Even As A Musical Ambassador For The U.S., Randy Weston Has Always Played For Africa

Feb 28, 2017
Originally published on March 1, 2017 9:41 am

At the height of the Cold War, the United States was also fighting a culture war. To counter Soviet propaganda, the U.S. State Department launched a public relations campaign called the Jazz Ambassadors program, sending Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck and other leading jazz musicians on tours around the world. Randy Weston was one of them.

Those world tours cemented Weston's commitment to bridging cultures through music, a task he continues on a new album, called The African Nubian Suite.

"Today everything is fast," says the pianist and composer, who turns 91 in a few weeks. "The computer is fast. Everything, blah blah blah — people don't slow down. But when we hear this traditional music, they can take one note and touch your heart, you know? Touch places that you've forgotten about."

Whether it's Highlife from West Africa or Sufi music from Morocco, the traditional music of Africa has informed Weston's jazz for some 60 years. It's a journey that began in segregated Brooklyn in the 1920s, where his parents taught him that he was an American-born African.

"They taught me where I come from. Said, 'There's a lot of lies out there in the streets out there about you, but in the house you're going to learn the truth,'" Weston says. "When you study and read about the great African empires, which is where music was created, you understood you had a lot to learn about what we do."

Weston learned from the great pianist Thelonious Monk and made well-received albums right out of the gate. At the same time, he was seeing the world outside New York changing — according to Robin Kelley, a UCLA professor whose book Africa Speaks, America Answers explores the influence of African music on jazz. Kelley says Weston was incorporating African influence into his music even before his first State Department tour in 1965.

"He came into this musical relationship with a political agenda — and that is to support the independence of former colonies in Africa and the rest of the world, to make sure that African-Americans, in their fight for civil rights, would be part of a global struggle for a justice," Kelley says.

Weston's 14-country African tour came to a close in Morocco. By that point he'd fallen in love with the continent and decided to move to the Moroccan port city of Tangier.

"[I had] no Spanish, no French, no Arabic, no Berber," he says. "I come here with love and music and how the people treated me and how they treated my children. I had my children in Morocco. It was so beautiful."

Weston became a presence in Tangier. He opened a club called the African Rhythms Cultural Center, and programmed everything to show the cultural connections: from R&B to jazz to the spiritual music of the Gnawa people of Morocco. Hisham Aidi, a Moroccan-American writer who now teaches at Columbia University, grew up in Tangier and says he still remembers what has parents told him about Weston.

"Before I was born, Randy used to live in our street, Rue de Gibraltar. When my father was wooing my mother, he took her to see Randy perform at Cinema Alhambra," Aidi recalls. "So growing up, you hear stories about this man, this 6' 8" giant, and what he did for the music of our town."

Weston eventually did move back to the U.S., but he says that by that point, his piano had become an African instrument.

"If you look at the piano, inside is a harp. A harp is one of the oldest African instruments," Weston explains. "When I touch the piano, it becomes an African instrument. It's no longer a European instrument. I say that in a positive way, not a negative way."

Professor Kelley says Weston's latest album presents that message in song. "The African Nubian Suite involves millions of years' worth of history in this profound composition," Kelley says. "And here he is at 90 years old: He hasn't stopped because he feels like the message still needs to get out there. He still has a lot of work he's trying to do."

On a personal note, Weston says his musical journey was inspired by a deeper question: a desire to renew a connection with his own severed past as an African.

"I wonder how it's possible that we could come here to America in chains, on a boat, packed like sardines — our ancestors couldn't speak English, couldn't speak French — how they were able to take European instruments and do something that has never happened before," Weston says. "How is that possible? I still don't understand it. But when I hear African traditional music, I get the message."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the height of the Cold War, the United States was also fighting a culture war. To counter Soviet propaganda, the State Department launched a public relations campaign featuring jazz. It sent dozens of musicians around the world as jazz ambassadors, among them Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and the pianist and composer Randy Weston.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON SONG, "HI-FLY")

CORNISH: Weston had already been exploring the links between jazz and African music. Those world tours cemented his commitment to bridging cultures through the music. As Bilal Qureshi reports, that work continues on Weston's latest album.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Randy Weston will be 91 years old in a few weeks, and he's taking the long view to life and to music.

RANDY WESTON: Today, everything is fast, the computer's fast everything blah, blah, blah (ph). People don't slow down, see, but when you hear this traditional music, they can take one note and touch your heart, touch this place that you'd forgotten about (laughter).

QURESHI: The traditional music of Africa has informed Randy Weston's jazz for some 60 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON SONG, "CABAN BAMBOO HIGHLIFE")

QURESHI: Whether it's Highlife from West Africa or Sufi music from Morocco, Weston has tried to absorb it all. It's a journey that began in segregated Brooklyn in the 1920s. His parents taught him that he was an American-born African.

WESTON: Everything I do because (ph) my mother and father. I do nothing new. They taught me where I come from. See, there's a lot of lies out there in the streets about you, but in the house, you going to learn the truth. When you study and read about the great African empires, which where music was created, you understood better that we have a lot to learn about what we do.

QURESHI: Weston learned from the great pianist Thelonious Monk and made well-received albums right out of the gate.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON SONG, "ZULU")

QURESHI: At the same time, he was seeing the world outside New York changing, says Robin Kelley. He teaches African-American history at the University of California in Los Angeles, and he's written a book about the influence of African music on jazz. He says Randy Weston was incorporating that music into his compositions even before his first State Department tour in 1965.

ROBIN KELLEY: He came into this musical relationship with a political agenda and that is to support the independence of former colonies in Africa and the rest of the world to make sure that African-Americans in their fight for civil rights would be part of a global struggle for justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON SONG, "AFRICAN COOKBOOK")

QURESHI: Weston's 14-country African tour came to a close in Morocco. By that point, he'd fallen in love with the continent, and he decided to stay. He moved to the Moroccan port city of Tangier.

WESTON: No Spanish, no French, no Arabic, no Berber. I come with love and music and how the people treated me, how they treated my children. I had my children in Morocco. It was so beautiful.

QURESHI: Weston became a presence in Tangier. Moroccan-American writer Hisham Aidi grew up there and now teaches at Columbia University, and he remembers what his parents told him.

HISHAM AIDI: Before I was born, Randy used to live on our street Rue de Gibraltar, ki Gibraltar (ph), in Tangier. When my father was wooing my mother, he took her to see Randy perform at Cinema Alhambra. So growing up, you hear stories about this man, this 6'8" giant, and what he did for the music of our town.

QURESHI: Weston opened a club in Tangier called the African Rhythms Cultural Center. He programmed everything to show the cultural connections, from R&B to jazz to the sacred music of the Gnawa people of Morocco.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

QURESHI: Weston eventually did move back to the U.S., but he says by that point his piano had become his African instrument.

WESTON: When you look at the piano, inside is a harp. A harp is one of the oldest African instruments - the harp. And when I touch a piano, it becomes an African instrument. It's no longer a European instrument. And I say that in a positive way, not a negative way.

QURESHI: Professor Robin Kelley says Randy Weston's latest album presents that message in song.

KELLEY: "The African Nubian Suite" involves millions of years of history all encapsulated in this profound composition. And here he is at 90 years old. He hasn't stopped because he feels like the message still needs to get out there, you know? He still has a lot of work that he's trying to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON SONG)

QURESHI: On a personal note, Randy Weston says his musical journey was inspired by a deeper question - a desire to renew a connection with his own severed past as an African.

WESTON: I wonder how it's possible we could come here in America in chains, on a boat packed like sardines - our ancestors couldn't speak English, couldn't speak French - how they were able to take European instruments and do something that never happened before. So how is that possible? I still don't understand it. But when I hear African traditional music, I get the message.

QURESHI: For NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON SONG, "MYSTERY OF LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.