by Mike Shanley
Our Mike Shanley spoke with jazz pianist Randy Weston for this week's issue; only a short version of that piece ran online, so here's a less-abridged version.
Randy Weston grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, becoming friends with musicians like jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. In his late 20s, Weston decided to devote himself to playing the same instrument.. He has traveled throughout the world, incorporating numerous influences into his playing. He comes to the New Hazlett Theater with his African Rhythms Quartet on Sat., Oct. 26 at 8 p.m. Call 1-888-718-4253 for info.
You have said you feel like you’re a storyteller, not a jazz musician. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, my wonderful travels in the world are because of music. And music is the star, not Randy Weston. And music is spiritual. It’s taken me from Bed-Stuy growing up, to the black church, the blues, [playing in a] big band and all over Asia and Africa. So I tell stories about my experiences, about African-American culture, African culture and the spirituality in music itself.
I spent seven years in Africa. I traveled to 18 countries in Africa. I looked at the oldest musicians I could find, the oldest music I could listen to. When we grew up as kids in Brooklyn, we always hung out with our elders, you see? So I tell stories of these great people before us: my mom, my dad, going all the way back to African civilization.
What was it like, meeting these musicians?
They’re very traditional people. They’re all in tune with nature, the universe, the galaxy. They have a different concept of music. But they also keep the stories alive of their particular society. So I feel it makes you understand better, [questions like] who was Louis Armstrong, who was Duke Ellington? They were not only great musicians, with the music they played, they told the story of African-American life in the ’20s, in the ’30s, in the ’40s. That’s why they were storytellers. So I try to pass on that tradition and respect and love of those artists that came before me, who sacrificed a lot to produce this music that we call jazz or blues or samba, reggae whatever.
Can you call your music “jazz”?
Jazz doesn’t really give the full story. What have African people contributed to the US? America is so young, compared to most countries on the planet. So what we call jazz in African-Americans’ contribution to the United States. So if you look at it that way, it gives you the understanding, also the genius and the spirituality of all these people. How do they do what they do? How do they make music out of a broom, out of a bottle? In Africa, people make music out of anything. For them, music is the voice of the creator.
And I think about my mom and dad. How did they keep us so spiritual? They made sure we went to church every Sunday. They made sure we were spiritual, made sure we had our pride, our dignity, no matter what. So they are the heroes. [Laughs}
That piano teacher that was 50 cents a lesson and hit my hands with a ruler if I made a mistake. She made sure I practiced that piano!
I want everybody to understand more about what African people have contributed to America. I think if they understand that, we’d have a different approach of who we are, what we did, despite all the slavery and the racism. But all the beauty that we gave, it’s amazing.
I was lucky to have known Duke Ellington. I knew Count Basie. I met Billie Holiday and shook Louis Armstrong’s hand. I shook Mahalia Jackson’s hand. In my life I’ve been so blessed to meet these people that have never been given the proper credit for what they’ve given to America.
Did you know Thelonious Monk well?
I hung out with him! In the beginning, I didn’t understand what Monk was doing. But then I heard something. I met him and we hung out for about three years. I’d pick him up at his house in Manhattan and bring him back to Brooklyn, we’d go to places. He never said much, but his music…. For me, you can’t call this music jazz. This music is in touch with the ancient civilizations, the galaxies, the planets. By hanging out with him, I understood better [stride pianist] James P. Johnson, Ellington, all the people that preceded him, the history of piano. So the further you go back, you realize how humble you have to be today. And how they did what they did. It’s a miracle.
Ironically, I never heard a musician say to another musician, “We’re going to go play some jazz.” Interesting, huh? Instead, [they’ll say], “We’re going to play Duke’s music or Billie Holiday’s music or Benny Goodman’s music.” We never use the word.
You didn’t start playing piano professional until you were in your late 20s. How come?
Well you can understand why. People like Art Tatum and Earl Hines and Nat Cole and Duke! Erroll Garner — all those people [were] around. So to call yourself a pianist, you gotta be careful! That was royalty.
I used to go to [1920s ragtime pianist] Eubie Blake’s house and hang out with him. We’d go hear Willie “The Lion” Smith [another stride pianist who had been playing since the ‘20s]. Those people. You call yourself a pianist, you better be quiet! [laughs]
And if they were alive today, I’d be a little boy. Not to mention Bud Powell. There were all those people who played this music and did it a different way. Earl Hines did it this way, Monk this way, Count Basie this way. On the same instrument! So that’s why it took me a long time to decide to be a professional musician.
When you play with the African Rhythm Quartet, how do you plan a set?
We always try to bring on some of the traditional rhythms of Africa. So people can feel where it’s come from. I spent years with the people of Morocco, the Gnawa. They were taken in slavery. So they maintain a very powerful spiritual music.
From there, maybe we’ll go to the blues. But we’re just trying to tell a story of the history of African music. At the same time we all come from the motherland, everybody on the planet. It’s a combination of all those things.
I always tell the audience, “You’re a part of this band, because we’re going to take the trip together.” By the magic of music, it’s amazing how you look at the audience and see all the shades of the rainbow. Different colors, genders and ages. When the music is right, everybody becomes in tune with the music.