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'Arranging' The Autobiography Of A Jazz Piano Legend

Randy Weston. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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courtesy of the artist

Randy Weston.

courtesy of the artist

The great jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston, 84, has a new album out called The Storyteller. It's an appropriate title: If you've glanced at any of his new autobiography, African Rhythms, you know he's full of vivid, incredible tales.

Weston's parents raised him to be immensely proud of his African heritage. His journey in life took him from Brooklyn to Japan during World War II, to 52nd Street during the height of Swing Street, to Western Massachusetts summer resort towns when he needed to clean up his life, to 18 countries in Africa — he lived in Morocco for years. In all that, he became an imposing piano stylist and creative visionary. And he documents it all in his new book.

Weston spoke with host Neal Conan on NPR's Talk Of The Nation today. Here's the audio archive of that conversation. This morning, I caught his autobiography's "arranger," Willard Jenkins, on the phone to talk about Randy Weston records, traveling to Morocco and shaping African Rhythms over the course of the last decade.

Patrick Jarenwattananon: First of all, the credits on the book say "Composed by Randy Weston" and "Arranged by Willard Jenkins." Why did you guys decide on that wording?

Willard Jenkins: Well, you know, as I interviewed Randy extensively on a variety of subjects, one of the most important partnerships and relationships in his life was his relationship with his longtime arranger, Melba Liston. And so we did extensive interviews on Melba, and how they became partners, and became so close in terms of his recordings and his extended concert works. And the more I began to listen to him talk about the way they worked together, it was very similar — and I'm not in any way equating myself with Melba Liston by any stretch of the imagination — but the way that he and Melba worked together was very similar to the way that Randy and I worked together on this book. Just as a means of coming up with a little different twist on the credits for the book and whatnot, I threw that out to him one day. ... And he really appreciated that, and that's what we went for.

PJ: Melba Liston, of course, the great trombonist, arranger and composer in her own right. In your talking with Randy, was it sort of like, he comes up with these raw ideas and information, and Melba helps shape the lines and orchestrate them for a full ensemble?

WJ: Yea, that's the way they worked as composer and arranger, and that's the way we worked together on this book. We did extensive interviews, and I would transcribe the interviews, and edit the transcripts, and provide those transcripts to [Weston]. He would make various suggestions, or suggest other avenues that we needed to perhaps explore further, that we talked about during the course of those conversations. And I essentially shaped his life and his commentary into book form, into readable fashion: A narrative that would make sense to somebody who didn't know who Randy was from the beginning.

PJ: So when did you discover Randy Weston? What were your first concert experiences, or records, or memories?

WJ: Well, I was aware of Randy Weston as I was coming up in the music, primarily as a high school and college student. I was aware of his major compositions, like "Berkshire Blues," and "Little Niles," and "Pam's Waltz," and those sorts of things. So I was aware of his name, and had never really had an opportunity to see him live. Then, one year in the late '70s, I was in New York, and I finally had the opportunity to hear him. As you read his story, you see that he wasn't someone who was on the so-called regular jazz circuit. He wasn't someone who was going to be appearing at the [Village] Vanguard every six months or however often, because he lived in Africa for all those years. ... He wasn't a regular on the jazz festival circuit either. So someone living in Cleveland like myself didn't really have an opportunity to hear him. But I did, in the late '70s, get a chance to hear him in New York, in a club. He was playing duo with his music director — his current music director, and longtime music director — saxophonist TK Blue, who at that time was Talib Kibwe. So that gave me an exposure to him live. And that interested me even more in his approach to the piano, and that duo setting.

Prior to that, you asked about records. The first record that really exposed me to his artistry was in '72, when he made his only record for CTI, which he half in jest refers to as his "only hit record." Those CTI records always got a lot of attention because of the personnel, and the way that [founder/producer] Creed Taylor put those packages together. And they always got promoted well. He made a recording for CTI — a one-shot recording — which I later found out was an extremely important recording for his career. ... They made this record, Blue Moses. First off, Creed Taylor would not make the recording unless he would play the Fender Rhodes [electric] piano. That was not something that he was interested in doing, but in order to make the date, he agreed to do that reluctantly. So he went into the studio, per the contractual relationship, with some of Creed Taylor's regular stable of guys: Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington Jr., Hubert Laws, Airto, Billy Cobham on the drums. And he took his regular bassist, Bill Wood, and he took his son, Azzedine Weston, on percussion. And Melba [Liston] made the arrangements of those tunes. And they made the recording, and it was much to his satisfaction, and he went back to Morocco.

And then when the acetates of the recordings arrived, he put it on, and discovered all this orchestration that Don Sebesky had added to the recording! It was surprising, because all the arrangements that Melba had done were somewhat scrapped (though the skeletal part of her arrangements were still there). At the time, I have to admit, I was knee-deep into that whole CTI thing, and the fact that you had these great musicians showing up as kind of a stable on all these recordings, it was like anything that showed up on CTI was guaranteed to be good in some respects. ...

PJ: As a point of interest, did [Weston] disavow these Don Sebesky arrangements?

WJ: No, he didn't disavow them. He just chuckles about them. He was at his club — he had a club called African Rhythms in Tangier, Morocco — and he was at the club one day when the mail arrived. And here was this acetate test pressing of this forthcoming record. Of course, he wants to hear this right away. So he immediately puts it on the turntable, and he stands there, and he's shocked by this orchestration! But no, he wasn't upset about it. He's just kind of tickled about it, because in the end analysis, that recording wound up bailing him out of some debt that he incurred from producing a big festival in Morocco.

PJ: Huh. So in your going through this process, which took you, it seems, at least a decade, how did it change you?

WJ: How did it change me? It changed my perspective on a few things — I won't say necessarily changed my perspective, but sharpened my perspective on a few things, including my interest in the continent of Africa, and all things African. Because Randy was raised based on a philosophy from his father ... that he is an African born in America — and that was his father, pounding that into his head early on — that's been a guiding principle with him. So much of what Randy sees, hears and believes is filtered through Africa, and cultural perspectives of Africa, ancestral perspectives on Africa, and what he refers to as "the spirits of our ancestors." I always had an interest in traveling to Africa, but a trip that he and I took together in June of 2001 was what really sealed my interest. That was my first time traveling to Africa, and that was to Morocco with him. I've been back pretty much every year since, to some place in Africa. It's been of great interest to me.

And the way that whole thing transpired was, as far as our relationship with this book ... in '95, Randy was one of the Montreal Jazz Festival's "Invitation series" jazz artists. And what they do at Montreal, what they call the Invitation series, they engage artists who are multifaceted to perform in different contexts over several evenings. So in '95, the invitation series artists were David Murray and Randy Weston. David did his several nights — one of which included the World Saxophone Quartet — and then they had a really nice handoff, because Randy and David Murray had made a duo recording for the Black Saint label, so David's last night and Randy's first night was a duo concert, the two of them. And then Randy kicked off his week with the concert that yielded the recording which subsequently came out on Verve called Earth Birth, which was a trio — Randy, Billy Higgins and Christian McBride — and an orchestra in Montreal. So it's a beautiful trio plus strings recording. And that was Randy's first night. So Randy proceeded to do several nights: One was his quintet, one he did his Volcano Blues music ... and his culminating night was to be Saturday night.

Suzan [Jenkins' wife] and I had been in Montreal for 10 days, and that Saturday just happened to be the day we were scheduled to fly back home. I think that was two days before the festival was scheduled to end. And so that Saturday morning, we checked out of our hotel, and we decided to go over to the press room to kill some time until time for our flight. ... And when we go to the press room, they said, "Oh, you're just in time. Randy Weston is about to be doing a press conference." And we said, "Oh good, we have time, a few hours before our flight. Let's stay for the press conference." So we stayed for the press conference. And after the press conference, we went up to Randy, just to shake his hand — we had never really met — and to tell him how much we appreciated his nights at the Invitation series. First off, when I walked up to him, he said, "Who is this guy, looking me in the eye?" He's laughing while he's saying that, because he's maybe a half-inch taller than me.

PJ: Now, you guys are both pretty tall gentlemen!

WJ: We're both about 6'7" or something. So we're looking each other in the eye. So at some point, we told him — I don't remember if it was my wife or I who said it — we told him, "We really enjoyed it, we're on our way back home today." And he looked at us, and said, "But you can't leave! We're going to Africa tonight!" That was to be the night that he was going to play with the Gnawa musicians from Morocco — they had brought a Gnawa ensemble from Morocco to perform on his final night of the invitation series. So next thing I know, my wife, she goes off on some unexplained errand. So Randy and I are still standing there, still talking. She comes back a few minutes later and says, "We're staying! I re-booked us into the hotel, I changed our airline reservation" — because that was back in the day you could do that without a penalty — and so we stayed. And that really sealed the deal as far as my interest in Randy Weston. ...

That leads us to Memorial Day 2001. We hadn't really gotten started [on the book project], but we said we were going to do this. He travels a lot — more so then than now — primarily because his wife was living in Paris. ... I'm sitting at home on an off day, just chillin', you know, and the phone rings, and it's Randy Weston. And all he says is, "So, are you ready to go to Africa?" So I'm thinking, "Yea, right. OK, I'll play along with this." I say, "Yea, sure, I'm ready to go." He says, "Great, we leave on Thursday." What had happened was that because of his deep relationship in Morocco, and because of his very special relationship with the Gnawa musicians, some Moroccan television guys wanted to produce a documentary about his life in Morocco. And he convinced them to bring me along to conduct certain interviews in English. These guys spoke great English, but it would be simpler if an English speaker would be doing the interviews, especially someone who had done some research on him. So on that trip, which was 10 days ... during that trip, we did extensive interviews. And that's what really go that project jump-started.

PJ: Gotcha. Now, Randy Weston is obviously a great storyteller. But some interesting stories must have happened to you in your experience going to Africa with him, and sitting down with him repeatedly in interviews. Do you have any good stories from the interview trail?

WJ: Well, the good stories were listening to him talking about his life, and me being able to experience Morocco through his eyes, and also through the fact that I had never been there before. For example, we arrived in Casablanca, and then we had a meal — one of the guys in the crew picked us up, and we went to his house, and had a meal — and then we rested for a couple of hours. And then a couple of cars arrived to take us to Fez. I want to say it's about a three-hour drive from Casablanca to Fez. And we stayed in Fez for a few days. Now, this is all new to me, this whole scene. And so I'm fascinated, because I'm in a society which in many respects is a modern society — I mean, we're driving on highways, in nice cars, and the whole bit, and I'm seeing many modern accoutrements — and then, if you contrast that, you see people on the side of the road, and the way that they're operating, they're still living much the way they did hundreds of years ago. Still living very simply, very traditionally. Experiencing that was fascinating. And the food, and the whole bit.

But we go to Fez, and we're there for a couple of nights. And the World Sacred Music Festival is happening. Now I had been reading about that festival for years, so really was interested in going to that, and wound up going to that for a couple of nights. And that was an unusual scene — not something that I had experienced before. The first night — now, Randy is my lifeline as far as my connection with this trip, because I don't really know these guys who brought us over, but they were cool — and when we arrived in Fez, they put Randy in this beautiful home where he was going to stay. He was tired, and he wasn't really interested in going to the festival that night. So they dropped me off at the festival. And that was great. And after all the performances ended, I still didn't know where I was going to be lodging that evening. Everything was cool up until that point, and I had no reason to be fearful or anything, no trepidation, so I'm just rolling with the punches. Here I am in a different country, and I don't want to rock the boat or whatnot, so as long as everything is cool, and I just roll with the punches. These guys said, "We're going to take you where you're staying now," and they drive up to the mountains.

I'm seeing some interesting scenes on the way up into the mountains, as we drive up the mountainside, and finally we arrive at what appears to be a guard station. I still don't know where we are. One of the guys jumps out, and he and the guard speak, and the guard lifts the gate, and we go through this gate, and go to this building. And I still don't recognize where I am, or what kind of situation I'm in. But they take me to this building, and they say, "your room is in there," and they take me to this room, and I get this key and everything. And they take me to my room, and I open the door, and there's something familiar about this room, the way it's set up. But I still don't get it. Now, I'm an NBA fan, and I go into the room, and I figure I'm going to miss the NBA Finals, but I'm not worried about that, because this trip is so great, so what the heck. I can sacrifice that. I flip on the TV, and there's the NBA Finals — I'm watching the NBA Finals in French, and still not sure where I am.

So the next morning, I wake up, still not sure, and not sure where these other guys have gone. So I go out into the hallway, and see one of the other guys in the courtyard. "When you come down, come to his building" — he points to this building — "go over to this building, Randy's going to be up there, they're bringing Randy up in a few minutes." So I go up there, and lo and behold, I find out that I'm on a university campus. That particular Saturday was commencement day, and they were going to be recognizing and honoring Randy at the commencement. So we wind up going to a commencement. ... So it was different experiences like that that were really important to the development of this project.

PJ: Wow. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk. Do you have anything else you feel like you have to convey about your experience?

WJ: Well, this has been a very gratifying experience. We've been thrilled about the response so far to the book. In summation, what I would say is that I hope that through this book, people will come to recognize Randy Weston and his greatness more than they have in the past. He's been someone who's been somewhat overlooked. Part of that is due to the nature of his career, and the fact that he hasn't necessarily been on the mainstream jazz circuit to the extent that other of his peers have. But I know that among his peers, he's highly recognized, and among people who know his music, he's revered and recognized. I'm just hoping that this book will bring his life and his message to a greater public.

Related At NPR Music: Willard Jenkins on talking with black jazz writers.