Thanks to YouTube, you can view Weston's performance at trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's memorial service at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church in December of 2008, his 6-foot 8-inch frame hunched slightly over the piano as he hammers out minimalist riffs and circular arpeggios that orbit through keys tangentially related to Alex Blake's droning bass.
Weston's life and music take center stage at the Jackie McLean International Arts Festival in Hartford this weekend. The pianist, who turned 85 in April, will sign copies of his recently completed autobiography, African Rhythms (Duke U. Press), at the Hartford Public Library from 4-5 p.m. on Friday. He'll conduct a workshop at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and will perform with his African Rhythms Quintet at 8 p.m. at the Artists Collective.
Weston was born to a West Indian father and southern mother. His father, he remembers, who owned restaurants, always talked about the family's African roots. “My dad was a wonderful Caribbean cook,” Weston tells me over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “And my mother, who was from Virginia, would cook southern food. Nobody ate better than me and my sister growing up. That's why I'm so tall.” At 14, Weston took to jazz after a few frustrating years of classical piano lessons. He later served in the Army during World War II, and when he returned, the talented young pianist began hanging out at the apartment of Thelonious Monk, whom he met by way of Coleman Hawkins.
“With Thelonious, he never gave me a piano lesson,” Weston says. “But every day I was with him I got a piano lesson. I listened to him. I loved his music. He had a special sound.” Weston spent about three years around Monk, picking him up at his house, studying the master's playing, not talking. During that time, he says, he had very few conversations about music, formal or otherwise.
“When I first went to his house,” Weston remembers, “I asked him all kinds of questions. He never answered. The only thing he said was this: ‘Listen to all kinds of music, then come back to see me.' When I went back two months later, he played the piano for me. Sometimes I would play, but most of the time I was too busy listening to him.”
Weston played R&B in the early 1950s with Bullmoose Jackson and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson before joining the NYC bop world with Kenny Dorham and Cecil Payne. He was the first modern jazz player to record for Riverside in 1954 and subsequently led bands that featured Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Ray Copeland and Booker Ervin. He was named New Star Pianist in Down Beat's International Critic's Poll.
In 1961, Weston and an entourage of nearly 30 musicians and dancers — Lionel Hampton and the members of his band, Nina Simone, Jeffrey Holder, two dancers from the Savoy Ballroom — stepped off a plane at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria at 11 p.m. There were 50 drummers on the ground to greet them. I'm home, Weston said to himself, and he cried a little. “It was a very emotional experience for me,” Weston says.
He returned to Lagos in 1963, then toured Africa and the Middle East in 1967. In 1968, Weston opened a nightclub in Tangier, where he remained until 1972. It was during this period that he began collaborating with the Gnawa, traditional musicians from Morocco. He moved between New York, Paris and Tangier, and in 1972, Weston recorded Blue Moses with Hubbard, Ron Carter, Vishnu Bill Wood, Billy Cobham, Airto Moreira and many others, a 1972 jazz/funk big-band recording on which Weston mostly played electric keyboards.
“I was living in Morocco at that time,” Weston remembers, “and I had lost contact with the jazz community ... I did the rehearsal on acoustic piano, but that wasn't the producer's concept. So, I recorded with the small group and went back to Morocco.” In his absence, arranger/director Don Sebesky added parts to give it a bigger sound.
It's not Weston's favorite album — he never liked playing the electric piano, which almost completely masks a player's touch. “Individual sound is so important to our music,” Weston says. “You can tell Duke Ellington from Count Basie or Thelonious Monk. You can tell Coleman Hawkins from Lester Young. You can tell all the giants from each other.” (Ironically, Blue Moses was Weston's only hit record. “So I don't hate it that much,” he says.)
After playing in small groups and a few large ensembles for most of his life, Weston played solo piano at the 1974 Montreux International Jazz Festival. “I met Duke Ellington's sister Ruth, and she pushed me to play solo piano. You know, for my recordings with Riverside they wanted me to play solo but I didn't feel ready. I didn't have the confidence. When I first got to Europe, I found that piano is very important there. With solo piano, you are completely free. If you make a mistake, nobody knows the difference. I can paint colors — Ellington would paint. I can tell a story. The piano becomes an orchestra.”
At various times in his career, Weston has tried to bring jazz to places that aren't used to hearing it: Buddhist and Shinto temples in Japan, the Canterbury Cathedral in the U.K. at the invitation of the archbishop, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. It was hard to get gigs in New York for a time, Weston says, so he decided to take music to places where you don't really find it.
“I've always believed that our music is good for anyone at any time,” he says. “That gave me the confidence to play in any space. Our music is much deeper than the term ‘jazz.' This music is deeply spiritual.”
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Randy Weston African Rhythms Quintet, May 21, 8 p.m., $20-$25, Artists Collective, 1200 Albany Ave., Hartford, (860) 527-3205, artistscollective.org.