Randy Weston, Pianist Who Traced Africa in Jazz, Dies at 92
Sept. 1, 2018
Randy Weston performing at a Highlife Session in April 1963. Mr. Weston’s playing and composing emphasized the African roots of jazz, including in such albums as “Little Niles” and “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”).Chuck Stewart/Mosiac Records
By Giovanni Russonello
Randy Weston, an esteemed pianist whose music and scholarship advanced the argument — now broadly accepted — that jazz is, at its core, an African music, died at his home in Brooklyn on Saturday. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by his lawyer, Gail Boyd, who said the exact cause was still being determined.
On his earliest recordings in the mid-1950s, Mr. Weston almost fit the profile of a standard bebop musician: He recorded jazz standards and galloping original tunes in a typical, small-group format. But his sharply cut harmonies and intense, gnarled rhythms conveyed a manifestly Afrocentric sensibility, one that was slightly more barbed and rugged than the popular hard-bop sound of the day.
Early on, he exhibited a distinctive voice as a composer. “Hi-Fly,” which he first released in 1958 on the LP “New Faces at Newport,” became a standard. And he eventually distinguished himself as a solo pianist, reflecting the influence of his main idol, Thelonious Monk. But more than Monk, Mr. Weston liked to constantly reshape his cadences, rarely lingering on a steady pulse.
Reviewing a concert in 1990, The New York Times’ Peter Watrous wrote of Mr. Weston: “Everything he played was edited to the essential notes of a phrase, and each phrase stood on its own, carefully separated from the next one; Mr. Weston sat rippling waves of notes down next to glossy and percussive octaves, which led logically to meditative chords.”
Even before making his first album, Mr. Weston was giving concerts and teaching seminars that emphasized the African roots of jazz. This flew in the face of the prevailing narrative at the time, which cast jazz as a broadly American music, and a kind of equal-opportunity soundtrack to racial integration.
“Wherever I go, I try to explain that if you love music, you have to know where it came from,” Mr. Weston told the website All About Jazz in 2003. “Whether you say jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba, salsa — all these names are all Africa’s contributions to the Western hemisphere. If you take out the African elements of our music, you would have nothing.”
As countries across Africa shook themselves free of colonial exploitation in the mid-20th century, Mr. Weston recorded albums such as “Little Niles,” in 1958, and “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”), in 1960, explicitly saluting the struggle for self-determination. The latter of those recordings included lyrics written by Langston Hughes, and sales were banned in South Africa by the apartheid regime.
Both albums — and others throughout his career — featured the marbled horn arrangements of the trombonist Melba Liston, who left an indelible stamp on Mr. Weston’s oeuvre.
In 1959 he became a central member of the United Nations Jazz Society, a group seeking to spread jazz throughout the world, particularly in Africa. In 1961 he visited Nigeria as part of a delegation of the American Society for African Culture, beginning a lifelong trans-Atlantic exchange.
After two more trips to Africa, he moved to Morocco in 1968, having first arrived there on a junket sponsored by the State Department. He stayed for five years, living first in Rabat and then in Tangier, where he ran the African Rhythms Cultural Center, a performance venue that fostered artists from various traditions.
Mr. Weston drew particular inspiration from musicians of the Gnawa tradition, whose music centered on complex, commingled rhythms and low drones. While in Morocco he established a rigorous international touring regimen and played often in Europe.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Mr. Weston released a series of high-profile recordings for the label Verve, all to critical acclaim. Those included tributes to his two greatest American influences — Duke Ellington and Monk — as well as a record dedicated to his own compositions, “Self Portraits,” from 1989.
Mr. Weston earned a Grammy nod in 1973 for his album “Tanjah” (nominated for best jazz performance by a big band), and in 1995 for “The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco” (in the best world music album category), a recording that he produced and released under his name, but on which he left most of the playing to 11 Moroccan musicians.
In 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed Mr. Weston with its Jazz Masters award, the highest accolade available to a jazz artist in the United States. He was voted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame in 2016.
He also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and United States Artists, as well as awards from the Moroccan government and the Institute of the Black World.
Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Trio performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2011.Erik Jacobs for The New York Times
He held honorary doctorates of music from Brooklyn College, Colby College and the New England Conservatory, and had served as artist in residence at universities around New York City. Mr. Weston’s papers are archived at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
In addition to his wife, Fatoumata Mbengue, Mr. Weston is survived by three daughters, Cheryl, Pamela and Kim; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild. Mr. Weston’s first marriage, to Mildred Mosley, ended in divorce. A son, Azzedin, is deceased.
Randolph Edward Weston was born in Brooklyn on April 6, 1926. His father, Frank Weston, was a barber and restaurateur who had emigrated from Panama, and who studied his African heritage with pride. Randy’s mother, nee Vivian Moore, was a domestic worker who had grown up in Virginia.
Though his parents split when he was 3, they stayed on good terms and lived near each other in Brooklyn. Randy spent time with both throughout his childhood, receiving his father’s teachings about the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean while absorbing the music of the African-American church from his mother, who made sure that Randy and his half sister, Gladys, were in the pews every Sunday.
In his memoir, “African Rhythms,” written with Willard Jenkins, Mr. Weston remembered that his father — a staunch supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association — hung “maps and portraits of African kings on the walls, and was forever talking to me about Africa.”
Mr. Weston wrote of his father, “He was planting the seeds for what I would become as far as developing my consciousness of the plight of Africans all over the world.”
As a child, Mr. Weston took classical piano lessons, but did not fall in love with the instrument until he started studying with a teacher who encouraged his love for the jazz protagonists of the day, particularly Ellington, Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins.
Mr. Weston was drafted into the Army in 1944, serving three years and rising to the rank of staff sergeant. While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he was in charge of managing supplies, and frequently tried to share leftover materials and food with local residents, many of whom had lost their homes in World War II.
Upon returning to Brooklyn, he took over managing his father’s restaurant, Trios, which became a hub of intellectuals and artists. Mr. Weston began playing jazz and R&B gigs in the borough, seeking wisdom from older musicians. He became particularly close to Monk.
“When I heard Monk play, his sound, his direction, I just fell in love with it,” Mr. Weston told All About Jazz in 2003. “I would pick him up in the car and bring him to Brooklyn and he was a great master because, for me, he put the magic back into the music.”
Heroin use was rampant on the jazz scene then, and Mr. Weston developed a habit. In 1951 he left New York to get clean, moving to Lenox, Mass. He made frequent trips to the Music Inn, a venue in nearby Stockbridge, and while working there met Marshall Stearns, a leading jazz scholar with strong beliefs about jazz’s West African roots, who was giving lectures and leading workshops at the venue.
Mr. Weston started to perform regularly, and he and Mr. Stearns collaborated on a series of round tables about the history of jazz. Mr. Weston met a range of musicians from across the African diaspora, including the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, the Cuban percussionist Cándido Camero, and the Sierra Leonean drummer Asadata Dafora.
When he returned to Brooklyn that fall, Mr. Weston was brimming with ideas about the synchrony of African tradition and jazz innovation.
Mr. Weston’s towering stature — he stood at 6’7” and favored flowing garments from North or West Africa — combined with his redoubtable intelligence and technical virtuosity, making him an imposing, though genial, figure. He remained in good health until the end, performing most often with a rotating group he called African Rhythms.
In 2016, he released his 50th and final album as a band leader, the two-disc “African Nubian Suite,” which featured an orchestra-sized iteration of African Rhythms. Through music and spoken word, the suite traces humanity’s origins back to the Nile River delta.
Mr. Weston’s last public concert was in July at the Nice Jazz Festival in France, with his African Rhythms Quintet. At the time of his death, his website listed upcoming performances scheduled through October.
For Mr. Weston, music was a way of connecting histories with the present, and a communal undertaking. Looking back on his career, he told All About Jazz: “I have been blessed because I have been around some of the most fantastic people on the planet. I have become a composer and become a pianist. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”