With the sad news that Randy Weston passed away yesterday at age 92, the Jazz world lost one of its most gifted and profound practitioners; who successfully argued that Jazz did, in fact have its roots in African music.
From Giovanni Russonello’s remarkable and heartfelt New York Times Obituary from earlier today:
Randy Weston, an esteemed pianist whose music and scholarship advanced the argument — now broadly accepted — that jazz is, at its core, an African music, died at his home in Brooklyn on Saturday. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by his lawyer, Gail Boyd, who said the exact cause was still being determined.
On his earliest recordings in the mid-1950s, Mr. Weston almost fit the profile of a standard bebop musician: He recorded jazz standards and galloping original tunes in a typical, small-group format. But his sharply cut harmonies and intense, gnarled rhythms conveyed a manifestly Afrocentric sensibility, one that was slightly more barbed and rugged than the popular hard-bop sound of the day.
Early on, he exhibited a distinctive voice as a composer. “Hi-Fly,” which he first released in 1958 on the LP “New Faces at Newport,” became a standard. And he eventually distinguished himself as a solo pianist, reflecting the influence of his main idol, Thelonious Monk. But more than Monk, Mr. Weston liked to constantly reshape his cadences, rarely lingering on a steady pulse.
Reviewing a concert in 1990, The New York Times’ Peter Watrous wrote of Mr. Weston: “Everything he played was edited to the essential notes of a phrase, and each phrase stood on its own, carefully separated from the next one; Mr. Weston sat rippling waves of notes down next to glossy and percussive octaves, which led logically to meditative chords.”
Even before making his first album, Mr. Weston was giving concerts and teaching seminars that emphasized the African roots of jazz. This flew in the face of the prevailing narrative at the time, which cast jazz as a broadly American music, and a kind of equal-opportunity soundtrack to racial integration.
“Wherever I go, I try to explain that if you love music, you have to know where it came from,” Mr. Weston told the website All About Jazz in 2003. “Whether you say jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba, salsa — all these names are all Africa’s contributions to the Western hemisphere. If you take out the African elements of our music, you would have nothing.”
As countries across Africa shook themselves free of colonial exploitation in the mid-20th century, Mr. Weston recorded albums such as “Little Niles,” in 1958, and “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”), in 1960, explicitly saluting the struggle for self-determination. The latter of those recordings included lyrics written by Langston Hughes, and sales were banned in South Africa by the apartheid regime.
Both albums — and others throughout his career — featured the marbled horn arrangements of the trombonist Melba Liston, who left an indelible stamp on Mr. Weston’s oeuvre.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words and a note is worth a thousand pictures, here’s a sample of the late Randy Weston at work, from this 1976 concert for Radio France, rebroadcast just this past year.
Enjoy and remember. Remember and celebrate.