Freeing His Roots,
The Making of Randy Weston’s Landmark Opus
50 Years Later: A Landmark recording session
by Willard Jenkins
marks the 50th anniversary of Randy Weston’s signature recording session
Uhuru Afrika, certainly a good time to reflect on that singular record in
this Randy’s 84th year on the planet. In light of this 50th anniversary of
it’s recording I thought it was a good time to reprise the piece I
contributed on the subject to
February 2005 issue.
A social awareness
swept through the jazz community around 1960. African-American jazz
artists began to assert their heritage, embarking on a cultural quest in
an atmosphere of racial and social unrest. Between 1958-1961, albums
addressing the African-American social landscape included Art Blakey’s
Africaine, John Coltrane’s Africa Brass, Oliver
Nelson’s Afro-American Sketches, Dizzy Gillespie’s
Africana, Max Roach’s Freedom Now, and Sonny Rollins’
In addition to these albums, Randy Weston asserted his African Heritage
with the 1960 recording of Uhuru Afrika, an inspired, historic
statement from the pianist/composer. Looking back at the recording of this
album, which took place  years ago. Weston is a bit defensive when
describing his motivations.
"Some people questioned my Africanness. They were afraid to deal with
Africa," Weston said. "Some people said we were Black Nationalist because
we created a music based upon African civilization. We have so little
education about Africa, Uhuru Afrika, was a complete turnabout. We said,
‘Africa is the cradle of civilization. Although we’re in Africa, the
Caribbean, Brooklyn, or California, we have this commonality, spirituality
and the great contributions of African society within all of us.’"
Weston was raised in a home of keen cultural awareness. The sancitity of
his African heritage was a constant source of childhood inspiration,
spurred by his father, Frank Weston.
"I was in tune with Africa, and I was always upset about the separation of
our people," Weston said. His dad, raised in Jamaica and Panama,
cultivated that African consciousness in his only son. He kept literature
on Africa and black liberation subjects around their home, and he insisted
that Randy know that he is an African living in America.
In January 1955, Weston recorded the album Trio (Riverside) with bassist
Sam Gill and drummer Blakey, which featured Weston’s first
composition "Zulu." Weston’s African sensibilities emerged in his music
from the outset, and he got a nod as "New Star" pianist in the 1955
DownBeat Critic’s Poll.
One evening in 1957, lightening struck when Weston went clubbing. "I first
Melba Liston playing trombone with Dizzy Gillespie’s
orchestra at Birdland, and when I saw her and heard her play it was
instant love," he said. That thunderbolt led to a partnership of
Ellington-Strayhorn proportions, lasting until Liston died in 1999.
Their first collaboration was Little Niles. "After that recording,
I was anxious to do an extended piece dedicated to African people," Weston
said. "This was an interesting period because everybody was full of fire.
The Civil Rights movement was going on."
Weston titled the work
Uhuru Afrika, or Freedom Africa
[Kiswahili-English translation], in celebration of several new African
nations gaining their independence. This provided the suite with historic
thrust. Weston engaged Liston to arrange his opus.
In preparation, Weston gathered other vital resources. Earlier in the 50s
he had connected with Marshall Stearns in the Berkshires, where Weston
worked as a cook at Windsor Mountain resort. At the nearby Music Inn
Stearns helmed an unusual series of intellectual programs and history of
jazz sessions that struck deep chords in Randy. Weston was struck by
Stearns’ African roots approach to jazz history. The historian/educator
soon recruited the pianist to act as stylistic demonstrator for his jazz
history presentations. Through Stearns’ programs Weston connected with
numerous black intellectuals and artists. Among these were Harlem
Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who forged a friendship with
Weston, and Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji. [Wait for the
book for more on this important friendship.]
In ‘58, as Weston mapped Uhuru Afrika, he sought Hughes’
participation, asking him to write a freedom poem. Hughes’ poem became the
invocation. He also asked Hughes to write lyrics for the song "African
Lady," the second movement. "Langston’s poem set a tone for the recording
session," Weston said. "We were talking about freedom of a continent that
has been invaded, its children taken away, the continent of the creation
of humanity, and Langston felt it, he knew it."
Weston next sought to translate Hughes freedom poem into an African
language with continental commonality. Wondering how this was possible in
a continent of more than 900 different dialects, Weston went to the United
Nations. "I was anxious to use an African language because I was quite
upset by the Tarzan movies and how they depicted Africans," he said. "I
spent time at the United Nations and met several African ambassadors and
asked them what language I should choose to represent the whole continent;
they said Kiswahili."
The 6′7" Weston was quite a vision striding the UN corridors, where he
encountered Tuntemeke Sanga of Tanganyika (pre-colonial Tanzania).
Weston’s friend Richard Jennings [who sadly passed on to ancestry in late
February ‘10], a longtime UN administrator, who along with trumpeter
Bill Dixon founded the UN Jazz Society, identifie[d] Sanga as a
decolonization emissary. "[Sanga] was a petitioner," Jennings said.
"During the time of decolonization, different groups and individuals would
come in and speak to the [UN] trusteeship counsel on decolonization. [Sanga]
was one of those petitioners speaking to why his country should be
"Sanga was a professor of Kiswahili, so he translated Hughes’ freedom poem
[from English into Kiswahili]," Weston said. "We wanted Brock Peters
to do the narration of the opening freedom poem, but Tuntemeke Sanga’s
voice was so wonderful, and his Swahili so perfect, that we used him on
Weston struggled mightily to find a record company willing to record his
magnum opus. With These Hands and Jazz a La Bohemia,
recorded in March and October 1956 respectively, concluded Weston’s
Riverside deal. [Wait for the book for the story of how Randy Weston was
the legendary Riverside label’s first modern jazz signing.] He cut
Little Niles for United Artists in October ‘58.
"I had signed a three-year contract with United Artists, but they weren’t
ready for Uhuru Afrika," Weston said. "They said, ‘If you do a
popular Broadway show, then we’ll let you do Uhuru,‘ so I went for
He settled on the music from Destry Rides Again. Despite Weston’s
indifferent attitude toward the music, the results are distinctive,
executed by four trombones and his rhythm section.
The trombones included
Bennie Green, Slide Hampton, Frank Rehak and Liston, who did the
arrangements. Weston fondly recalls one of Destry’s saving graces:
It was his lone recording with drummer Elvin Jones; with bassist
Peck Morrison and percussionist Willie Rodriguez rounding out
United Artists balked at recording Uhuru, but Weston found an ally in his
label quest: Sarah Vaughan’s husband and manager, C.B. Atkins.
[Wait for it… later on in the book Muhammad Ali figures prominently in
this relationship.] I didn’t have a bit name, I was just playing trio at
the time," Weston said. "I told C.B. Atkins my idea and he went to
Roulette Records and talked Morris Levy into it."
In writing the four movements of Uhuru Afrika, Weston beckoned the
ancestors. "My cultural memory is of the black church, of going to the
calypso dances, dancing to people like the Duke of Iron, of going to the
Palladium and hearing the Latin music, and probably going back further to
before I was born," Weston recalled. "I collected my spirits, asked for
prayers from the ancestors and tried to create what came out of me."
Weston consulted earthly sources for inspiration as well. "I spent time in
the Berkshires with the African choreographer Asadata DeFora from Guinea,"
he said. "He inspired me to collect African traditional music; it was a
natural process of listening, but not necessarily listening with your
ears, almost like listening with your spirit. When I wrote Uhuru Afrika,
it just came out of a magical, supernatural process."
The work is in four movements: "Uhuru Kwanza" signifies African people
determining their own destiny. "African Lady" was dedicated to the African
woman and all the women who inspired and nurtured Randy along the way,
starting with his mom and sister; and "Bantu" signified a coming together
of African people. The celebratory final movement, "Kucheza Blues," is for
when all of Africa gains its independence, leading to a tremendous global
party. Liston wrote the arrangements, but even with all her creative
powers, parts were still being copied the day of the recording session.
"At my house the day before the recording, guys were writing parts all
night long," Weston remembered, with various sheet music tacked to the
walls and even the ceiling of his apartment. "The poor copyist’s ankles
were completely swollen, we had to carry him down two flights of stairs in
a chair, put him in a cab and take him to the studio."
On November 16, 1960, the recording commenced at Bell Sound in Manhattan.
Producer Michael Cuscuna, who has twice reissued Uhuru Afrika, described
Bell as "a gigantic room," otherwise nondescript, possessing no particular
magic. Awaiting those charts was an amazing assemblage of musicians,
"The key people were
Melba’s associates from her
big band days, saxophonist-clarinetists Budd Johnson and trombonist
Quentin Jackson," Weston said. "When we’d do a big band date,
the foundation people. We added Gigi Gryce, Sahib Shihab, Cecil Payne,
Jerome Richardson, and Yusef Lateef on reeds and flutes; Julius Watkins on
French horn; Willia Clark Terry, Benny Bailey, Richard Williams, and
Freddie Hubbard on trumpets and flugelhorns; Les Spann on flute and
guitar; and Kenny Burrell on guitar.
Africa is civilization’s heartbeat, so the rhythm section was of utmost
consideration. "We wanted a rhythm section that showed how all drums come
from the African drum," Weston asserted. "Babatunde Olatunji played
African drum and percussion; Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba
expressed the African drum via Cuba; Max Roach played marimba; Charli
Persip and G.T. Hogan played jazz drums; and we had two basses,
George Duvivier and Ron Carter."
Surviving musicians don’t recall arriving to the session with many
preconceived clues about the cultural significance of the session. "Randy
had talked about what he was going to do, but basically I had no idea
until we got to the studio," Persip said.
Once he arrived and spied the prodigious group of percussionists on the
date, Persip’s musical collegiality took over. "I listened to the other
drummers, and I played with them. I tried to blend in with them and at the
same time play my part, accompanying the ensemble."
"When you hear all those drummers [in the intro], it’s a building process;
first is the African thumb piano, the original piano," Weston said. "Then
I’m playing the jaw of the donkey percussion instrument. After that comes
Armando Peraza on bongos, then Candido, Olatunji, and Charli Persip. And
then all the drummers play together."
Ron Carter was a relatively new kid on the block, having hit town the
previous year. " Uhuru Afrika was my first awareness that when you go to a
date you don’t have any instructions and you should just be prepared for
whatever is on the music stand," the bassist said. "It was a surprise to
be in the midst of all those guys."
Seeing all those percussionists was rather daunting and called for some
different thinking, as Carter calculated his role. "First I noted the
pitch of all of those drums. You’ve got congas and bongos, African drums
by ‘Tunji… My first concern was if I could find notes to play out of their
range, because it takes a hell of a mixing job to get the bass notes out
of that mud.
"By the same token, respecting and honoring George Duvivier’s presence, I
wanted to see what his approach was going to be when those [drummers]
started banging around. Was it going to be like mine, or different in
terms of where to play our parts; when the drums lay out, how do we handle
the ranges now that we have the space? It was a real lesson in section
bass playing, not having played with another bass player in a jazz
To express Hughes’ lyrics for "African Lady," Weston engaged two beyond
jazz singers, baritone Brock Peters and operatic soprano Martha Flowers.
Clark Terry recalled Flowers as "a marvelous singer," with whom he and
Liston had worked on Quincy Jones’ Free and Easy. Flowers was immediately
at ease when she arrived at Bell Sound and spotted Terry and Liston. "When
I heard about this music and saw the score, I felt a great sense of
dedication to this work. Politically, it made a great musical statement,
and that fired me up," Flowers said from her Chapel Hill, NC home.
["African Lady"] wasn’t written in a high key where my voice would sound
operatic. It was written in a medium key where my voice had a mellow
quality that would lend itself to jazz or music that wasn’t considered
Weston was thrilled with the date, "because everybody captured the spirit
of Africa. Once, we needed a certain kind of
percussion sound and some guys used Coca-Cola bottles. Everybody
contributed their ideas because when I record I like to get the musicians’
input. Sometimes they can see or hear things that I can’t hear, so I
always like to keep it open. There was a tremendous sense of freedom."
Hughes’ invocation established a reverent tone. "When [the musicians]
heard the Langston Hughes poem it was quite dramatic, because that was
during the period when Africa was either a place to be ashamed of or
feared, you were not supposed to identify with Africa," Weston recalled.
"Hearing "Freedom Africa," they knew that freedom for Africa is freedom
Uhuru Afrika was actually recorded and released prior to Weston’s first
trip to Africa in 1961, when he was part of a U.S. cultural delegation
that included Hughes, Flowers, Olatunji, and others to a festival in
[see extensive coverage of this historic cultural exchange in
In 1963, after a second trip to the continent with
artist Elton Fax, Weston teamed up with Liston for the Highlife: Music
From the New African Nations record (Colpix label). In 1967, he toured
throughout Africa on a State Department trip. The last stop on that tour
was Morocco, where he eventually settled during 1967-72.
[Full details and the
ultimate implications of these historic journeys are definitive chapters
in Weston’s as-told-to autobiography African Rhythms.]
Uhuru Afrika has been
reissued on vinyl and on CD, and in 2006 was part of a Weston Mosaic
Select box set [good luck finding that one]. These were labors of love for
Cuscuna. "I became a Randy Weston completist, and Uhuru Afrika was the
hardest to find as a young collector," Cuscuna said. "I was ecstatic when
I finally secured a copy. So much music in the ’60s used Africa
superficially as window dressing, but this was the real deal — an honest,
well-written, well researched fusion of jazz and African music. When I
launched the Roulette reissue series, I was going to put that one out no
In 1998, 651Arts presented Uhuru Afrika in Brooklyn, at the Majestic
[now the Harvey Theatre at 651 Fulton Street]. Liston and Weston’s
T.K. Blue, pieced together the original charts, which were
in disarray from Liston’s various relocations and illness.
Several of the
original musicians, including Clark Terry, Cecil Payne, Candido, and Olatunji, played the reunion. One of the high points of the evening came
when Weston wheeled shy
Melba — confined to a wheelchair after a 1985
stroke — onstage for kudos.
As underrated as Weston himself, Uhuru Afrika was a landmark undertaking.
Yusef Lateef remembered it as a "discovery and invention in the esthetics
of music, because there were decades of knowledge in the studio.
I look at
it as an amalgamation of abilities that were exchanging ideas and
formulating the outcome of that music. A romance of experience happened at
by Willard Jenkins
Reprinted with permission from