Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
It has been more than three quarters of a century since the bebop revolution transformed how people made music together. So it is not surprising that so few musicians who came to prominence during that era are no longer with us, especially since so many—like Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, Eric Dolphy, and on and on–had tragically short lives. But what is more surprising is that one of these musicians, 92-years young Randy Weston, is not only still around, he’s still actively performing and composing and evolving, although to him there really isn’t a clear distinction between old and new music.
When we visited Randy Weston in his Brooklyn apartment, which was once the site of a restaurant his father owned when he was growing up and which helped to shape his attitudes about how to connect with audiences, he expounded on his all-inclusive worldview. He pointed out that bebop and all of so-called jazz, which he prefers to call “African American classical music,” as well as numerous other musical genres have their source in the traditional music of Africa:
You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles. But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival. … We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae! … My father said to me three things. He said, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”
To Weston, different generations listening to different music from one another makes no sense. “When I was growing up, music was for everybody,” he said. “I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.” And it’s something he has aspired to do since he first started playing in clubs as part of a trio at the age of 17. Over the course of the last seven decades, several of Weston’s compositions—such as “Hi-Fly” (1958) and a waltz he composed in 1956 about one of his children called “Little Niles”—have become standards, and his 1972 album Blue Moses was a bestseller.
Weston wants to harness the power of music to make people aware of their history. The contemporaneous declarations of independence of many African nations was the inspiration for his landmark 1960 suite Uhuru Africa, which featured a poem expressly created for it by Langston Hughes and was arranged by the undersung Melba Liston for an all-star ensemble that included Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Gigi Gryce, Yusef Lateef, Cecil Payne, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Candido Camero, and Babatunde Olatunji, as well as operatic soprano Martha Flowers and actor/singer Brock Peters. The album was banned in then Apartheid-governed South Africa but also led to Weston being invited, under the auspices of the American Society of African Culture, to perform in Nigeria in 1961. Weston returned there two years later and then in 1967 embarked on a U.S. State Department tour to Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The following year he moved to Morocco and lived in Tangier for seven years.
Living on the African continent and working extensively with musicians from a wide variety of traditions further expanded Weston’s compositional palette, and he continued to explore ways to make the European piano sound African.
“I go back to before it was a piano,” Weston explained. “You’ve got wood. You’ve got metal. When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood. After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot. So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument. It just traveled north and some other things were done to it. And inside it is a harp, an African harp.”
Although he ultimately returned to the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, Weston took back with him a whole world of experience which has informed the music he is creating up to this day. His magnum opus, the two-hour African Nubian Suite, which premiered in 2012 and was released as a two-CD set on his own African Rhythms label just last year, incorporates musical traditions from across the entire African continent, as well as the diaspora and even China.
“We all have African blood,” Weston asserted. “Every person on the planet Earth.”
After such an ambitious tour-de-force, Weston refuses to rest on his laurels. He just issued Sound, another two-CD set which is all solo piano music, and a few days after we visited him he flew to Europe for performances in Nice and Rome:
Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts. They say, “You’re taking us back home.” I say, “We all are from there.”
Frank J. Oteri: There’s a statement in your autobiography African Rhythms that I thought would be a great place to begin our talk. It was an observation about African traditional music: the audience and the music are one. I think the same could be said for just about all the music you’ve done in your life, and the same could have been or perhaps should be said for all music—any music that really works.
Randy Weston: Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I became a young musician, playing local gigs and marriages. We played a lot of dances. You had to play for dance, otherwise you weren’t a musician. And that goes all the way back to ancient Africa, that they’re one and the same, which means that the dancer is also an instrument. Also, in our community, it wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience. I don’t care whether it was calypso, the black church, the blues, or European classical music, they knew when the music was right. And if you weren’t playing right, you were in trouble.
Growing up as a boy, I loved music before I ever even touched a piano. Music was our way of life. I grew up in a community of all the nationalities—people from the Caribbean, people from Africa, people from the South, people from Europe—all bringing their cultures. It was so rich and so wonderful, but music was the key. And I can’t emphasize too much, it was my mother and father who would bring the best music in the house—Duke Ellington, gospel, blues. They weren’t musicians and they never studied music, so I wanted to find out how they could know so much about music. But when you go to the motherland, the people in Africa are music. Music is the first language. It’s how we survived slavery. It’s how we survive many hardships. During the early ‘20s and ‘30s, they were lynching black people in this country—your skin was no good, your hair, all the stereotypes. But it was music, whether it was the black church, where I had to be every Sunday with my Virginia momma, or during the week when I was with my Caribbean father—Panama, Jamaica, proud, Marcus Garvey, Africa, all the time. We would go to calypso dances. We were just surrounded with music and there was no separation between the ages, no such thing as music for the young. When I was growing up, music was for everybody.
So when Randy Weston plays the piano, I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old. And that’s the foundation of music in spirituality, which was passed down from our ancestors. Every day I’m amazed at how they could create such beauty in this country after coming here in such terrible conditions. I still don’t get it. When I went to Africa, I found out that for African people, spirituality is so important, even despite all the diversities of people. That’s the only way I can describe it, so a long way of answering your question as usual.
FJO: You touched on many different concepts here. But since you touched on when you were growing up, I’d like to talk more with you about other things that were around you that I would dare say might have influenced your approach to how you relate to audiences. Your father ran a restaurant and took meals very seriously. A great chef can be considered a great artist, but you’d never have a situation where the chef is a great artist and he makes food that most people wouldn’t want to eat. Yet we do harbor a notion that there is some great music that very few people can relate to. What happened to create this distance between people who make music and everybody else?
RW: We got away from the truth. My father always taught me to always look for the origin of everything in life. No matter what they tell you. Try to find the origin of whatever that is. Whether it’s language, whether it’s football, whatever. My dad loved Africa with such a passion. He would talk about Africa to people he didn’t even know in the street or in the restaurant. When I was a young, young child, around six, he said, “My son, I want you to understand one thing: that you are an African born in America. Therefore you must study the history of Africa before it was colonized. Before it was invaded. Before it was sterilized.” My dad had books on African civilization in the house and he had maps of Africa and also African kings and queens on the wall. When we grew up, it was British East Africa and the Belgian Congo; Africa didn’t have its independence. But he said, “We come from royalty.” He said, “They only thing they’re going to teach you is after slavery and after colonialism; you’re going to have a mountain full of lies. When you go to the cinema or when you go to school, people are going to say you’re inferior. There’s a billion people on the planet, but I want you to be strong when you go out the door.” So growing up, because of my dad, I’d look at books and I’d go to museums. I’d go back 6,000 years ago. Just imagine what it must have been before Africa was occupied.
The way we were treated in this country, how come we don’t hate people? You don’t do that because we’re all members of the planet earth; we’re all human beings. We grew up like that. We really loved to welcome all the different people of the planet. My father’s friends were Jewish, Swedish, German, Italian. You name it. We’d go to their house and had Italian food. Or we’d have Jewish food on a Sunday. My mother with her Virginia accent and my father with his Caribbean accent. They had different accents, but they were the same people. They got married and they produced me.
My dad’s second restaurant was right here in this house; my dad died, but his spirit is in this house. He would have people come here from Africa, or from the Caribbean, or Europeans who told the truth about African history—scientists, musicians, painters, actors. And with my mother at the black church every Sunday, I was absorbing these gospels and spirituals when I was a little boy. So that’s my foundation. And every day, I talked to my father and mother. They gave me everything. They gave me spirituality, which is difficult to understand. They loved me and I was spoiled. I’m not talking about financially. My dad was a great cook. He would cook all the Caribbean cooking. My mother made Southern food from Virginia. I had all that love, and not to mention the neighborhood, but that’s the foundation—mom and pop.
FJO: Andy they had you take piano lessons.
RW: My father, yeah.
FJO: But that first set of piano lessons didn’t really work out.
RW: No, because you know, I was six-foot at 12 years old. In those days, I thought I was going to the circus. I was tall. Today, that’s nothing, right? I played baseball and football. And I couldn’t identify with the scales because all the music we grew up with was swinging—whether it’s the black church or a blues club on the corner or calypso dance, all the music had, as Duke Ellington says, that African pulse. So I couldn’t identify with European music. But that piano teacher, God bless her, for 50 cents a lesson, she had to deal with me for three years of torture—for her and for me. She’d hit my hand with the ruler. But she gave me the foundation and that’s why she’s in my book. I learned some things I got to appreciate when I got older.
FJO: Well I have a theory that, aside from you saying that you didn’t identify with European music, you wanted to create your own things instead of playing what someone else wrote. Even before you ever created your first composition, you had the attitude of a composer.
RW: I didn’t know. I had no idea.
When I had come out of the Army, I went to my father’s restaurant and I was a frustrated musician. Remember, this was the period of royalty. This was the period of the greatest musicians in the history of the planet—people like Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, and I could go on. This was our royalty. In the restaurant, you could go to the jukebox and play everybody from Louis Armstrong to Sarah Vaughan, to Louis Jordan. We’d be open 24 hours a day in this restaurant and I was so in love with the music on the jukebox.
At this time, Miles Davis was living in Brooklyn and so was Max Roach, who I called the emperor of Brooklyn. Max was my teacher. Max Roach’s house was two blocks away from where we lived and my father’s restaurant. When I had a break in the restaurant, I’d just go to Max’s house and sit in the corner. That’s where I met Dizzy Gillespie. That’s where I met Charlie Parker. That’s where I met Miles Davis. That’s where I met George Russell. I’d sit in the corner and just listen to what they talked about. And thanks to Max Roach and George Russell, I discovered the modern European classical music— Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud. And Max would always tell me to listen to Baby Dodds, to go back and listen to all the African-American music you can find because that’s the purest music, because those people couldn’t speak the language. They hadn’t gone to music school, so during the time of slavery and even after slavery, they approached it as African people. The way they dance and the way they cook their food. The way they attempted to speak the European languages. Max taught me that. He taught me about Chano Pozo. When I heard that African Cuban drum with Dizzy’s orchestra in 1949 in what George Russell was writing for Dizzy, Cubana Be Cubana Bop, I fell in love with that drum. I said I got to work with this drum. Again, Africa.
And we had people like the great Cecil Payne. Eubie Blake lived on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, right around the corner from my mother’s church. I would go to Eubie’s house when he was about—whoo!— 95, something like that. You didn’t have to call up and say Mr. Blake, can I come by and see you. Oh no, you just rang the bell. I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house and sit in the corner and he’d tell about the piano battles they had in 1890. How they had this guy named One Leg Willie, and this guy could take one song and in each chorus he’d completely change the harmonies. He never made a record. So from Eubie, I got the history of our music going way back to the early-20th century. So Brooklyn was very special because it was so much culture.
FJO: Your encounters with Charlie Parker were really interesting. You actually even performed with him.
RW: Again, Max Roach. Max made me play for Charlie Parker. I was shaking, because Charlie Parker was a high spiritual man—what he would do with that saxophone. But Max said, “Hey man, play one of your songs.” I played something, but I was very nervous. And then I went back to the restaurant and said, “Why did Max make me play for this guy?”—it was me and a drummer who studied with Max Roach named Maurice Brown.
In those days we would hang out two or three days looking for music. Some clubs would close at three o’clock in the morning and others would open up at four o’clock in the morning. There was no television and no disco. Everything was live, so we had that kind of experience. So that night we went to go hear Tadd Dameron at a club called the Royal Roost. Tadd Dameron was in a band with Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse; I’m not sure who the drummer was. When you go out in the Royal Roost, you go down the stairs, and the bar is right there. And there’s Charlie Parker at the bar. Now Charlie Parker always kept his saxophone. If he went to the supermarket—saxophone. You’d never see him without that saxophone. So he sat at the bar and I’m looking. I wondered who he was talking to. I didn’t think he remembered me. So the young drummer said, “Man, he’s talking to you.” He said, “Randy, how you doing, man?” I said fine. “So, whatcha doing?” I said, “We’re gonna hear Tadd Dameron in the band.” He said, “Come with me.” He takes us upstairs and calls a taxi. We go to 52nd Street, to a club, I’m not sure whether it’s the Three Deuces. I’ve forgotten the exact name of the club. We go into the club and there’s a group playing. They’re playing their music. Now you don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing. That’s a way to die. Don’t dare do that. But Charlie Parker was so powerful; in the middle of the song, he went up on the stage and told the piano player to get up. Just like that. And the piano player says, “Yes Bird.” And then he told me to sit at the piano. He did the same thing with the drummer, told the drummer to get up in the middle of the song and told the drummer [Maurice Brown] to sit. Then he took out his saxophone. He played one half hour with us, then packed up his horn and left and never said a word. You don’t forget things like that, because I was with a master.
FJO: That was your one and only gig with Charlie Parker. The other really interesting, formative influence story in your life was your encounter with Thelonious Monk, which I think had a profound effect on how you make music and how you think about music.
RW: Sure. Absolutely. Why do you love certain artists? What happens? There’s some kind of communication there. When I was 13-years old, I heard “Body and Soul” [played] by Coleman Hawkins. He was really the father of the tenor saxophone, and it was a big hit. Coleman Hawkins was such a genius. What’s so incredible about that “Body and Soul” is he’s not playing the melody, but you can hear the melody. So when I heard this music, I went to my father and I said, “Dad, I want an advance in my allowance.” I got 75 cents a week. “I want to go buy some recordings.” So he gave me the advance, and I went to the record shop. I think it was about 35 cents for a disc in those days, and I bought three copies. I hid two in cellophane. The other copy I put on my pop’s record player, opened up the windows in the apartment, and put on “Body and Soul” loud so everybody could hear it. I played Coleman Hawkins almost every other day.
The first time I heard Monk was with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street. He’s got Monk playing the piano. I’m this amateur musician, and I didn’t know him. Monk wasn’t playing too many notes that night, so my immediate reaction was what’s Coleman Hawkins doing with this guy? I had his recordings with Art Tatum and with Benny Carter. But I went back again and heard “Ruby, My Dear” for the first time with Monk on the piano and Coleman Hawkins on the saxophone. It was just love, the kind of love that you can only get with music. My connection to Monk goes back to Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bass player. He also played the oud and he would take me to downtown Brooklyn to listen to the oud and experience the music of North Africa and the Middle East. He could play notes in between the notes. I tried to do the same thing on the piano, but I couldn’t do it. But Monk did it.
FJO: He creates a very idiosyncratic sound, but of course it is still with the notes on the piano. There aren’t any extra notes there, but he’s messing with your head.
RW: Music is magic. So when I heard Monk, and I heard that sound on the piano, I said, “Wow. I want to find out how he’s doing that.” So I went to his house, and asked if I could come see him. There was a picture of Billie Holiday in the middle of the ceiling. Monk was sitting in a chair playing music very softly. I started asking him all kind of questions. No response. That’s it. But I couldn’t leave the room. I stayed in that room for hours. Finally, I had felt I had to try to get out of this room. I must have asked about one hour of questions. No response. I’m getting ready to leave. He said, “Listen to all kinds of music. Come and see me again.” I went back one month later. He played the piano almost two hours for me.
He pushed the magic of Africa in the piano for me. Piano was not created to get that kind of sound. I discovered later on that he comes from Duke Ellington. Duke was doing things with the piano, which I didn’t realize. He was also creating all kind of magic sounds on the piano—basically the bass of the piano. A lot of pianists don’t touch the bass. But Duke, he’d do things with the bass of the piano to create things, you know. Oh, that music. And all the music is so beautiful. Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, all these people. They create such original beauty. They’re all original people. So for me in 1959 to do a recording with Coleman Hawkins playing my music—man, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. Roy Haynes was on drums on that date and Kenny Dorham on trumpet.
FJO: Before we get to 1959, at some point several years before that something changed in your attitude about being a musician. You were on the fence for a very long time before you finally decided that that was what you wanted your focus in life to be.
RW: Oooh, I was 29.
FJO: That’s late.
RW: But I was playing at 17.
FJO: So what caused you to devote your life to being a musician?
RW: It happened up in the Berkshires. I was working in this hotel up there—breakfast chef for a while, washing dishes for a while, chambermaid for a while, cutting down trees. But I discovered the Berkshires and all that music—the Boston Symphony Orchestra, chamber music, music students coming from all over the world. I met Aaron Copland. I met Lukas Foss. I met Leonard Bernstein. It was just an incredible place of music. Plus the Music Inn and Marshall Stearns.
I’ll never forget this. I helped these artists from Germany. They were all victims of Nazism. They were all elderly people, and they had a concert. They were violinists, violists, singers, and whatnot. And I helped them with their baggage. But in the meanwhile, when I’m in these places, I was playing the piano at night. But just for me, you know. So these three old ladies come to me and said, “Randy, we’re going to have a recital. And we decided we’d like you to play.” I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. That’s not what I do.” They said, “No, no, no. We want you to do what we hear you do at night.” And that’s what I did. They were saying to me, “We’re from the European classical world, but you’re doing something special on the piano.” Max Roach was pushing me. And other musicians. But that really did it.
FJO: And it wasn’t very long after that that you made your first studio recording.
RW: Yes. That’s correct, because I had discovered the music. Marshall Stearns, oh man, he was something incredible. I did about ten summers in the Berkshires. Who do I meet up there? Langston Hughes. Olatunji. Candido. Mahalia Jackson, who was doing an afternoon class on African spirituality in the black church. Willis James, who specialized in field cry hollers, and he talked about how our ancestors during the time of slavery created music with sound because they couldn’t speak the European languages. I met so many incredible people. Everybody I listened to and took something from. Asadata Defora, the great dancer-choreographer from Guinea. And because of Marshall, I also met John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Josh White. He had this pan-African concept in music, and he would have these classes. He’d have a blackboard, and underneath the blackboard would be Africa. Then he had the different branches, like calypso. I met Geoffrey Holder up there, too.
FJO: But to go from being immersed with all those people to saying I’m now going to do my own thing was still a huge step as a musician. The first album you recorded was a collection of your interpretations of music by Cole Porter, because the record label wasn’t going to take a chance on an unknown person doing his own compositions. But after that, most of what you’ve recorded is all your own music. Every now and then, you would include a tune of somebody else’s that you made your own. But it was very clear from very early on that you were creating your own music, whether you were performing by yourself or with other musicians. And when you worked with other musicians, you weren’t telling them what to play, because you wanted them to bring their own thing to it. You’ve actually said that you feel like a piece of music you create isn’t complete until you work on it with other people in a performance or in the studio—then it becomes complete.
RW: Absolutely, because music is life itself. In ancient tradition, music was just as important as science, astronomy, any kind of education. Music was required because music was our first language, our spiritual language. Even up to now, even up to last week, when I go to the piano and I look at that audience—and I’ve been doing that for a while—all the religions are there, all the colors are there, all the ages are there. But we become one people when the music is right. And it’s always magic for me.
I have to be very humble with music. Why do I say that? Well, what you talked about came from Duke and Monk. They did their own music. They’re my two biggest influences. But at the same time, I had a talent and I didn’t realize I had a talent. And I loved my children so much, so my first recording with Melba Liston was setting waltzes for children. Children are so free. So I put them to music. I wrote those waltzes up in the Berkshires, because after the season was over, I stayed two or three weeks afterwards and it was very quiet, with a nice fireplace. The Berkshires are so physically beautiful, as you know. It’s gorgeous there. And all of a sudden, these melodies came out.
Where this talent comes from, I will never know. But it happened. How it happened is amazing. I went to Boys High School in Brooklyn. That was a very good school. Max Roach went there. Cecil Payne. Ray Copland, the trumpet player. I was in this school, but I wanted to go to music school. My father wanted me to get those academics; he wanted me to be a businessman. Another reason why I had my own groups is because my dad would always do his own thing. He said, “If you work for yourself, you work harder, but you can get your message across.”
FJO: That album of waltzes for children was very important in your career. And the title track from that, “Little Niles,” became one of your most famous compositions.
RW: Exactly. Duke and Monk, and the other composers too, wrote music for their families. Duke would write music about his mother, about his father, about his grandfather. Monk would do the same thing. That was our tradition.
FJO: And Duke and Monk—and you, as well—were also part of the tradition of pianist-composers. When people now think about the 1950s, they say Thelonious Monk, but there was also Elmo Hope.
RW: Herbie Nichols.
FJO: Exactly. I was thinking about Herbie Nichols when I was thinking about your early recording career. He only ever got to record in a piano trio setting—piano with bass and drums. But he always wanted to record with a mixed quintet, and it never happened. The record labels never let him do that.
FJO: And then he died so young. It’s interesting to compare that with the chronology of your recordings. That first album of Cole Porter tunes is just you and a bass player, Sam Gill, so it’s a duo. Your next two albums were trio sessions, but the album after that was a quartet with Cecil Payne. Then you recorded a mixed quintet session, and after that you began recording with larger ensembles, which is when Melba Liston entered the scene as your arranger. Talk about somebody else who never really got proper recognition; there was only one album released under her name in her lifetime. And even when she appeared on other people’s albums, she rarely took a solo.
RW: I had to fight her to take a solo on our first recording. She was just a humble person. She was just like that. First of all, I had never heard a woman play trombone before.
I must confess when I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Monk, I didn’t understand what they were doing. What kind of music is this? I didn’t understand it. It happened right after the Second World War when everything changed. I started working these clubs in New York. I would play Birdland every now and then with a trio. And Dizzy brought the big band. He brought that band that had Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Charlie Persip, and Melba Liston—all the heavy young players playing this incredible music that they called bebop. So he featured her. He said, “I want you all to listen to an arrangement of ‘My Reverie’ featuring Melba Liston on trombone.” She had this big sound on trombone, and she did the arrangement. And the arrangement was so beautiful. When she came off the stage, I just had to introduce myself to her. I said, “You don’t know me, but it was like magic. Like we were supposed to meet.” Then she moved from California to New York, and she got to know Mary Lou Williams—I knew Mary Lou, the giant; another queen, right?—because the two of them lived in Harlem. So somehow when I had a chance to do this recording for United Artists, my first recording for them, I wanted to do several waltzes for children, and I asked Melba if she would do the arrangements.
All Melba Liston wanted to do was to play and write music. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. But when she was working on music, she’d have the girls go and buy her a dress, or buy her a pair of shoes. She didn’t want to be bothered. She didn’t want to be glamorous. I used to bring her a coffee to keep her awake when she was writing arrangements for Quincy Jones. [And we worked together] from that point on, until she died. What a great, great, great arranger.
FJO: Now, it’s extraordinary how successfully your music and her arrangements melded, but that doesn’t always happen. Many people did their own arrangements for that reason. Duke Ellington did his own arrangements until Billy Strayhorn came into his life and then they created things together, which were also extraordinary. To turn that work over to somebody else, there has to be a level of trust. I’m jumping decades ahead now to your Blue Moses record. You thought it was going to turn out one way, and then you heard the record they released and it wasn’t at all what you thought you had recorded.
RW: Well, that was in the electric piano days. In the early ‘70s, if you wanted to make a gig, you’d better have a Fender Rhodes. Don’t look for no piano. Melba did the original arrangements of Blue Moses. We were still living in Tangier, so my son and I came from Tangier to do the recording, but when I got there, Creed Taylor said his formula is electric piano. I was not happy with that, but it was my only hit record. People loved it. [The arranger] Don Sebesky did an incredible job. Because what had happened was we went back to Morocco, so I didn’t hear the music until it came from New York to Tangier. Me and my son listened to it, and he said, “Is that us?” But Don Sebesky did a fantastic job to capture all those colors of Blue Moses.
FJO: So you were ultimately okay with all those extra layers that he added to it?
RW: Everybody’s okay with that. And I can’t resist. I just don’t like electric piano. But everybody says, “Man, you were fantastic on electric piano.” So many people. And I loved the musicians—Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington and Hubert Laws, Airto, and my son. Everybody played beautifully. I just was not happy with my sound, but that was required. That was Creed’s concept, and it was a good concept. It was a good concept because it became a hit record for me.
FJO: And because it was a hit record, it actually got you out of debt for the music festival you organized in Morocco.
FJO: It’s fascinating to hear that you’re okay with it even though it wasn’t what you thought it would be. As you had said, you never have a finished idea. It’s always going to get reshaped in some sort of fashion when you work with other people. But you still have some kind of control over it when you’re actually there. Or maybe you don’t.
RW: Absolutely, because it was the story of my life in Morocco. That’s a very, very personal experience—also for my son, because we lived there. We lived with the people. We traveled. We hung out with the traditional people. You know, we’d get together, we would read the Koran together, my son and I. We would play chess together. He listened to the Gnawan musicians and started playing rhythms that I didn’t know he knew. That’s what Blue Moses is all about. I was in this small French car with my son, Ed Blackwell, and the bass player Bill Wood, and we drove from Tangier all the way to the Sahara. I’m driving. The car’s so small that the wheel is between my legs, but I just loved adventure, I guess, at that time. So we go to this village up in the Rif Mountains, and we see snow. So I said, “Wow, I didn’t know there was snow in Morocco.” I saw the people skiing, so I said, “I got to put music to that.” Then through the Rif Mountains and you go down to the Sahara.
FJO: I think Morocco has the most extremely different kinds of terrain for that small a geographical area.
RW: It’s true. The music, the art, the clothing, the instruments—oh man, Morocco, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. I used to go to the festival in Marrakesh. Once a year, they’d have people coming from everywhere. Cats playing music on camels, on horseback, all kind of drums, dance music, it’s wonderful. And I just say wow. See, I love traditional music with a passion, because that’s where you get the soul and the spirit of the people.
FJO: But how to reconcile that with the piano? The piano is this creation of the industrial revolution. It’s a machine, to some extent. And there are all these stories about your tours in Africa and how difficult it was to get a piano for you in a lot of places.
RW: Or they had an electric piano, and I would break it up.
FJO: Well, some of them weren’t in very good shape to begin with. But it’s still interesting given what you say about traditional music that you can create something that’s so personal with something that’s a machine—not an electric machine the way we think of machines today, but the product of industrialization to some extent.
RW: Well, I go back to before it was a piano. You’ve got wood. You’ve got metal. When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood. After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot. So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument. It just traveled north and some other things were done to it. And inside it is a harp, an African harp. So you took that harp and you laid it down, and you put the hammers and whatnot in it. That’s why I was saying the origin of things is so important for me. So when I go to the piano, spiritually, it becomes an African instrument. Because I’m going all the way back to the beginning when I touch that piano. The Moors brought their music up through Spain, so it was coming from Africa, you know.
It’s like I was telling you about Monk and Duke, and how they take that piano. I used to love the sound of Count Basie and that piano. Oh my God. He’d just hit a few notes, but his sound, only Basie could get that kind of sound. Nat Cole. Another one. He’s playing a piano, singing, I mean, looking at the piano, but the sound Nat King Cole got on the piano. That’s why my latest recording, a double CD, is called Sound. Why did I love Coleman Hawkins so much? It was his sound. Why did I love Louis Armstrong so much? His sound. Louis only had to hit one note and I say, “Wow!” That goes back to ancient times, because in the ancient days, when they started making instruments out of Mother Nature, out of the wood, out of the fish, out of the camel, a horse, whatever instruments, you know, they had to say certain prayers before they did the ceremony to make that drum, or that banjo, or whatever, because that is Mother Nature.
Sure, I grew up in New York, and I heard the best of us here, but where did Louis Armstrong come from? Who was his great-great-grandmother? What part of Africa did he come from to produce that kind of sound on the trumpet? That never happened before. And going all the way back, how would they tune the instruments? They would tune the instruments by the sound of Mother Nature. By the sound of the animals, by the sound of the birds, by the sound of thunder. That’s how they would tune their instruments. And that’s why the music of Africa is so diverse because it’s the most diverse place in the world.
And wherever you find African people, I don’t care whether it’s in Fiji—I discovered them in Fiji—whether it’s Brazil, Guadeloupe, Mississippi, Congo. Duke said there’s that pulse in the music. It’s that pulse. You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles. But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival because without those early spirituals and blues, we would never have survived slavery. Even after slavery was abolished, even when we supposedly got our freedom, we had to go over the world, which we had never been in touch with before because we were on plantations. And from that, they create this music. Man, I don’t know how they did it.
FJO: Hearing you say all this reminds me of another comment you’ve made many times over the years, that there’s no old music. But, by the same token, that might mean there’s also no new music. Is that true?
RW: You know, it’s not fixed, because music is free. Musicians are free. I could never speak for another musician, because music is invisible. It’s the king of the arts. But when I play with Gnawan musicians, they play the same songs all the time. Now for Western ears that might seem boring, because you want to have something they call new. So I wondered about that. But when they play the traditional music, they’re telling a story of their people. They had given you the spirit of their people. The way they cook their food. The way they dance. The way they dress.
Ellington, Armstrong, Eubie Blake, all those people created music for their African-American community. You couldn’t just play music like today. You had to report to the African-American community. So all those great artists were not just able to play well. They played in hospitals, prisons, old folks homes, raised money for a school and whatnot. That was required. In African traditional society, that’s what a musician is. Not just, “You’re so great.” That’s only a part of it. You have to serve the community. You have to tell the stories of your father, your grandfather, and whatnot. And teach people that they may not have had the education or the technology, but they had wisdom.
We don’t listen to the old people today, but when we grew up, we hung out with the old people. We’d never leave the old people. I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house, man he told me stories. I met Luckey Roberts, who wrote a song called “Lullaby of the Nile,” up at his place. He was writing music about Africa. A lot of the churches in the South were called the African Methodist Church, the African Baptist Church and whatnot. Those people stayed in touch with the ancestors. That’s why they got so heavy with the black church. So despite the fact there was slavery, despite the fact there’s racism, they always tried to communicate with the creator. Because wherever you find African people, I don’t care where it is, they’re going to have a very powerful, spiritual music. Because all of our people, we know that there’s a higher power.
FJO: I’d like to talk to you a bit about the first large-scale piece of music that you created that is African inspired, and that’s Uhuru Afrika. How that recording finally came about is pretty interesting. You wanted to record it for United Artists, but they said they’d consider it after you made a jazz version of tunes from a Broadway show.
RW: I got to pick the show, but I had to do a Broadway show.
FJO: And you picked Destry Rides Again.
RW: Yes, I did.
FJO: Did you go see it on Broadway?
RW: Yes, and I met Harold Rome. It was great. He was an important composer. Like I said, I had the experience in the Berkshires. The Berkshires made me check out all kinds of music.
FJO: And of course that was also where you met Leonard Bernstein, who had one foot in classical music but the other foot was on Broadway.
FJO: Harold Rome, though, had a career that was almost completely on Broadway. So what was it about his show that spoke to you?
RW: Somehow I chose that one. I don’t remember what the other shows were, but I picked Destry Rides Again. It’s a cowboy show. It was my cowboy roots. (laughs)
FJO: It only ran for a year and is sadly kind of a forgotten show at this point. But it’s pretty interesting. I have the cast album.
FJO: It’s actually fascinating to compare it with your version of it. I love how the four trombones interact with the piano on it, but it’s a far cry from the record that you wanted to make, which was Uhuru Afrika.
RW: Of course.
FJO: And even after you went ahead and recorded a jazz version of Destry Rides Again, United Artists still wouldn’t let you do Uhuru Afrika.
RW: No, I did it with Roulette Records. I was very fortunate. There was a man named C.B. Atkins. C.B. Atkins was the husband of Sarah Vaughan. I don’t remember how we met, but he talked to Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, to let me do Uhuru Afrika. [Atkins] was the key and that’s why I was able to put together that incredible orchestra. We started right after the album of seven waltzes for children, me and Melba. Melba was just like myself, in a sense. She was a very proud African-American woman. She had great pride in her people. So we had that spiritual connection. African cultures were just getting their independence. And we knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home. So I wanted to do a work of music to show—again the influence of the Berkshires—that we are global people. And so, after spending time at the United Nations, talking to diplomats, going to see Langston Hughes, I got together with Melba a range of African people. We had an opera singer, Martha Flowers, a great soprano; we wanted her to represent African culture and European classical music. We had Brock Peters; he was a folk singer and a Broadway guy. Then we had Olatunji from Nigeria, Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba. We had Charlie Persip on drums. We had Ron Carter and George Duvivier on bass. And we had Max Roach on marimba.
FJO: And you also had Gigi Gryce on what was probably his very last recording.
RW: Exactly. Yusef Lateef, Gigi Gryce, Bud Johnson, Kenny Burrell, Les Spann, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Reggie Reeves, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson—it was something. And Melba did all the arrangements. It was delayed because I went to Langston Hughes, again who I met in the Berkshires. He was such a wonderful man. He was an African-American writer who knew the importance of the music. A lot of our writers have gotten away from the music. Not Langston. He wrote the first book of jazz for children.
That was a time when African countries wanted their independence, and the European powers at that time said, “No, you’re not ready for independence yet.” And Africa was saying, “Let us make our own mistakes; we want our freedom.” So I went to Langston and I talked with him and said, “Can you give me a poem of Freedom for Africa?” And I also wanted to celebrate the African woman—my mother, my sister, those women up until today, including my wife, who are always in the background and who struggle for us and take care of us but never get the credit, which included Melba Liston. So he did. I wanted to use an African language, because when I was a child, I was very embarrassed, what you would see in the cinema for African people—always slaves, Tarzan, all that stuff. We’re brainwashing these kids. The whole idea was Africa had no language.
But the whole concept of language came from Africa! So I went to the United Nations, and I talked to a lot of diplomats. I wanted to use an African language. They said use Kiswahili. So I got a guy from Tanzania to translate Langston Hughes’s Freedom Poem from English to Kiswahili. Melba was writing out the music. We had to record two days in a row, starting at nine o’clock in the morning. Musicians! Nobody was late! It was so spiritual. And Melba was still writing parts. We had musicians in my apartment writing parts on the ceiling, on the walls. But we did it. It was a very powerful message.
FJO: It was so powerful that it wound up getting banned in certain places. It has the same impact as Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which was recorded that same year.
RW: Oh, absolutely.
FJO: But curiously, you did all of this before you ever set foot in Africa, and it was probably what led to your being invited and traveling to Africa for the first time.
RW: I wasn’t supposed to go originally. I think Phineas Newborn was supposed to go. I think Benny Taylor was supposed to go. But something happened, and a friend of mine worked for the American Society of African Culture in Manhattan. This woman knew I had recorded music about Africa, so she came and took my LPs, talked to the head guy, and said, “You’ve got to take Randy Weston. He must go.” So that’s how it happened.
FJO: And it changed your life.
RW: Yes it did.
FJO: You had all of these ideas about Africa, but as you’ve also said, there’s a difference between music that’s about Africa and music that is Africa. When you visited Africa, you finally saw the multiplicity of what those cultures represent. It’s not monolithic, even within each nation state.
RW: You could spend years in Morocco.
FJO: Or in Senegal or Ghana.
RW: Or in Nigeria.
FJO: All of these places.
RW: There are something like 2,000 languages.
FJO: And all of these different cultures co-exist together.
RW: And that explains us. We had a mix, and those rhythms all come together. It’s tragic what happened to us, but look at the beauty we’ve given to Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Mississippi with this music. So it was almost like it was meant to be. Terrible, but it seemed like it was just meant to be.
FJO: That’s quite a perspective to have on all of this history. And it calls to mind a work of yours from just a few years ago that is perhaps your magnum opus, the African Nubian Suite. Your Uhuru Afrika, which you created more than fifty years earlier, foreshadows it in some ways, but I think that it was only possible for you to create something as expansive and all-encompassing as the African Nubian Suite after having traveled all over Africa and having completely absorbed what you experienced there and realizing that Africa spirals beyond Africa. It even includes China, so you include Chinese musical elements in it. You included the whole world.
RW: You know, we all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth. And when you tell that story, that’s what Duke was doing. My god, Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige! And he also wrote music for the Queen of England, but you could hear the blues underneath. And people like Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, and all those early people, that’s what they were doing. They were telling the story of the beauty of Africa. But then what happened was integration. It did several things, which are very good. We could go places we couldn’t go before. But at the same time, our culture disappeared. It’s not like it was before.
FJO: In the last half-century, music has changed to the point that there no longer are any clear demarcations. It’s great that there are no longer these demarcations, but there is also no longer a universally acknowledged popular music in this country or perhaps anywhere in the world. In the 1950s, Broadway shows were the incubator of mainstream popular music, which is why United Artists wanted you to record the score of a Broadway show. I doubt a record label would ask you to do an album of a Broadway show now. These days there are pockets of fans that like a certain thing, or like something else. For better or worse, there is no mainstream. In a way, we’ve all come closer together, which is good, but we’ve also kind of broken further apart, which is not good. So what can we do?
RW: Do what we do. Realize there’s a higher power. Study the history of this planet. Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts. They say, “You’re taking us back home.” I say, “We all are from there.” We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae! These are creations of African people. Where did Art Tatum come from? I’m more amazed with Monk and Coleman Hawkins today than I was yesterday. How could they take these European instruments, and do what they did and get their own sound?
So I think that Africa will survive. African spirituality will survive, despite the fact we don’t exist on television anymore. I’ve never seen it so bad in my life. During segregation, you could go to the movies and see a Bessie Smith short. You could see a short on Cab Calloway. You could see something on Billie Holiday. Now today, it’s tragic because this music is the classical music of the United States of America. I don’t use the term jazz; I use the term African-American classical music. There is classical music in all societies. I don’t care how many Beatles you’ve got or how many how many Rolling Stones you’ve got, you’re going to have opera and you’re going to have Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. That has to exist, because that is the song and the spirit of people of Europe. It’s very important, and there they always make that balance. But us here, we’ve become so sophisticated. We’ve got to do the latest thing. We’ve got to do the fastest thing. So what happened before us is no, no, no. My father said to me, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.” Despite all the corruption and all the stuff that’s going on and whatnot, to me that spirituality and consciousness may help save this world. I feel that. And there’s no better example than the music. So you call it calypso, jazz, or whatever you call this music. When you hear this music, it makes you feel, and when it’s right, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel happy. It makes you feel good to be a human being.
So when I’m on the stage and I play, I look at that audience and I see all the colors of the rainbow. And when they’re all clapping the same rhythm, when they‘re happy, I say, “Wow, music is powerful.” Because when we play this music, when it goes out, we don’t know what happens. Each person in that audience takes their own trip. So when you go up on that stage and get everybody to come together like that, sitting next to each other—if they knew who you were, they wouldn’t sit next to you, but music has that power. And I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.
It’s so sad that America cannot recognize its own classical music. Every child should have Louis Armstrong in the elementary school books. Every child should know about Duke Ellington, America’s greatest composer. Everybody should know about Charlie Parker, and Dizzy, and Nat Cole—all these people! The African people of this country influenced the entire world. On my first trip to Japan, when I get to Japan, here’s Max Roach on a throne. The way they love Max Roach, man, I was so proud. But that’s why they say we are the ambassadors; it’s true. But the recognition is very difficult, to recognize Africa’s contribution to the Western hemisphere.
FJO: You’re actually flying out on Sunday to play in Europe. Do you feel that you have more recognition there than you do here?
RW: Not necessarily. But the difference is Europeans made the instruments. They made the saxophone, the trumpet, and trombone, so they know what we do with them is completely original.
FJO: Or maybe, it’s because as you were saying before, you can’t learn about this music here if you just watch television and that’s where you get your information. The internet has all this stuff, but you have to know it exists first before you can find out more about it.
RW: Go back to books. Every day I read. The truth is in the books—the right books. When I go to students, I give them books. I say, “You will know the history of Africa. You will know the history of music.” The books are here. We have the technology. Everything is here. You’ll see that Western society came out of nowhere. Western society came out of Africa and came out of Asia. It became corrupt in the process, because they don’t give the recognition to the people who created this art.
I’m so happy because they used my music for a DVD about this great Senegalese master Chiekh Anta Diop. He proved scientifically that ancient Egyptians had to be a jet black people, because Mother Nature is a true artist. If there was serious hot weather, you needed black skin. For cold weather, you need white skin. She was the artist, just like she paints her fish and the insects. But we got away from that. So the message of this thing is so beautiful because he’s explaining it for us to stop and think about the origin of this planet and the origin of Western civilization. Western civilization corrupted the civilization of the older people. Everything in Africa is based upon spirituality. They’re in touch with the universe. They know the original music comes from the planets and the stars. They know the original music comes from Mother Nature. That’s why African music is so powerful, because the continent itself was swinging before man ever arrived. Everything: elephants, the snakes, all of Mother Nature in Africa, they all swing. Whether it’s a camel, whether it’s an ostrich, whether it’s a bird, they all swing because Mother Nature requires that. And the same is true with the musicians. So whether I’m in Morocco, whether I’m in South Africa, whether I’m in Senegal, all the music, all the dance, it’s gotta have that pulse. I don’t care what the rhythms are, you’ve got to have that.
FJO: So what happens when you create music that gets away from it?
RW: People get lost. They don’t know value. They don’t understand. If everybody knew the power of jazz, what they call jazz music, or spiritual music, the ways it impacts this planet, coming from people who were taken here in slavery, African people would be honored. I respect it and am thankful for the contributions. I never met my grandfather or my grandmother, but I read about their generation and what they had to go through. They couldn’t stay in hotels. They couldn’t ride on buses. Their color was no good. How did they survive that? With humor. With music. With love. It’s incredible.
I’m so fortunate now because wherever we go now, the musicians with whom I work, I feel that we give the spirit of Africa in our music. I describe it as spirit—living with the people, loving the people, reading about the people, eating the foods and drink. What I’m doing now is because of years of love. Love of my parents. Love of my people. Love of life. Love of humanity. And love of this beautiful planet.