Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Randy Weston, pianist and composer who celebrated jazz’s African roots, dies at 92

By Harrison Smith

September 3, 2018 at 6:50 PM

Pianist Randy Weston performs at France’s Marciac jazz festival in 2005. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

For Randy Weston, Africa was the wellspring of music — the spiritual and rhythmic source of blues, African American spirituals, samba, bossa nova and, above all, jazz.

Mr. Weston, who was 92 when he died Sept. 1 at his home in Brooklyn, was among the most prominent ambassadors for traditional African music in the United States. A revered jazz pianist and composer, he incorporated that continent’s complicated rhythms, tonalities and call-and-response patterns in records that ushered in a new era of transatlantic fusion.

“More than any other musician, composer, or bandleader of his generation, Weston is responsible for fusing modern jazz and African music, giving birth to an entirely new musical genre,” said historian Robin D.G. Kelley , who charted Mr. Weston’s musical development in the book “Africa Speaks, America Answers.”

Musically restless, with a sound that continually evolved over his more than six-decade career, Mr. Weston claimed the entire African continent as inspiration and also drew from Caribbean and Indian musical traditions, the field hollers of American slaves and the Broadway show tunes of Cole Porter.

Even as a young man in Brooklyn, where he lived across the street from pianist Eddie Heywood, hung out with drummer Max Roach and befriended trumpeter Miles Davis, Mr. Weston’s musical interests ranged far beyond modern jazz.

Mr. Weston in 2007. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Introduced to Middle Eastern and North African instruments by bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Mr. Weston said he sought to play “the notes between the cracks,” microtones that aren’t found in Western music. In his 2010 autobiography, “African Rhythms,” written with Willard Jenkins, he wrote that he soon discovered pianist Thelonious Monk was already playing that way — and began spending hours at Monk’s home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, learning from the master pianist and composer.

“I’m convinced Monk came out of the ancient times because when he played the piano it was no longer a piano, it became for me another instrument entirely,” Mr. Weston said. “When I heard Monk play the piano it stretched my imagination for what I could do on the instrument; suddenly the possibilities seemed endless.”

Mr. Weston went on to distinguish himself in the 1950s with original compositions such as “Saucer Eyes,” “Pam’s Waltz” and “Little Niles,” a waltzing number with a title that referenced his young son Niles, who later played percussion under the name Azzedin Weston.

His breakout song was “Hi-Fly,” which the 6-foot-7 Mr. Weston described as a “tale of being my height and looking down at the ground.” It has since become a jazz standard, recorded by artists including Jon Hendricks, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley.

Mr. Weston surprised some critics, and many of his listeners, when he turned toward a more African-inflected sound, beginning with his 1960 album “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”). Recorded with a 24-piece band, the record featured lyrics and an opening poem by his friend Langston Hughes, who wrote of freedom from colonial rule and empowerment for African women — leading South Africa’s apartheid government to ban the record, along with an album by singer and civil rights activist Lena Horne.

Mr. Weston had not yet visited Africa at the time of the album’s release, but he went on to travel widely on the continent and spend five years living in Morocco, where he ran a music venue in Tangier called the African Rhythms Club, lectured on jazz and learned from local musicians.

“I went on a spiritual trip back home,” Mr. Weston explained to DownBeat magazine in 1998. “I wanted to hear where I came from, why I play like I play, why we play music like we do. We went to about 18 countries, and wherever we went we asked to experience the traditional music of the people. Hearing the traditional music was like hearing jazz and blues and the black church all at the same time.” 

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Mr. Weston drew from musical traditions in Ghana and Nigeria in subsequent albums, including “Highlife” (1963) and “Blue Moses” (1972). And while jazz artists such as Adderley, Blakey and Wayne Shorter followed him in releasing African-inspired records, few maintained such devotion to the continent’s musical traditions.

Among his most abiding interests was the incantatory, drum-filled music of the Gnawa, a North African ethnic group taken from sub-Saharan Africa as slaves.

“His many years in Africa have changed his music,” Mr. Weston’s longtime trombonist, Benny Powell, told DownBeat. “In European music, the rhythm supports the melody, but in African music the rhythm is predominant. Sometimes the Gnawa have been playing rhythms, and I’ve said to myself, ‘Now, what is he going to put with that and make it come out tight?’ In a few minutes, Randy’s playing the perfect stuff. As he once said to me, ‘B.P., I’m just trying to put the magic back.’ ”

Randolph Edward Weston was born in Brooklyn on April 6, 1926, to parents who separated when he was a boy and required him to take piano lessons at a young age. His father was Panamanian with Jamaican ancestry and was a supporter of the Pan-African message of Marcus Garvey.

“Dad would stop people in the street and talk about Africa,” Mr. Weston told DownBeat in 2015. “He told me, ‘You’re an African born in America.’ He had books by African American authors about ancient Egypt, ancient Nubia — the great African civilizations. I’d read them and dream.”

Mr. Weston served in the Army during World War II and returned home to work in his father’s restaurant, Trios, which served Caribbean food and became a favorite of musicians.

He released his debut album in 1954, “Cole Porter in a Modern Mood,” and one year later was named New Star Pianist by DownBeat.

His sound, critics said, reached new heights after he began working with trombonist and arranger Melba Liston on albums such as “Little Niles” (1959), which featured original tracks by Mr. Weston and liner notes by Hughes.

Mr. Weston was nominated for two Grammy Awards, for his albums “Tanjah” (1973) and “The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco” (1994), and continued recording at a blistering pace until his death. His later works included “The Spirits of Our Ancestors” (1992), which featured contributions from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and most recently “The African Nubian Suite” (2016), his 50th album.

He was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, and in 2016 was elected to DownBeat’s hall of fame.

A marriage to Mildred Mosley ended in divorce. His wife of 17 years, the former Fatoumata Mbengue, announced his death and said the cause was not immediately known.

Additional survivors include three daughters, Cheryll Weston Farella of Mountainville, N.Y., and Pam Weston and Kim Moran Weston, both of New York City; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild. His son died in 2007.

In an email, jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia wrote that Mr. Weston “always seemed ahead of everyone else. . . . His own work on the piano drew on a distinctive harmonic and rhythmic approach that sounds very up-to-date even today. Go listen to his debut album from 1954, and there are moments where you might think you’re hearing one of the bold young pianists of the current moment.”

Mr. Weston, he added, “was a true individualist, and when it sounds now as if he was part of a movement, it’s because the jazz crowd eventually adapted to him, and not the other way around.”

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Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post's obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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Randy Weston, pianist and composer who celebrated jazz’s African roots, dies at 92

By Harrison Smith

September 3, 2018 at 6:50 PM

Pianist Randy Weston performs at France’s Marciac jazz festival in 2005. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

For Randy Weston, Africa was the wellspring of music — the spiritual and rhythmic source of blues, African American spirituals, samba, bossa nova and, above all, jazz.

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