The time I interviewed Randy Weston, the story never ran. It was a preview feature for a concert he was to give in the Boston area, and the gig got cancelled so the story got spiked. Apparently there weren’t enough tickets sold.
Maybe a solo concert of jazz piano in a mid-sized hall was a stretch in 2009, even one given by the prodigious Weston. Or maybe Willard Jenkins, his friend and collaborator on his autobiography African Rhythms, had it right. “He has achieved a good number of accolades, but I do think he is underappreciated,” Jenkins told me back then. There was always a bit of that with Weston — if you knew, you knew.
Which is funny, really, because Weston, who made his transition on September 1 at the age of 92, was so open and warm. You couldn’t miss him: he stood six-foot-seven, built like a linebacker, and you’d feel the rustle when he showed up at a club in his dashiki and kufi and folded himself into a cramped seat to catch a show. He did interviews at home, in the house on Lafayette Avenue in his beloved Brooklyn, and conversation ran long. Of course, you wanted to ask him lots of questions. The man was an incredible repository of cultural knowledge, he played with Monk and even, once, Charlie Parker, he was friends with Fela Kuti and Langston Hughes, he met Cheikh Anta Diop and Aimé Césaire, he ran a club in Tangier at the cusp of the Seventies, he traveled widely in Africa; he did more than anyone, in fact, to not just posit the enduring spiritual ties of Black America and Africa, but live them, invest in them, make them manifest in music and action.
But fame wasn’t his bag. When he returned from the Army — he served at the end of the war, in Okinawa — and started running his father’s restaurant on Sumner Avenue in Bed-Stuy, he’d take the subway to 52nd Street and hear the greats in small venues. “I’d go hear Billie Holiday play with Louis Armstrong in a club that held maybe 100 people,” he told me. “We seem to have a music that attracts a small group of people who influence a lot of other people. That’s the special thing about this music. It’s always been a more intimate group of people. And the artists feel that. They can feel that you love what they do.”
Weston didn’t apprentice in the classic way — no stint in, say, Dizzy’s band or Art Blakey’s band, though of course he knew all those cats. He started piano a little late, at fourteen, and the war disrupted his progress, especially the months on the Pacific front with no instrument handy. But he grew up in the culture, in a deeper sense. His father came from Panama, his mother from Virginia, and the Caribbean and Southern Black influences mingled in his upbringing and around him; his father was a Pan-Africanist as well, a disciple of Marcus Garvey, and inculcated in him the idea of African roots.
This was mid-century Bed-Stuy, where the essence of Black Brooklyn was distilled. The composer Eubie Blake settled there in the early Thirties. Lena Horne was born there, nine years before Weston; Cecil Payne, the baritone saxophonist, four years before him. Max Roach was two years older than Weston, and in their teens and twenties the hang was often at his house, where Weston first met Diz and Miles. Weston’s close buddy Ahmad Abdul-Malik claimed Sudanese origins, though he may actually been Caribbean (or both?); at any rate, he played bass and oud, and once he got into eastern music he’d take Weston record-shopping with him at the Arab stores downtown, on Atlantic Avenue.
Later Weston would name a song “African Village / Bedford-Stuyvesant” — a jaunty composition that first appeared on Blues to Africa, recorded in 1974, and became one of his signature tunes, played solo or in large ensemble. And that was how he remembered it: a village, forced to self-reliance by redlining and segregation, finding ways to thrive. “Our own music, our own clubs, the way we cooked our food, the way we danced,” he said. “The black church on Sunday, the blues bands around the corner — we were in a total world of incredible culture.” When he left Tangier in 1974, the club having run his finances dry, he made straight for Bed-Stuy. He wasn’t done wandering: for ten years, ending in 1985, he spent time in Annecy, France, in a romantic and business relationship with a French woman named Colette. But in 1994 he fell in love with Fatou Mbengue, a Senegalese woman who had a shop in Paris; they married in a Nubian village in Egypt, then settled for good in the house on Lafayette, which is where he peacefully passed away.
Weston wasn’t coy about his influences. The first tune to blow his mind was Coleman Hawkins’s fundamental take on “Body and Soul,” which came out when he was 13. “I told my father to advance my allowance, and I bought three copies,” he said.” I put one on full blast. The other two, I hid. That’s the only piece of music that ever touched me that way.” Among pianists, he dug Nat Cole for his delicacy and lyricism, and Art Tatum for his power. But the biggest influence was the weird guy he saw playing piano one time in Hawk’s band — a guy named Thelonious Monk. Weston tells the story in his autobiography: “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who’s this cat on piano? I can play more piano than this guy!’” But the second time around, “something clicked and I realized just how advanced he was.”
There’s a lot of Monk in Weston — the unconventional chords, odd spaces, shifting rhythms, percussive emphasis. Witness Weston’s first recorded composition, “Zulu,” especially in its unadorned original version, on a 1955 Riverside LP. “You can hear Monk all over that piece,” Weston told me. Encountering Monk had unlocked something, and Weston sought him out, asked to visit him, keen to learn. “Monk was very quiet, but he invited me to his home,” Weston told me. “I asked a lot of questions, and I would get no response. But I knew that some of the masters, they speak in vibrations, not in the spoken word. He played the piano for me. We became inseparable.”
Weston was less of an individualist than Monk. He had a communitarian vision that invited large ensemble suites: his Uhuru Afrika (1961) appeared months after Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, and can be read as a political as well as musical companion. The more he spent time with Monk, the more Weston tuned to another genius, Duke Ellington, whom he appreciated for his orchestral vision but now paid closer attention to for his piano. In Ellington and Monk, Weston sensed the core of the blues and something beyond, something ineffable that could only come from the deepest Black origins — from Africa. “I suddenly realized these were the two pianists whose sound attracted me,” he said. “They put the magic of nature, the magic of Mother Africa into the piano. It’s a spiritual feeling, yeah. I felt the sound of our spirit, the sound of our ancestral home.”
Before Weston could make it to Africa himself, he had to get clean. Heroin had come to Brooklyn — “the poison,” he called it — and though Weston’s was a milder habit than some, due to his aversion to needles, he still had to kick it. A lucky break led him to the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts, where for several summers he found kitchen and cleaning work at resorts. There was a musical culture anchored by Tanglewood, and the resorts had good pianos. There were other artists around, often European refugees and Holocaust survivors. The musicologist Marshall Stearns, a jazz specialist, held court at the Music Inn in Lenox, organizing salons: Weston met Langston there, and the Nigerian percussionist Olatunji, and would collaborate with both. Mahalia Jackson came through; so did John Lee Hooker, and the dancer Geoffrey Holder. Weston cleaned up in the Berkshires, and more. “I was lucky to be there,” he said. “I was able to experience a world view.”
Weston made his first Africa trip in 1961, ten days in Lagos with a delegation of twenty-nine Black artists that included Hughes, Nina Simone, the opera singer Martha Flowers, and the painter Hale Woodruff. President Nnamdi Azikiwe held a dinner for them; the singer Bobby Benson hosted them at his open-air club, Caban Bamboo — sparking in Weston the dream of owning his own spot. Olatunji took them to his home village. Weston went back to Nigeria in 1963, and in 1967 he took his sextet on a fourteen-country State Department tour through West and North Africa. Morocco was the last stop. Within a month, he got letters inviting him back there. He ended up staying seven years.
“On the tour I decided I wanted to live in Africa,” he said. “I wanted to be close to the traditional music.” In New York the sound was changing; Miles Davis was entering his electric phase, fusion was on the horizon. “That’s when acoustic instruments got to be outdated. If you didn’t put a plug in the wall, you couldn’t play music. Electronic, you know? I said, this is my time.” Paradoxically, one of Weston’s most famous albums — the closest one to a commercial breakthrough — was a large-ensemble electric session: Blue Moses (1972), his one date on Creed Taylor’s CTI Records. It left him lukewarm. “Blue Moses was my hit record,” he told me. “I play electric piano, but I don’t like what I’m playing. People say it’s a great record, but I don’t like my sound. See what I’m saying? When I hear electronics I don’t hear the voice of the person, and certainly there.”
Morocco transformed Weston — again. “What happened to me in Morocco is something magical and very mysterious, the same as what happened with my relationship with Thelonious Monk,” he wrote in African Rhythms. Tangier, right across from Spain, was a expatriate hangout; bohemians were floating around, notably Allen Ginsberg and Paul Bowles, “who all appeared to be looking for something, I don’t know what.” While he had the club, he brought his friends to visit, including Roach and Ahmad Jamal. But the longer he stayed, the more he became involved in the mysticism of Morocco’s Berber and Black communities — the Jillalah, the Joujouka, and especially the Gnawa — for whom music was inseparable from spiritual practice. He worked with Gnawa musicians off and on for the rest of his life, on return visits to Morocco, in New York, and eventually on recording dates.
The Spirits of Our Ancestors, a double album recorded in New York in 1991, is a good entry into Weston’s discography and the second half of his career. It was intended as a grand convening, with Weston leading an extraordinary ensemble including saxophonists Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman, and Billy Harper, along with seven Gnawa masters. But amid the first Gulf War, the Moroccans were denied visas. Still, the album stands as a masterpiece. Arranged by Melba Liston, who had worked with Weston on Uhuru Afrika and gathered her energies for this session despite being wheelchair-bound due to a stroke, it includes several long, unfolding pieces that stretch well over ten minutes, one of them “Blue Moses” — acoustic this time. There is one Gnawa traditional song, with California-based Yassir Chadly singing lead. A 2003 recording, Spirit! The Power of Music, finally brought Weston’s working quintet and a Gnawa group together. But only one song, “Lalla Mira,” actively mixes the two. You sense that Weston considered himself a student of the Gnawa, keen to share their genius with the world, not to make a hybrid for its own sake.
“In Sufism, they say that God is the real musician,” Weston told me when I met him in his home. Fatou had greeted me when I arrived, and she and I had fun chatting in French while we all got comfortable. On the walls were illustrations from his album covers, and posters and portraits that told of a life in Pan-Africanist consciousness. “The piano is an instrument, the artist is another instrument,” Weston said. “You don’t know where you’re going to go. But somehow we all get in tune, because music is the first language of the planet, you see? Everybody has a heart; everybody has a sound. In reality we’re all walking musicians. The whole body functions because of rhythm and sound.”
This was nine years ago, so he was 83. But Weston always looked younger. He stood tall, and enjoyed excellent health. Still I asked, gently, about the passage of time. “Nostalgia is not the word,” he said. “It’s the way Mother Nature works. We gotta make room for the babies, man. If we stay around too long, what are the babies gonna do? I’m not nostalgic, but blessed. I couldn’t have lived at a better time.”
We weren’t quite done. I can’t tell from my notes how we got there, but we finished where we began — on community. “You have to serve your community,” he said. “Then for me you’re a full musician. It’s not just the notes! It’s the church. It’s the mom and pop trying to figure out how to survive racism and segregation, how to keep us spiritual. That’s what our music is really about. That’s why, when I give a masterclass, I always talk about my mother and father. You have to understand our way of life, how these heroes had to deal with slavery, all kinds of abuse, and produced this beautiful music.”
I remember that he went to practice at the piano in the back after we said goodbye, as I was still gathering up my gear. After Fatou saw me out, I paused on the stoop. If you trained your ear you could hear the notes wafting out to this dreary stretch of Lafayette Avenue. I remember feeling the temptation to just sit there for a while. Then I got self-conscious, and I went home.