By Vernon Gibbs
Randy Weston finds himself in
Randy Weston sits in
the middle of the hustling, super city of New York, the spiritual capital
of the country that 22 million Afro-Americans consider "home." He is
surrounded by walls covered with fabric which evoke images of more exotic
climates. Weston sits surrounded by images and his music which is more
than just inspired by Africa and the rhythms that have emanated from it.
Weston's music, like its creator, has allowed itself to be absorbed by
Africa, and for Weston there can be no substitute for "home."
Ten years ago, long before it became fashionable to be aware of things
African, Weston recorded an album of music from the newly liberated
African nations, most of it variations of high life. Now, ten years later,
in the wake of his most successful album, Blue Moses, Randy has again
teamed up with the brilliant arranger
Melba Liston for his new album
Tanjah. Like Randy Weston, Sonny
Rollins and others who refuse to compromise themselves, , who has arranged
for people as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Milt Jackson,
Marvin Gaye and the Supremes, is in the habit of periodically "retiring"
from the music business. This is her first job as an arranger in many
Like most of his music of the last decade,
Tanjah shows dedication to
music in general and to African music in particular.
Unlike many of us who simply pay homage to Africa, Weston has relocated
and is now a citizen of Morocco.
He moved there in order to be closer to the source of the music and to set
up a cultural center to facilitate an exchange of ideas between American
and African musicians.
"Because I am an African who lives in the United States, it's only natural
for me to want to go back to my homeland.
Certainly the problems of discrimination and racism in this country have
heightened my reasons for wanting to go to Africa, but even if everything
was perfect here; I would still want to go to Africa because I am an
African, and I would like to know more about my own ancestry; more about
my own background; more about why I play music the way I do and why I
think as I do.
It was necessary for me to go back to Africa to really discover those
The move to Africa was not a sudden one. Weston credits his father, a
Panamanian, with first reminding him of his African roots, but his
professional interest was increased in the late fifties when he and his
group began working in colleges with author-educator Marshall Steams,
doing jazz demonstration/lectures which illustrated the different styles
of jazz here, in the Caribbean and in Africa.
Weston became more and more interested in exploring the African folkloric
styles, and when he was invited to Africa in '61, '63 and '67, he gained
some valuable insights about himself that helped him decide to make the
When Weston moved to Morocco, he opened a nightclub called African Rhythms
which became a showcase for Black American jazz and popular music. Then he
began the serious study of African music which helped him to become one of
the foremost authorities on African and Afro-American music.
"By listening to all types of African music, I've discovered a lot of
things that we think are new - from the most modern to the most basic
blues - in African music. Many of our 'innovations' have really been going
on in Africa for thousands of years, but with traditional instruments. But
I've heard everything from Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman to Bessie
Smith in African music.
"God has given African people a very special gift; we can make music out
of anything. I've seen instruments made out of cigar boxes. African music
is a way of life and Africans are the most advanced in the knowledge of
rhythms. When Europeans say that African music is mostly rhythm, and
attempt to dismiss it on that basis, it's simply because they can't play
it. But three-fourths of the world plays this music - music that isn't
Weston is, himself, an accomplished musician and does not like to make
compromises in his music. That is one reason he has recorded so little,
choosing to wait until his "time had come." He was named the
Star Pianist" by Downbeat when he made his debut in '55, and in '72
was called the "Pianist Most Deserving Of Wider Recognition" by the same
Stylistically he is grounded in the music of Duke Ellington and Fats
Waller, with a bit of classical training thrown in for good measure. At
14, he shed his classical music teacher because he had to "play music a
certain way" and considered the indoctrination "foreign." He found that
certain way in his home town of Brooklyn and the jazz musicians who lived
there, among them Max Roach, Cecil Payne and Duke Jordan. After studying
theory and harmony, he played rhythm and blues in the bands of Bull-moose
Jackson and Eddie "Clean-head" Vinson, before finally deciding on a
full-time career as a jazz musician.
Zulu, his first composition of African influence, was written in
'55, also the year of his first recordings.
Now in '73, Randy Weston does not seem particularly concerned about any of
the long overdue "recognition" that has finally come his way. After
scoring a number one album, he immediately changed labels because he felt
that the producers had not recognized the spiritual nature of what he was
trying to do. That is why the release of
Tanjah is a special event. It finds Weston in the full light of
"recognition," free at last to do exactly what he wants.
Shortly before he went back to Morocco, Weston told me, "As an artist, my
role is to project beauty, strength and dignity. I make records because it
is important to project positive messages to our people. I don't have
money, but I have so much else to give."
Weston is one of those few among us who lives according to his utterances.