Randy Weston: African Stories, African Rhythms
RW: Yes, very much so. Robin Kelley spent a good ten years researching the book.
AAJ: Amazingly so. You and Willard Jenkins spent about four years putting your own book together. There's a lot to be said for taking your time over a project.
There's a great description in your book about the time when you toured with Bullmoose Jackson in '49 and the battle of the bands with Lowell Fulsom's band which had a very young Ray Charles on piano.
RW: Even in New York, when I first started playing this music, they said if you want to play jazz music, then you've got to be able to play the blues, and you've got to be able to play for a woman. These are the two things that are required. Why the woman? She represents the earth, and in your music you have to have feeling and passion, not just running over the keys and playing a whole lot of notes. You've got to be able to touch her, and I learned that in Brooklyn. So, when I made that tour with Bullmoose Jackson it was incredible because I discovered the blues, the meaning of the blues, how we survived from the blues, how the blues was such an important music.
When I played with Jimmy Rushing, he told me, "Man, the blues is the most important music on the planet."
I said, "Why do you say that, Jimmy?"
He said, "Because in no other music do you have so much direct communication."
When you've played in Africa like I haveand I've played in 18 countriesI'm sure that the blues is probably the world's oldest music.
In those battles of the bands we got really hurt, musically [laughs].
AAJ: Were those battles of the bands intimidating theaters to be in or were they very adrenaline-charged, enjoyable situations to be in?
RW: I'd never heard of Ray Charles, I'd never heard of Lowell Fulsom, but we went there with our band, and when we walked into the club, Lowell Fulsom had all the musicians standing on the tables playing their music, and Ray Charles was to the side on piano. When I heard them, I thought, "Uh-oh, we're in trouble." We ran out of Houston after that [laughs]. But that was the beauty of the musicthat kind of challenge all the time.
AAJ: Your first recordings as a leader were produced by Orrin Keepnews. It was interesting to read him saying that he has been "profoundly disappointed in the jazz public and in jazz writers at their reaction to Randy Weston." Have you felt in any way misunderstood or underappreciated by the public or critics over the years?
RW: Not at all. I've very rarely had a bad review for anything I've done. I've been really blessed that way. When I moved to Africa, people hadn't heard of me too much, but in my life I think I've maybe had one or two bad reviews. No, I can't complain at all. I've been really blessed. The thing that upsets me is that Mother Africa doesn't get the credit. She is responsible for this music called jazz, from Bossa Nova to Sun Ra and all these things. That's my missionto say, "Hey, we are a beautiful people; listen to Louis Jordan, listen to Billie Holiday." I want to tell the story of the genius of our people.
AAJ: Another story you relate in your book is about your efforts to develop an African American Musicians Society to counter discrimination against black musicians. How do you account for its short lifespan? Why didn't it take hold and grow more?
RW: Well, you know, I'm not a politician, I'm not an organizer. I just felt the pain that we were going through, and it was something I had to try to do something about. We were the first ones to put anti-discrimination clauses in Union contracts; it didn't exist until we put our organization together. We respect everybody and we want that same kind of respect, so that's why we formed the organization. At that time, blacks couldn't get into symphony orchestras, we couldn't work in studios. Racism didn't just cover music; it covered every part of American life.
AAJ: Buddy Collette passed away recently, and he was a very strong civil rights activist, working to desegregate the musicians union of Los Angeles. Did you run across Buddy Collette at all?
RW: It's funny you should say that. We just came back from Los Angeles two days ago, where I did a book signing. In Watts, they honored Buddy Collette in a beautiful painting by an artist, with some flowers underneath, in a cultural center. They really honored him, and I was so happy to see that. It's funny you should mention Buddy Collette; we just left him spiritually.