Randy Weston: African Stories, African Rhythms
AAJ: In the Berkshires, you met and worked with Marshall Stearns, whose book The Story of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1970), set an early benchmark in jazz historiography. How influential was he, both in terms of your development as a musician and as an African American activist?
RW: He was very, very influential. I met Marshall Stearns in the early '50sthis is way before the Civil Rights movement. You know, during that time black people and white people couldn't be together, even in New York. We had separate dances; we didn't have contact with each other. Marshall had a global concept of African culture; he knew we were global people. Thanks to Marshall Stearns at the Music Inn, I met Mahalia Jackson, I met Langston Hughes, Babatunde Olatunji, Candido [Camero]. I met so many incredible people who came up there and gave talks and lectures. Imagine hearing Mahalia Jackson doing a talk on African spirituality in the black church, at three o'clock in the afternoon?
Marshall Stearns was the one who arranged for me to do the history of jazz, and he exposed me to the early styles of piano like Jimmy Yancey, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller; so Marshall gave me so much because he taught me a lot about African culture from a global point of view.
AAJ: Stearns also emphasized the African roots of jazz, didn't he?
RW: People don't realize how young Europe is; African people were making music when Europe didn't even exist. Civilization began in Africa, so the first Europeans were Africans; the first Asians were Africans, because African people migrated. So, Africa brought music to Europe. It's so important that the world considers what Africa has contributed to world civilization. The continent has given so much.
AAJ: Art Blakey, who played on your first trio recording, The Randy Weston Trio (Riverside Records, 1955), is widely quoted as saying: "No America, no jazz. I've seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance Africa, but it doesn't have a thing to do with Africa." What did he mean? He was one of the most African of jazz drummers, wasn't he?
RW: [laughs] You have to know Art Blakey. He told a lot of tales [laughs]. He was the most African drummer I know [laughs]. Art told all kind of stories. Art was doing African percussion in the '40s.
AAJ:And he went to Africa in the '40s, didn't he?
RW: Exactly. You have to know Art Blakey [laughs].
AAJ: So, he was just messing with our heads. Another musician whom you were tight with is Thelonious Monk, and that's already well documented. You were one of the first pianists to be influenced by him, but what was so difficult about his music for musicians to understand? In an interview in Downbeat with Nat Hentoff in '56 Monk said, "Some of my pieces have melodies a nitwit can understand."
RW: [laughs] Well, I go back to Coleman Hawkins. "Body and Soul" is my number one recording in history. When I heard "Body and Soul" as a kid, I bought three copies. I wrapped two in cellophane paper and hid them. So, I followed Coleman Hawkins, and through him I discovered Hank Jones and through him I discovered Sir Charles Thompson, then Dizzy [Gillespie], Miles [Davis] and Monk. I heard Monk with Coleman Hawkins. At first I didn't understand what he was doing, but I went back again, and what I can say about Monk is that I heard ancient Africa in his music. When he played, it was like a ballet. He captured the sound of the universe. He would play stride piano and make it sound way out. Monk could take a triad, a simple chord, and make it sound dissonant. I'm sure that element he had in his piano was part of the two years he spent travelling with his mother in gospel music in the tent shows. So, he had the black church in his music; you could hear James P. Johnson, you could hear Duke Ellington, the magic of Mother Africa. When I heard Thelonious, that's what I heard, and that's why I had to meet him.
Before that, [bassist] Ahmed Abdul Malik used to take me down to the North African section of Brooklyn, and introduced me to the oud and the kanoun. Malik could play all those notes in between the notes on the bass, and he also played the oud. I would try and do that on the piano, but I could never do it. But when I heard Monk, I heard that sound. That's why I say when an African touches the piano, when an African touches anything, he puts the African spirituality into it, be it a trumpet, a trombone, a matchbox, a table.
AAJ:Have you read Robin D.G. Kelley's book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), which came out recently?
RW: Robin Kelley and I are very close. We did a few presentations together where I would play some of Monk and talk about Monk, and he would talk about the book.