Anecdotes and excerpts
Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins
Reprinted with permission from
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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
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
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...".
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!"
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
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
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
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
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
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
This was way before civil rights so we were staying in all-black
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
and Bill [Vishnu] Wood
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
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
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
[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!
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
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
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!
Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins
Reprinted with permission from