I have been connected ever since; he was the one who really introduced me to Gnawa culture and customs.
As for that mysterious teacher, neither Abdullah not I ever saw this man again, and neither of us can remember his name!


At the time Abdullah worked for Voice of America radio in Tangier. I’m not quite sure what he did there but he worked there for a long time and it was great because it gave him the opportunity to learn to speak English and learn something about American people.
He told me about the Gnawa and their lineage, their culture, and he would often mention their spiritual ceremonies which they call Lilas
[lee-lah].
I became particularly intrigued by what little he told me of these Lilas and I really wanted to attend one purely to observe. But at that time it was strictly taboo for so-called outsiders to attend these spiritual ceremonies, it was that deep. But I was persistent and kept insisting that my only interest was as an observer, not as a participant. Finally they relented and enabled me to attend a Lila.


The Gnawa have a color chart and each of their songs has a corresponding color
[editor’s note: the Gnawa color chart is being reproduced in the forthcoming book African Rhythms]. They have different rhythms for every color and each color represents a certain saint, a certain spirit and they consider some colors more dangerous than others.


I remember very vividly an incident a friend told me about later regarding these colors. My partner in Morocco, Absalom, told me a story about an encounter his wife Khadija had with Gnawa. He said that what happens in Morocco, three days before the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, people with large houses give their homes over to the Gnawa so they can have their ceremonies, where they do their spiritual thing. Absalom said that a long time ago this Gnawa man was in a trance and he was dancing to the music and spinning around and whatever the color was it was a very heavy color. So whatever this guy was dancing to Absalom’s wife and little girl started laughing at this spectacle and the result was that his wife responds to the color yellow because of this incident!


On another occasion after this yellow incident I was with Absalom and his wife, and the Gnawa were playing at my house. There was another Moroccan guy there, a would-be flute player who had pulled out his instrument itching to play with the Gnawa. This cat with the flute is one of those types of guys who have no talent, but he’d even go so far as to have the nerve to take out his flute and start playing if John Coltrane was onstage! I warned him ‘man, don’t play that flute!’ So Absalom asks the Gnawa to play the color yellow for his wife Khadija, who was reclining on the couch nearby. When the Gnawa played the color yellow all of a sudden a strange voice started coming out of Khadija, who is a very dainty woman. This voice starts coming out of her and she says something to this wannabe flute player in Arabic. Next thing I knew this cat grabbed his flute and started dashing for the door. Whatever she said it was so powerful he had to split immediately!


 

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Part 6

Blue Moses

On April 23, 2009 one of the highlights of a wonderful NEA Jazz Masters evening at Tri-C JazzFest with Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth Band and Randy Weston came during Randy’s rare solo piano performance to open the program.
As he often does he included the epic slice of musical hypnosis he wrote back around 1970 called "Blue Moses." The following anecdote is the genesis of that brilliant composition, taken from the forthcoming book African Rhythms, the as-told-to autobiography of Randy Weston written by Willard Jenkins, to be released in 2010 by Duke University Press.


The first tune I wrote in honor of the Gnawa was "Blue Moses," a translation of their reference to Sidi Musa that is based on one of their songs.
But the chief Gnawa in Tangier forbad me from playing it initallly.  He said "don’t play that in public, that’s sacred music."  So for one year I wouldn’t play that piece.  Finally I went back to him to ask his permission.
His name was Fatah, so I said "Fatah, I think the world needs to hear this music and I’m not going to commercialize it or disrespect it in any way. I’m going to put all the proper spiritual power behind this music because I respect you and I respect the Gnawa people. Finally Fatah relented and said "OK", that I could finally perform "Blue Moses."
But you can bet if he didn’t give me the OK, there was no way I was gonna play that piece because I’ve seen some strange things happen in Africa when there’s even a hint of crossing the spirits. Ironically, though I’ve played "Blue Moses" countless times since then, the first time I recorded it was in 1972 on the Blue Moses album for CTI that was a real hit record for me.


Editor’s note: …And what’s even more ironic about that Blue Moses date for CTI is that Randy has always been an avowed disciple of the acoustic piano — electric pianos be damned. But when he arrived at Van Gelder studio to record that date, lo and behold a Fender Rhodes electric piano awaited his massive hands much to his chagrin. Take it or leave it was Creed Taylor’s declaration, so in light of some lean times Randy reluctantly agreed to wrestle the Rhodes, in the auspicious company of Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Hubert Laws, Grover Washington (who whenever Randy would see him in succeeding years would always ask when they were going to do it again, he had so enjoyed the experience), Airto, and Randy’s son Azzedin on congas. Remember how CTI record dates were invariably awash in Don Sebesky-arranged additional horns and strings? For the complete story of how Blue Moses got the full Sebesky treatment… wait ’till the book!


 

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Composed by Randy Weston,  Arranged by Willard Jenkins
Reprinted with permission from www.openskyjazz.com
 

 

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