Aged 92, Randy Weston passed away in Brooklyn where he had grown up. He was one of the first to defend the African legacy on jazz. Tribute to a giant.
On the album artwork of With These Hands we see two colossal palms which overhang as if to fly over the octaves and out of their frame. They belonged to Randy Weston, who passed away on September the 1st aged eighty-two years old, sixty three years after having decided to devote his life to music. Giving him enough time to dig a wide path in the history of jazz and its vast musical horizons.
Racism, black nation and afro-centralism
Born of African descent, Randy Weston spent a lot of his life living in the continent from where his ancestors were from. It was here that he discovered the prominent rhythms found everywhere and which made up an essential element of his understanding of the music. A demanding instrument, a form of expression of a community and a source of myths, jazz was for him the popular music played in his neighborhood and heard on the radio. His friends and neighbours were to become the legendary musicians we continue to cherish across the world today: Dizzy, Miles, Monk and more. They are all black. Randy Weston saw jazz, more precisely, as the folk music of afro-americans. Of their people. He placed the struggles associated with this before everything, presenting it as the “permanent theme of [his] life”. Determined by the fight against racism, Randy Weston, searched in the roots of all african groups who were aiming to escape from being boxed into the status of slave descendancy.
For him, just the act of playing an instrument was not enough. The aim was to serve the community. His father read and knew about the richness of their ancestry, he familurised his son of activities led by the black activist, Marcus Garvey who founded le journal The Negro World and a shipping company the Black Star Line, which aimed to eventually bring back all people of African descent to their home continent. Randy followed through with this education throughout his musical quests.
In 1961 he went to Nigeria and came, of course, from an american viewpoint. This hereby marked the first of his many trips to Africa. In Nigeria he studied the rhythms and met Fela Kuti (who he had admired for his commitment). He then moved in 1967 to Tangiers in Morocco where he discovered the Gnawa music sounds which he then adopted within his own music. It was here in Tangiers, and in that year, that he set up the African Rhythms Club. African Rhythms is also the title of an album that made history in his discography and his autobiography, published in 2010.
If there were any doubts, they were at this point erased. Randy Weston had deliberately moved his epicenter of man and musician to the African continent. But the first emotions and his jazz training were of course in New York and so the names of his individual influencers are mostly American.
Monk was a revelation to Randy and whom he saw Africa through. “At my second visit at his place, Monk sat at his piano and played a alost for three hours without interruption, and without saying a single word. I stayed seated, immersed in his inventiveness. (…) Although we have left the Africa centuries ago, we have an approach to life and music similar to that of our ancestors. Africa has never left us. When I heard Thelonious Monk play the piano, it showed me the direction of our music, the one where we maintain all the traditions of African music from which we create instead of moving away from it.” In addition to the Monk UFO, the total work of Ellington, which he cotza, and the compositions of Dizzy Gillespie found in him an echo in the history of his people. Perhaps under the model of the Duke, Randy Weston composed his own repertoire, using the precious arrangements of Melba Liston, a defining encounter in his career. The trombonist became, in his words, “indispensable” to his work. Together, they recorded Uhuru Afrika (1960) and The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1991), two major works of a discography, some of which remained confidential, being released by labels without means. Never was his writing detrimental to the vibrations that passed through Randy Weston. As a storyteller, the pianist had placed the emotion at the center of his game, with a sensitivity blues background and African rhythms. His music came from his gut. In addition to innumerable blues, he declined the form of the waltzes to which he had devoted a particular attachment. In his eyes, music had a spiritual dimension. Familiar with the Gnawa or Mandinka traditions, an accomplished musician was for him a “healer” who tells and delivers the listeners of their ills.