Randy Weston Links 'African Rhythms' To American Jazz Jazz piano legend Randy Weston grew up surrounded by some of the greatest musicians in jazz. But it was his deep connection to Africa that inspired his personal style of music. Here, Weston talks about the link between West African music and American jazz, and his autobiography, African Rhythms.
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Linking 'African Rhythms' To American Jazz

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Linking 'African Rhythms' To American Jazz

Linking 'African Rhythms' To American Jazz

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I: I come to be a storyteller. I'm not a jazz musician. I'm really a storyteller through music. Weston grew up in Brooklyn and worked with some of the greatest musicians in jazz. But his distinctive style came from a deeply rooted connection to Africa.


: "Jus' Blues" from Randy Weston's latest CD, titled "The Storyteller." If you're a jazz musician, where do you find the roots of your music? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This Saturday, Randy Weston celebrates the 50th anniversary of his landmark recording session, "Uhuru Afrika," with a concert celebration in New York. Today, he joins us from our bureau in New York City. Randy Weston, thanks very much for being with us today.

RANDY WESTON: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

: And conventional musicography traces the birth of jazz to the stew of influences in New Orleans about 100 years ago and more. I gather you take it a little further than that.

WESTON: To the very beginning, the continent of Africa.

: And how do you trace it beyond New Orleans to Africa?

WESTON: Well, because African people were taken from Africa. They were taken to the States and they came in contact with European culture and instruments and created a different kind of music that they call jazz, they call blues.

: You have spent much of your life, in fact, finding the roots of your music in West Africa and, indeed, bringing the sounds of jazz to that place as well.

WESTON: Absolutely, because I want to find out why I do what I do. I had a great father. He told me, said, you have to study African civilization when Africa was great. He said, because you're only going to hear about Africa after colonialism and after slavery.

And my dad also made me take piano lessons, so I was programmed at a very early age. And my mother had to be in a black church every Sunday. So we grew up in Brooklyn, New York. We had all kinds of music. But it goes back to the continent of Africa, where music came from in the first place.

: And where in Africa have you found, well, music that spoke to you?

WESTON: I've been to 18 countries, all their music speaks to me, you know. I search for the traditional music wherever I go. I try to find the oldest musicians I can find. And I hear the foundation of what we do in the Western Hemisphere is coming from African civilization.

: And it's interesting, you spoke about the influence of your father. There was someone else influential in your search. You were, as you mentioned, from Brooklyn. You served in World War II in the army. You came back from Okinawa and were around the jazz scene in New York in the late '40s and early '50s. But, well, there was something else going on in the jazz business at that time that you found very disturbing, and you felt you had to leave.

WESTON: Well, you know, everything became pop. Everything got away - and away from the blues, you see. And the blues has always been the foundation of our music. It's a kind of music that you can just give any message, you know. And so - plus, but I've always wanted to go to Africa anyhow, because I always wanted to find out where this music comes from, you know, these rhythms and sounds and colors and expressions, you know. So I was very happy to be able to travel, perform in Africa and hang out with the older people.

: And when was your first trip?

WESTON: In 1961, I went to Nigeria.

: By that time, though, you were well-established as - well, you'd written a lot of hits by that time.

WESTON: No, not really. I was up and coming. Actually, I did some trio recordings for Riverside Records. I did a recording for United Artists. But I was still just coming up, because that was a period where many jazz like Dizzy Gillespie and Monk and Earl Garner and Art Tatum, all the world, it was around me. So I was just coming up at that time.

: You didn't work that much as a sideman, though. You had - led your own, well, small groups, as you say, trios and solo acts.

WESTON: Yes. Uh-huh.

: And why was that?

WESTON: Because that's a message I wanted to give, you know. I thought it was so important to know the history of everything that we do and know the history of this music and where the blues came from, you know? And in my research, you know, you hear blues all over Africa, but you hear it with the traditional instruments and the traditional languages, you see. And music doesn't have a frontier. So all my life, I've wanted to understand better what happened in the '20s and '30s, who was Louis Armstrong, his great, great grandmother, great, great grandfather, going all the way back to ancient Africa.

: You worked a lot, also, with a jazz historian named Marshall Stearns.

WESTON: Yes. Yes.

: And what did he teach you?

WESTON: Oh, he was very influential. I met Marshall Stearns at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, early 1950s. And unlike the other critics, he gave the history of jazz by starting over in West Africa. I was already interested in Africa, and we got to be very close. We did the history of jazz together in several universities and schools.

And I believe he was on the State Department board that recommended that I do a tour of 14 African countries in 1967. So Marshall was extremely important. Through him, I met Mahalia Jackson. I met Langston Hughes. I met Babatunde Olatunji. I met Jeffrey Holum from Trinidad. I met two great dancers from the Savoy Ballroom. So Marshall had a global concept of African culture.

: And it's interesting, you went on this tour, but obviously, you went as much - you were there to perform. Obviously, you spent as much time listening as you did performing.

WESTON: Yes. Because I requested, whenever possible, I wanted to hear the oldest music I can possibly hear, you know?

: Mm-hmm.

WESTON: And because, you see, the music of Africa is music that is in - totally in tune with the universe and the Earth and the sky. Traditional people, their music is very difficult to imitate because it is the story of their lives. And they have music for every single activity: baby being born, a funeral. They played games with music. I learned a lot about music by being in Africa and before.

: Well, we mentioned earlier, you're recording "Uhuru Afrika," or "Freedom Africa," which became one of your signatures. There's a piano version we want to listen to. This is the first movement, "Uhura Kwanzaa," from that album.


WESTON: Uhuru, Uhuru Kwansa.

: Fifty years ago, that's quite a while.

WESTON: I think so. But that's the piano solo version, which is amazing. I haven't heard that in a while. But 50 years ago, we did it with a big orchestra.

: Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard, Slide Hampton, Max Rouch and Melba Liston.

WESTON: Oh, my God. Langston Hughes and Yusef Lateef and Candido, Armando Peraza, Ron Carter, George Duvivier, Slide Hampton - I go on. And what was sort of - kind of about(ph) that recording, we had to record nine o'clock in the morning.


: You recorded a jazz album at nine o'clock in the morning?

WESTON: And nobody was late, 23 musicians.

: That's remarkable.

WESTON: That's how spiritual that was. Because it was a celebration of our ancestors, mother, father, grandmother - you know, all they had to struggle to give us those piano lessons and keep us spiritually healthy. And it was a salute to Africa. And I didn't realize, this year, that 17 African countries got their independence in 1960.

: Mm-hmm.

WESTON: So we're all celebrating this year as the 50th anniversary of this suite, and also the African nations.

: Well, this weekend, there's going to be a celebration of that recording, "Uhuru Afrika."

CD: talk@npr.org.

Let's talk with Nick. And Nick's on the line with us from Redland in California.

NICK: Hello. Randy Weston, I'm very floored by - to hear all of your history of how you got your inspiration. The reason for my call was the request for some of the call-ins regarding jazz inspirations and where it comes from. As elite gen-Xer, I've been playing video games for a lot of my childhood. And because of that, there are several video games, the one of the first - most popular was the "Super Mario Bros." game.


NICK: Many individuals you see on YouTube play so many different versions of the "Super Mario Bros." theme, whether with a flute or an accordion or beat-boxing. And because of that, a lot of my own inspiration has come from the familiarity of videogame soundtracks and just performing them in front of young audiences who normally wouldn't go to a jazz concert to see, like, the Pharaoh or Randy Weston, but instead hear something on a similar theme to which people might otherwise hear "Summertime" of a previous generation. Instead, they're hearing "Super Mario Bros." theme or "Tetris" theme. And, you know, it seemed to have excitement of its own. And that's where I draw my inspiration from.

: What do you play, Nick?

NICK: Mostly saxophone. Mostly tenor saxophone.

: And do you play with a group?

NICK: Yes, I do. I actually play with a cumbia group, which is a Latin music and dance band. But because of that, it has its own little side and its own Latin twists to the videogame soundtrack.

: Randy Weston, I'm not sure you're familiar with the "Super Mario Bros."

WESTON: No, I'm not.


: These soundtracks to the videogames are becoming a major source of - well, Nick, you put it better than I did: this is where a lot of people hear music.

NICK: It is where a lot of younger generation kids are hearing music and will recognize it from.

: Well, thanks very much, and good luck with that, Nick.

NICK: Thank you so much.

: Bye-bye.

Randy Weston, there is such a - jazz is difficult business. It's never been an easy business, but is it more difficult now than it ever has been?

WESTON: Yeah, because we don't have access to the media anymore. You see when we grew up, you know, we had shorts. You can see a short on Duke Ellington or Bessie Smith. It was more accessible to young people. And, you know, and I play for children from four months old to 12 years old. If young people have an opportunity to hear this music, they'll understand it, because it's their music, really.

: It's their music. Some might say, wait a minute. No. My music is R&B or hip-hop.

WESTON: Well, because that's all they hear, you see. They're not exposed, you see. Well, the music that we call jazz, that's the classical music of America. This music is an incredible music, and you have to go all the way back. And I always tell my students, I say, you want to learn how to play piano? You want to know about this music? Go back to the oldest pianist you can find. Go back to boogie-woogie. Go back to Louis Armstrong, and you'll hear the foundation of this music. Because this - what they created is what we're living off of, in other words. But what they did before us is amazing.

But we're not getting that kind of musical education, unfortunately, because this music should be in every school, all to hear. Everybody should know about Louis Armstrong. Everybody should know about Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, because that's the foundation of this music. And that music is timeless. There's no such thing as old music and new music. I listen to 1927 Duke play the piano, I'm learning every day.

: Randy Weston is our guest, the jazz pianist and composer. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's get another caller in. This is Via(ph), Via with us from Baton Rouge.

VIA: Hi, there. How are you?

: Very well. Thanks.

VIA: Randy, what a pleasure to have you on the air. And I just want to say hello on behalf of all my colleagues at Southern University. We studied under Professor Alvin Batiste.

WESTON: Woo, wonderful.

VIA: And I want to ask the question: How would you like or how do you like the music of Abdullah Ibrahim from Cape Town?

WESTON: Well, we did two pianos together during the time of apartheid in South Africa. We did two pianos together and we toured Europe. I know Abdullah quite a while. The first time he performed in New York, I brought my mother and father to hear him.

: And...

VIA: Well, as a matter of fact, you know, I was intrigued by one of his pieces that says from Cape Town to Congo Square, referring to New Orleans.

WESTON: Mm-hmm.

: Via, what instrument do you play? And where do you get your inspiration?

VIA: Well, I play piano and guitar, and I'm host of the longest-running jazz program in U.S., 33 years in Baton Rouge on NPR. And I listen to music of Randy and McCoy Tyner, Abdullah Ibrahim. So that's kind of my music. I have a lot of spiritual African jazz music. Ron - John Blake, violinist, recently has done a work(ph). And I'm sure you're familiar with that, Randy.

WESTON: Of course.

: Well, Via, thanks very much. Good luck with the radio show.

VIA: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

: Appreciate your call. Tell us a little about how you define yourself as a storyteller. We hear you playing piano. We hear your compositions. How is that a story?

WESTON: Well, because, you know, Africa has always been the mysterious continent, you know? It's on the map, but nobody knows anything about it. But obviously, our ancestors were brought from Africa here. And they came in contact with bottles and sticks and played music on their bodies, what they call hambone. So I think it's so important with those who love music to understand what was mother Africa's contribution to music, you see.

I: Study where things started, how did they start, you see. And so that's my mission in life, really.

: Let's see if we get another caller in: Sonia(ph), Sonia with us from Sacramento.

SONIA: Hello? How are you?

: Good, thanks.

SONIA: I just want to say it's a pleasure to hear this legend on the radio.


: And do you get your inspiration from Randy Weston?

SONIA: I have had some inspiration from his music. Yes, my father, as I was explaining, exposed me to (unintelligible) music when I was six and seven years old. So I started out listening to Monk and a lot of the Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. And by the time that I was a teenager, I was able to play any saxophone and in jazz bands competitively.

: Thelonious Monk's music, first time you hear it, it could be a little off-putting, a little difficult.

SONIA: Yes. But the syncopation helps you learn how you get your own rhythm, especially in your own step in life, as well.

: And Randy Weston, nobody had better angles to his music than Thelonious Monk.

WESTON: Oh, yeah.


WESTON: I first heard with Coleman Hawkins, you know?

: Oh, my.

WESTON: Because Coleman Hawkins was my idol. And Coleman Hawkins, he goes way back to Fletcher Henderson, you know? And - but he always had the young people: First one to record Dizzy, first one to record Miles. First time I heard Monk was with Coleman Hawkins. I heard him play, I said how'd he get that sound out of the piano? And what's he doing? And I had to go and visit him. And I really spent time with, him almost three years, watching him, going to rehearsals, listening to his music. And it made a lot of sense to me because this music takes you to the universe, you know? And that's my feeling about Mr. Monk, which goes back after Mr. Ellington, because he's been doing that for a long time.


: Sonia, thanks very much for the call. Randy Weston, good luck with the concert Saturday night. Randy Weston joined us from our bureau in New York. His latest CD is called "The Storyteller."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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