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Jazz Legend Randy Weston: The Complete Democracy Now! Interview

Web ExclusiveFebruary 24, 2012
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Our full 78-minute interview with pianist and composer Randy Weston. Includes extended performances of many of Weston’s most famous songs: “Hi-Fly,” “Blue Moses,” “African Cookbook,” “In Memory Of,” “The Healers,” “African Lady,” “Kucheza Blues,” and “Blues for Langston Hughes.” For the past six decades, Weston has been a pioneering jazz musician, incorporating the vast rhythmic heritage of Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And we’re at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where our guest today, Randy Weston, is performing. He’s one of the most influential jazz musicians of our day, 85 years old, born in Brooklyn.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

RANDY WESTON: Thank you. And what a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It is really remarkable to be with you. You have produced scores of records. You have been performing around the world. And you’ve just written your autobiography. I love what it says: ”The Autobiography of Randy Weston, African Rhythms, composed by Randy Weston, arranged by Willard Jenkins.”

RANDY WESTON: And it’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, and quite a life story you have. If you could talk about your roots, talk about your family, your father, your mother, your primary influences.

RANDY WESTON: Sure, with great pleasure. My dad was born in Panama. He lived seven years in Cuba. And he came to Brooklyn and settled in Brooklyn. My mother came from Virginia, a small town called Meredithville. And she came to New York, and they got together to produce Randy Weston.

And I grew up in a very powerful, spiritual, cultural area in Brooklyn, what they call Bedford-Stuyvesant, you see. We had to be in the black church every Sunday. That was required. Everybody had to take art. You had to take piano or trumpet or violin or dance. That was in the neighborhood. And economically, everybody didn’t have money. But culture, it was so wonderful. We had the blues bands on the corner. We had the calypso. We had the big band rehearsals during the day.

And my dad gave me two things. He was very influential. He said, number one, “My son, you are an African born in America. Therefore, you have to study the history of Africa, when Africa had its great civilizations, before colonialism, before slavery.” So, because of my dad—

AMY GOODMAN: “You are an African born in America.”

RANDY WESTON: Yes. Yeah, he was very clear about that, you see. To know your history, because, he says, “You’re only going to get the history after colonialism and after slavery.” So I had to go to the museums. I used to read about the great empires of Egypt, of Songhai, of Ghana. And my dad had maps on the wall, of African kings and queens, and books. In addition, he made sure I took piano lessons, because I was six foot at 12 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: Six-foot tall at 12 years old.

RANDY WESTON: And in those days, you know, I was a giant, right? I wanted to play basketball or football. My father made me take piano lessons. So my dad gave me Africa, he gave me music. My mom gave me the black church. But the two of them, they kept me very spiritual. And I always saw the similarities between African-American culture coming out of Virginia—my mother—my African-Caribbean father coming out of Panama and Jamaica. So that’s how I grew up. And the whole neighborhood was full of wonderful, wonderful people, great leaders and great artists, a lot of inspiration.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcus Garvey—what role did he play, and, especially for young people today, who he was?

RANDY WESTON: He was a super, super giant. You see, during that time—I’m talking about ’30s, ’40s, ’50s—we produced some real giants, and he was certainly one. His philosophy, Africa is our ancestral home. We were taken away. And those of us who were taken away, we have to give back. We have to rebuild our motherland, which is Africa. And all humanity comes out of Africa anyhow. So, he was way ahead of his time. And he had the biggest organization of African people up until today. There was no—no computers, no aeroplanes. He traveled. He traveled all through the States. He went to Europe. He went to the Caribbean. So he was a great philosopher.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Negro Improvement Association.

RANDY WESTON: Exactly. And he gave that pride to our people, because our history was taken away. And, you know, your history of your ancestors is your foundation. So he gave us that. So he was a very, very important man. And my father loved Marcus Garvey. So we would have books on Marcus Garvey in the house—J.A. Rogers, all these great people, Hansbury, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So you started with classical music—


AMY GOODMAN: —but didn’t like it too much.

RANDY WESTON: Well, because it didn’t swing, you know? [inaudible] I had a great piano teacher. God bless her. She was a sweetheart. Fifty cents a lesson. Hit my hand with a ruler when I made a mistake, and I was always making a mistake, because I had long legs and big feet. I didn’t want to practice, you know. But she gave me that foundation. Then, after three years, she told my father, “Forget it. Your son will never play the piano.” And I don’t blame her. In fact, and I got her picture in the book, because she gave me that foundation, of that—of the women of that time, how they had that dignity and pride and class, you know, and give you those music lessons and want to make sure that you knew—played those lessons.

AMY GOODMAN: But your father wouldn’t give up.

RANDY WESTON: No way. He got another teacher, a guy named Professor Atwell, and he knew a few popular songs. So he taught me the classic tradition of piano, but also a few popular songs. And that’s how I got into start to learn to play the piano.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re playing music, and then World War II.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, yeah. Well, World War II, I was drafted in the Army, spent three years in the Army. They have little local bands. But even before World War II, we had small local bands in Brooklyn, you know? And we play everything from polkas to marriages, you name it, you know? Little small groups, people like the great Ray Copeland, people like Cecil Payne, all these musicians. And we had the great Max Roach in Brooklyn. And a lot of giants lived in Brooklyn. Eubie Blake lived in Brooklyn. So, the world—and we had black musicians’ club at that time, you see. So we can go to this club as kids and see the older musicians. They’d be playing cards, or they have a blackboard. They say, “Son, you’re going to play over there. Make sure you get $2, not $1.” So we had that respect and love for the ancestors.

AMY GOODMAN: So who were you watching then? Who were you listening to?

RANDY WESTON: Oh, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, you know, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Earl Hines.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet Louis Armstrong?

RANDY WESTON: Yes, I shook his hand. That was enough. I shook his hand in Oklahoma City when I made my first tour with a rhythm-and-blues band, Bullmoose Jackson. And he was in the hotel room. He said, “Weston, you want to meet Louis Armstrong?” “Of course I want to meet the king, you know.” So, he was in the room, and I shook his hand. And that was it. But a handshake I’ll never forget.

AMY GOODMAN: Count Basie.

RANDY WESTON: Count Basie. Count Basie—I used to play opposite Count Basie at Birdland when I started playing trio. I loved Basie because of his touch, his class, and his love of the blues, because Basie played all kind of blues. And I finally met him at a festival in Holland, of all places. And I used to try to play like Count Basie. So when I saw him, I said, “Count, I just want you to know how much I love you and how much you gave me on the piano.” He said, “Oh, man, don’t talk like that.” But Basie was very, very important.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Thelonious Monk, Randy?

RANDY WESTON: Thelonious Monk, the Magic Man. Thelonious Monk became in my life because of my love for Coleman Hawkins. Coleman Hawkins was my idol. Coleman Hawkins go back to the Fletcher Henderson days, in the early ’20s, you know, all the way up to the first one to record Dizzy, the first one to record Monk, the first one to record Miles Davis—was Coleman Hawkins.

So I used to go to 52nd Street all the time in those days. You can go in these great clubs, one next to each other. All the masters of the music—Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, you name it, you know? And I went one night to hear Coleman Hawkins, and he had this guy playing the piano. And what he was playing, I didn’t understand what he was playing. I said, you know, “I don’t know what he’s doing with this guy, you know? I can play more piano than this guy, you know.” But I went back, and I discovered the genius of Monk, fell in love with his music, and spent almost three years just hanging out with Monk, picking him up, taking him to Brooklyn, taking him to my father’s house. My dad had a restaurant at that time.


RANDY WESTON: Yeah, called Trios. We were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We had the hippest jukebox in the world. On the jukebox, we had everybody from Louis Jordan to Duke Ellington to Nat King Cole to Sarah Vaughan; on the other side, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud. So musicians would come all night long and argue: who is better, Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young? So, culturally, it was an incredible period, because I spent time, I listened to our royalty of this music.

AMY GOODMAN: World War II, when you served in the military, it was a segregated unit?

RANDY WESTON: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you serve?

RANDY WESTON: Where did I go? I was in Fort Dix, one year in Okinawa. I spent the rest of the time between Fort Dix in New Jersey and Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did you serve overseas?


AMY GOODMAN: In Okinawa.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, one year.

AMY GOODMAN: How did that influence you?

RANDY WESTON: Well, it made a man out of you, because we had to be 25 days on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. It took us four days from New York to Spokane, Washington. I was the signal corps, heavy construction battalion. So we had to take a boat from there, and we had to go to the Philippines. And at that time, they had the U-boats, under the ocean, under the sea, you know. So they had no lights. So it would be 25 days on the boat, and we finally got to Okinawa. So that makes a man out of you, because I was drafted 18 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the first album you put out?

RANDY WESTON: 1954 on Riverside Records, it was called—the music I did of Cole Porter, piano and string bass, a bassist named Sam Gill. It was my first recording for Riverside, and their first recording, too, because before that, they were recording sportcar sounds, they were recording piano rolls of people like Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmy Yancey and all the early people, you know. So they heard me at the Berkshires up in Massachusetts. So I did my first recording for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you end up going into—going to the Berkshires?

RANDY WESTON: Oh, the Creator takes care of many things, you know. After we came out of the Army, the powers that be put the heroin into the black community. And they always picked the artists for drugs, always, because the artists influenced the people, you know. And it was spread throughout the neighborhood. And I wanted to get away. And luckily, I had a good friend of mine, he was a semi-professional basketball player. His name was Lefty Morris. And he played with a team up in Lenox, Mass. He said, “Randy,” he said, “you go up to the Berkshires. Take any kind of job,” he said, “because it’s full of music. The Boston Symphony is there during the summer, chamber music. People love music.” So that’s what I did. I went up there. I took—I was washing dishes, doing everything.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were able to kick the habit totally there?

RANDY WESTON: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: You were able to kick the habit totally?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, yeah, because I needed a change of atmosphere, you see. So I was very blessed. I met great people. I met everybody from Lukas Foss to Leonard Bernstein. And I played with the—some of the members of the Symphony Orchestra, because by that time they encouraged me, when I wasn’t working in the kitchen, and I became a breakfast cook after a while.

AMY GOODMAN: This is at the Music Inn?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, at the Music Inn. And they heard me play the piano. And that’s when I decided—

AMY GOODMAN: So you were there, hired as a dishwasher.

RANDY WESTON: As a breakfast cook, actually. I was a dishwasher at the resort before the Music Inn, which was called Seven Hills.

AMY GOODMAN: And the folks that ran either Seven Hills or Music Inn heard you when they were just coming down late at night?

RANDY WESTON: Exactly. In both places, actually. But Music Inn was important because Professor Marshall Stearns, he was starting his series of lectures about the history of African-American music. So because of Marshall, he brought people like Mahalia Jackson, like Dan Burleigh, like Duke Ellington, like Butterfly McQueen, Billy Taylor, Candido, Olatunji. He had a global concept of African culture. I met John Lee Hooker because of Marshall Stearns—Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. So I saw the whole connection. Dr. Willis James from Spelman College, he specialized in field cry hollers. So I understood more about the impact of African civilization on world civilization.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play a little, what inspired you at that time, what you were playing at that time?

RANDY WESTON: I was thinking about James Reese Europe, and—this great, great man who’s been forgotten about in our history, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: James Reese Europe.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, yeah, a phenomenal individual.

AMY GOODMAN: Born in the 19th century.

RANDY WESTON: Exactly. Mobile, Alabama. He was a pianist, composer, from Washington to New York, organized what they called the Clef Club. At that time, everything was segregated. He formed the first black union. He had a hotel in the 50s. It was called the Clef Club. Entertainers could come there. He had seven orchestras, that you could play any kind of music in these orchestras, all to musicians. Carnegie Hall 1912, with 125 musicians, with 10 pianos. And he said—this is before the word “jazz.” The word “jazz” didn’t happen ’til 1915. Before then, it was just black music, or African-American music or African music.

Then, in addition to that, he joined the U.S. Army, became a lieutenant, got 60 musicians, went to Puerto Rico, got some more musicians, went to France. They were the first ones to play this music. And the French had never heard this music before. You see, because during the war, the French soldiers and the American soldiers were gassed by the Germans, so they had these cultural, spiritual, therapeutic places in France, you know, where you get the thermal water and whatnot. So, James Reese Europe played 25 cities in France after the First World War.

AMY GOODMAN: When he played in Carnegie Hall—


AMY GOODMAN: —was it an integrated orchestra?

RANDY WESTON: No, no. He was strictly black culture. He said, “We have a culture, African people.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play a little that inspires you?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah. I’m going to play a piece—I just thought about it. It’s called “In Memory Of.” [playing “In Memory Of”]

AMY GOODMAN: The great Randy Weston, here at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Borough of Manhattan Community College. In fact, you’re playing here. You’re honoring James Reese Europe.

RANDY WESTON: Oh, yes. We have to.

AMY GOODMAN: And your baseball cap says “369”?

RANDY WESTON: Three sixty-nine. It was the 369th Regiment. They’re up—still up in Harlem, around 142nd and East Side Drive.

AMY GOODMAN: Hellfighters?

RANDY WESTON: And General James and Sergeant Trimble. Those are the two people responsible for the curate of what those men have done. They have an exhibition up there.

But the story of James Reese Europe, I have to go back a little further. Now, our parents taught us to always be in touch with the best minds we could find, the best people we could find, and always with the elders. So when we were young, we were always with the old people. So, the great pianist, Luckey Roberts—Luckey Roberts was one of our greatest pianists, and he had a club in Harlem called Luckey’s. So, about 17 years old, took that A train, went up to Harlem, introduced myself to Luckey. And he said to me, he said, “Randy,” he said, “I want to tell you something.” I said, “What?” He said, “When James Reese Europe died,” he said, “we died.” I said, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because James Reese Europe, until this minute, was the only man to organize black artists in a dignified way, in a creative way, in a spiritual way.” And I’ll never forget that.

So, in early 1960s, we tried to form an African-American society of musicians, you know, to protect our rights, you see? So it all came from James Reese Europe. I had to tell you that story, because that’s how it started. And I lived in France. And when I lived in France, I went to the different thermal centers where they played during the First World War, you know. So, it’s very spiritual for me.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to you moving to Africa. But before that, Langston Hughes. Talk about meeting him and—


AMY GOODMAN: —how he inspired you and what you did together.

RANDY WESTON: So many ways. Again, Marshall Stearns.

AMY GOODMAN: Marshall Stearns, the—


AMY GOODMAN: —white professor.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Western Mass.

RANDY WESTON: Exactly. He brought Langston Hughes up to the Berkshires to the Music Inn. And I met Langston—automatic connection between the two—and I was very young. I wasn’t a professional pianist now. I’m playing at night, and I’m cooking during the day, but I wasn’t a professional musician. But to make a long story short, he knew my interest in Africa, knew my interest in African culture. So as it turned out, in 1961, the very first summit of African Americans going to Africa was in Nigeria. And Langston was part of that movement.

And then, later on, when the great Melba Liston, whom we did the “Freedom Africa Suite,” I asked Langston would he come and write a freedom poem for me, because the African countries were just getting their independence in 1960. Seventeen African countries got their independence in 1960. So I wanted to create a work of music celebrating this freedom of Africa. So Langston wrote a freedom poem for me, and also he wrote the words, a song I call “African Lady.” That song was dedicated to our mothers, our sisters, those African women who were always in the background, who always supported us, you see. And then, finally, we did—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play a little?

RANDY WESTON: Oh, yeah. Oh, you mean, which one? “African Lady”? Sure. [playing “African Lady”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston. I’m sitting next to you and the piano like I’m going to sing. But instead I think I’ll just ask questions. “Little Niles.” Talk about “Little Niles.”

RANDY WESTON: Wow. Written for my son, again the Berkshires.

AMY GOODMAN: What year?

RANDY WESTON: 1950, OK? And what happened—I loved the Berkshires so much. I’m at the Music Inn. So after everybody left, after all the guests left, it was very quiet. And I was in this room in the Music Inn, an incredible fireplace and just the piano. And I’ve always loved children, and I always wanted to compose some songs for children, you know. So, the first song was “Pam’s Waltz.” That was the first song, my little girl. And the second song was “Little Niles.” So I wrote a song for my son. And he ended up being a great percussionist and a great musician. That’s the story of “Little Niles.”

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t you have Langston Hughes write a poem for that?

RANDY WESTON: For—no, not for “Little Niles.”

AMY GOODMAN: Not for “Little Niles.”

RANDY WESTON: No, Jon Hendricks did.


RANDY WESTON: Hendricks. He wrote the lyrics.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah. Talk about—you mentioned the freedom poem of Langston Hughes. Do you remember it?

RANDY WESTON: Well, it’s like a—you know, what we did was this. As a boy, I was always upset with Tarzan movies, you know, because the image of African people in Hollywood was rather hard. That’s putting it mildly. The image, you know. And I was always upset with what they called African languages, like African people have no language, you know? So the freedom poem, I wanted to put the freedom poem in an African language, so when people hear the music, they realize the beauty of African languages and that language began in Africa in the first place. OK? So I went to Langston, and Langston—the freedom poem was like “Afrika Uhuru,” which means “freedom.” Actually, my memory—

AMY GOODMAN: “Africa, where the great Congo flows!”

RANDY WESTON: “Where the great Congo flows!” “Afrika Uhuru.” And “Uhuru” is Kiswahili. And I—so, I went to the United Nations. I talked to a number of diplomats at that time. I said, how could I use one African language? There’s so many languages in Africa. How could I choose one? So the general consensus was, use Kiswahili. So I had this guy, his name was Tuntemeke Sanga from Tanzania—Tanganyika at that particular time. And he was a scholar of Swahili. So what he did, he took Langston’s poem from English to Kiswahili. And his diction and his voice was so wonderful, we used him on the recording of Uhuru Afrika.

AMY GOODMAN: I’ve got the words, in English, at least. Maybe you could read it.

RANDY WESTON: Ah, you want me to read it? OK.
[reading] Africa, where the great Congo flows!
Africa, where the whole jungle knows
A new dawning breaks, Africa!
A young nation awakes, Africa!
The freedom wind blows!
Out of yesterday’s night—Freedom! Freedom! Freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about—Randy Weston, talk about the making of Uhuru Afrika, one of the great albums that you’re known for.

RANDY WESTON: Well, Melba Liston, truly one of the greatest arrangers in the history of our music, without question.

AMY GOODMAN: She had worked with Dizzy Gillespie.

RANDY WESTON: Yes, she worked with Dizzy. I heard her with Dizzy, playing trombone, heard her arrangement of “My Reverie.” And the arrangement was—

AMY GOODMAN: She played trombone.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, she was—

AMY GOODMAN: Now this is rare.

RANDY WESTON: —a great trombonist. I know. She’s the only woman I heard play a trombone. And she’s with Dizzy’s orchestra at Birdland. I was there this night, and she’s got this big sound. I said, I never heard a woman playing trombone before.

AMY GOODMAN: What year is this?

RANDY WESTON: This had to be early '50s, early ’50s, because we collaborated in ’58 for the first time. So when she came off the bandstand, I said, I've got to meet this lady. You know, I shook her hand—like electricity between us. So, as it turned out, she moved to New York. She was originally from Kansas City, lived in Los Angeles. And she, like Mary Lou Williams—Mary Lou was living in Harlem. So they knew each other. These are two queens of music, these two, you know. So, I got together with her, and we had the same feeling.

You see, artistically, I guess Paul Robeson said it best: an artist is responsible to fight for freedom. An artist is responsible to change society. That’s how Paul put it, very great. Not only do you have to be good at your craft, but you have to make a contribution to society, you know. And what better contribution than we make to the African people, because they’re put on the bottom of the human scale, you know? No education, we’ve contributed nothing, blah blah blah blah.

So, I wanted to do this suite, African suite, and it was in four movements. The first movement was called “Uhuru Kwansa,” which in Kiswahili means “Freedom First.” The second movement was called “African Lady.” The third movement was called “Bantu.” And the fourth movement was named “Kucheza Blues.” Where in the world recognizes the contribution of Africa to civilization, especially in art and music? We’re going to celebrate. We’re going to place the music in Fiji and in Brazil and Congo. We’ll have a big world celebration.

So, Melba, thanks to her, she got some of the great musicians in the orchestra, incredible musicians. Trumpet section: Freddie Hubbard, Richard Williams, Benny Bailey, Clark Terry. Trombone section: Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson. Julius Watkins on French horn. Saxophone section: Yusef Lateef, Sahib Shihab, Cecil Payne, Gigi Gryce, Jerome Richardson, OK? Kenny Burrell, guitar. Les Spann on guitar and also flute. Now, the rhythm section was powerful. Ron Carter on bass. George Duvivier on bass. Percussion: Candido, Armando Peraza—

AMY GOODMAN: Candido, the Cuban musician.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, him and Armando Peraza, the great bongo player from Cuba. Olatunji from Nigeria. We had Charlie Persip coming out of upper Massachusetts. You know, but the whole idea—and we had two singers: Al Minns and Leon James. And Max Roach played marimba.



AMY GOODMAN: Who you grew up with.

RANDY WESTON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, Max was the emperor of Brooklyn. He was the king of Brooklyn. I met Charlie Parker at his house. I met Dizzy at his house. I met Miles Davis at his house. He was the king. And why? Because that generation had great respect of what happened before. You see? So I’d go to Max Roach’s house, and he’d talk about Baby Dodds. I’d go and see with Kenny Dorham and Miles, they would talk about Louis Armstrong. So they would always have us understand what we do, coming from what happened before.

So that was Uhuru Afrika. Melba Liston did the arrangements. We had Brock Peters as one of the singers. We had Martha Flowers, who came out of European classical tradition. And we recorded two days in a row. At 9:30 in the morning, everybody had to be there. And nobody was late. And Melba had people copying parts all night long at my house, in the studio, because Melba was a very creative arranger. We’d go into studio with the music, all of a sudden she would change something, you see? So that’s the story of Uhuru Afrika and Melba Liston.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play some more?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, sure. Which one do you want to hear?

AMY GOODMAN: You choose.

RANDY WESTON: OK. This is “Kucheza Blues,” the last movement of Uhuru. [playing “Kucheza Blues”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, here in New York. I can’t believe I’m not just even in the audience. I’m sitting on the stage with you, getting to relive history with you. 1960, you finish Uhuru Afrika. We’re talking about—this is after Rosa Parks sits down on the bus, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, also Africa, what is happening throughout the countries in Africa, the independence movements.


AMY GOODMAN: You want to get this produced, this album. You have trouble.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, because at that time, you know, the whole idea is separation, separating our people, to say Africa has no history, so don’t look back. But see, I had a great mother and father, because that generation, they only told you a few words. And my father always said, he said, “They tell you ’don’t look back.’” He said, “Always look back.” So what he meant is that my ancient ancestors go back to the great civilizations of Egypt and Songhai and Ghana. He said, “We come from royalty.” You see, I was so lucky. That was with my dad, you see? So, for me, it’s always been that way of thinking. Who was Louis Armstrong’s grandmother and his grandfather? Where did that music come from? So I had to go to Africa to understand that music was created in Africa. And music was created from the universe, because our ancient ancestors, they knew that music came from the universe. It was the Creator’s way of giving the people on earth some healing, some beauty—music, you see. So, you know, I got all that incredible history, but it came from Mom and Pop, remembering certain things that they told me.

AMY GOODMAN: So you go to Africa, 1961?


AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go?

RANDY WESTON: Nigeria, yeah. There were 29 of us, the first pilgrimage to go home to the motherland. And some of the people were Geoffrey Holder, Brock Peters, myself, eight members of Lionel Hampton’s band, Natalie Hinderas, great concert pianist.

AMY GOODMAN: You were on a State Department tour.

RANDY WESTON: No, this wasn’t State Department.


RANDY WESTON: No, no. This was an organization called the American Society of African Culture. And they used to bring African artists to New York, Ethiopian painters, singers from Nigeria. So they already had that organization. And they had a base in Lagos. So we—I had Al Minns and Leon James, two of the great jazz dancers in the Savoy Ballroom. Dr. Willis James was there. Dr. Horace Bond was there. So there were 29. Nina Simone was there, Ahmed Abdul-Malik—

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Simone was there.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah. We all—

AMY GOODMAN: You knew Nina Simone well.

RANDY WESTON: We all went together. Yeah. And we spent 10 wonderful days to see what was the relationship of African-American culture and African-Nigerian culture. So we’d have two jazz dancers on this side of the stage, have some traditional dancers on this side of the stage, because we wanted to know where these rhythms come from. And they all come from Africa, all come from Africa, you know. And so, I would hang out at night in the clubs. That’s where I met the great Bobby Benson. Bobby Benson owned a club called the Caban Bamboo in Lagos. He played incredible guitar, and he also was a drummer. And because of him, I’d be there every night, and I heard all the young West African musicians. And I played with Fela in 1963, when he played trumpet.




RANDY WESTON: Yeah, Nigeria in the '60s, before he played saxophone, you see. And so, I came in contact, but what was more important, on the weekend, he would bring the traditional people from Nigeria. It was my first live contact with African traditional music. And when you hear the traditional music of Africa, you go to school, for they do things with music we cannot do. Why? Because their music captured the spirit of the continent itself. And the continent itself was swinging before man ever arrived, you know. You watch the way the crocodiles and the elephants—everything is in rhythm. Everything is in rhythm. The birds, everything is in rhythm. So early man listened to the nature of Mother Africa, and that's the foundation of world music, you see. So it was a wonderful trip, because it was my first introduction to Africa.

And when we arrived about 11:00 at night, myself and Geoffrey Holder and Brock Peters, we were the tallest of the group. And they must have had about 50 African drummers, and we smelled that air of the continent, and I said, “Wow! My ancestors were taken away from Africa in slavery. And how blessed we are we’re coming back to Africa in an airplane, and we hear all these drums, you know.” So some of us kissed the ground, yeah, because we know that’s our ancestral home, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: As you reflect on that first trip, would you like to play something?

RANDY WESTON: The first trip—sure. OK, now, you know, music is magic. Africa is magic, right? But it seemed like when the plane came over Nigeria, we went from New York, Air Italia, to Rome, from Rome to Nigeria. But it seemed like the rhythm of the motor changed, my imagination, you know. So I wrote a song about that. It’s called “Lagos,” going down, you know. [playing “Lagos”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, so you’ve taken us through your first journey in Africa. You come back home, and you decide to fight discrimination against black musicians, African-American musicians.

RANDY WESTON: Yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about forming this organization.

RANDY WESTON: Well, it was Ray Bryant, the great pianist. We had Louis Brown, the saxophonist. Nadi Qamar, he played piano and also kalimba, African music. We had John Handy and Sadik Hakim. And we had a three-day conference at the Reverend Weston’s church in Harlem, three days. And the whole idea, we were the first ones to get anti-discrimination clauses in union contracts, because you have to remember, during the time of James Reese Europe, it was separate unions, completely separate, you see. James was the first one to organize African-American musicians, and we had musicians’ clubs in Brooklyn, Harlem. The last one now is in Buffalo, New York, of all places. It’s called the Last Musicians Colored Club, it’s called, in Buffalo, yeah. So, we had a three-day conference. And we had the women come and cook all the food. So we invited A. Philip Randolph.

AMY GOODMAN: A. Philip Randolph—


AMY GOODMAN: —the organizer of the Sleeping Car Porters.


AMY GOODMAN: The organizer of the—what? 1963 March on Washington?


AMY GOODMAN: Was this the same time?

RANDY WESTON: The same time. This was 1960 or '61, one of the two. And he came, and he spoke to us about about labor conditions, what we can do to better our rights as musicians. It was hard to get gigs. Racism was as usual, you know. And on the second day, we had Professor John Henrik Clarke. And John Henrik Clarke told us our history as an African people, because you have to know your history, you have to know Africa when Africa was great, because you're not going to get it in the school system, and you’re not going to get it in Hollywood. OK? So we had a three-day conference, and we formed the organization. But, you know, we were frustrated musicians. I’m not an organizer. But we kept together one year. We invited recording companies. We tried to help musicians, tried to help these great musicians. We were working in clubs with terrible conditions, no dressing rooms. You see people like Monk, like Dexter Gordon, these giants, working in clubs with no place to even change their clothes, you see.

AMY GOODMAN: Very different from white musicians?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, you see. Well, sometimes white musicians have the same conditions, but they could go back home. That was the difference, you see. So, it was during that period that we tried to organize. And after that, we formed a piano club, and we had four pianists: Joe Knight, Ray Bryant, Nadi Qamar, Louis Brown and myself. And we went to—Ray Bryant was a good friend of the only executive of Pepsi-Cola in 1964. His name was Harvey Russell. He was vice president.

AMY GOODMAN: The only black executive?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, mm-hmm. And so, he went to him. He said, “We want to do concerts in the elementary schools for the kids,” because I already had done the history of jazz with Marshall Stearns before. So, we got some money from Pepsi. We went to Local 802. They gave us some money. So we did 40 concerts in the elementary schools. And we would call up a school at 7:00 in the morning: “You want a free concert?” And we would do it in such a way that it could be 45 minutes or an hour, hour and a half. We wanted the young people to know the history of this music that we call African-American classical music. I don’t call it “jazz.” I call it African-American classical music. We wanted them to know the history and the beauty of this music. So, but unfortunately, Pepsi went on strike. So after 40 concerts, we stopped. But we made an impact.

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, right before you move to Africa, your now-close friend Langston Hughes dies.


AMY GOODMAN: He requests, when he was still alive, that you would perform at his funeral.


AMY GOODMAN: What did you perform?

RANDY WESTON: All blues. Langston’s secretary called me on the phone. He said, “Langston has passed away, and he wants you to play his funeral.” I said, “What?” With a trio. OK? I knew Langston loved the blues with a passion. So we got to the funeral home, and Langston is laying in the coffin, you know, and we were on this side. And about 200 people. Dr. Ralph Bunche was there. Lena Horne was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ralph Bunche of the United Nations.

RANDY WESTON: Yes, yeah. Lena Horne was there. You know, all the heavyweights. Arna Bontemps was there. So, he said, “You start it.” So what I did was I played one hour of blues for Langston. And he was such an incredible human being, Langston Hughes, that the secretary called me about two weeks later. He said, “Make sure the musicians get union scale.” So he was putting us on even when he passed away.

But he was a great man, because he was—he knew the importance of African-American music. He knew that the spirituals and the blues was revolutionary music. He knew that without this music, we would never have survived anything, you see? But the music has always been put in the background, but if it wasn’t for that music, we would have gone nowhere. But with those songs of Billie Holiday and Duke and Basie and Louis Jordan, they lift our spirits as a people. So Langston was incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play a little of what you played that day?

RANDY WESTON: Well, I’ll play the blues. [playing blues]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, blues for Langston Hughes. 1967—


AMY GOODMAN: Langston Hughes dies in May.


AMY GOODMAN: And before the end of the year, you’ve moved to Africa.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that decision and where you went.

RANDY WESTON: Well, I’m sure it’s because of Marshall Stearns. He was on the State Department board. That’s for sure. Unfortunately, Marshall died before I had a chance to thank him. But I was chosen to do a State Department tour of 14 countries in 1967 of North Africa and West Africa and Beirut and Lebanon. And I put together a great band: Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Bill Wood on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, and Chief Bey on African drum. And I took my son with me, as a teen—he was 15, Niles, at that particular time. And we had a wonderful, wonderful tour. And I requested, whatever country we went to, I would like to be in touch with the traditional music of that country.

And so, we spent three months in Africa. And it was a good test for me, because, you know, you can write music about Africa in New York, but the test is when you play that music on the continent itself.

And the very first concert was in Dakar in Senegal, very first concert. And the American ambassador, he approached me. I’ll never forget this. He said, “Randy,” he says, “the concert was great.” He said, “But I want to ask you a couple of questions.” He said, “Number one, I didn’t understand the music that you were doing, you know?” I said, “I was doing my own compositions.” He didn’t recognize any of the songs. I said, “Well, we did the history of jazz” — I forgot to mention that — which originally came from Marshall Stearns. We started with Africa. Then we go to the Caribbean. Then we go to the black church. Then we do the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s. And then we end up with Africa. Now, Africa is the beginning; Africa is also the future, in music, you see. So, and he said—he said, “I want to tell you something.” [I] said, “What?” He said, “After your first concert, after your concert, for the first time, I was able to get the Senegalese diplomats to come to my home.” You see?

And what we did was, when I play music in Africa, I tell the people, “This is your music. You may not recognize it, because it came in contact with European languages, it came in contact with European instruments, you see. But it’s your music, you know.” And I always had Chief Bey, because Chief Bey always had the African traditional drum. So we had a big success in Africa, because it was not only a concert, but having the people understand the impact of African rhythms in world music, whether it’s Brazil or Cuba or Mississippi or Brooklyn, whatever. If you don’t have that African pulse, nothing is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: So you move, Randy Weston, to Morocco. Why Morocco?

RANDY WESTON: Morocco was the very last country, and that’s when I wanted to live in Africa, because I wanted to be closer to the traditional people. And when you do a State Department tour, you have to make a report: what you like, what you didn’t like, etc., etc., etc. So I stayed in Rabat for one week working on this report. And so, I went back to New York. About one month later, I got these letters from Morocco saying the Moroccan people are crazy about your music, and they want you to come back. So I had no idea I was going to be in Morocco, because, number one, the languages spoken are Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish—very little English, you see. But the power of music is the original language, is music, right? So I went back and ended up staying seven years. And that’s when I discovered the Africans who were taken in slavery who had to cross the Sahara Desert. I discovered these [inaudible]. I discovered their music, the Gnawa people in particular in Morocco. So that really enriched my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Gnawa people.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, the Gnawa people, they’re originally from the great kingdoms of Songhai, Ghana, Mali, you know. And during the invasion from the north, they were taken as slaves and soldiers up to the north. But they created a very powerful spiritual music. And so, I first met them in 1967, and we’ve been together up until this day, because when you hear this music, you hear the origin of blues, of jazz, of black church, all at the same time. You realize that. In other words, what has Mother Africa contributed to America? What has African people brought with them? Because when they were taken away, they had no instruments, no language, no nothing. How did they take these European instruments and create music? But when you hear the traditional people, you realize, music began in Africa in the first place. And the music is so diverse, because the continent itself is so diverse. So if you go to the Sahara, you’re going to have music of the Sahara. You go to the mountains, you’re going to have the music, because African people create music based upon where they live, their environment. So I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so I was influenced by the Palladium, by the black church, by the blues, Mississippi. So where you—you know, it is the foundation of what you do.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you play “Blue Moses” a little bit?

RANDY WESTON: Of course. [playing “Blue Moses”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston playing “Blue Moses,” a song Gnawa people didn’t want you originally to release.

RANDY WESTON: No. No, not to—not to play it out of the—out of the community, because it’s sacred. There’s certain songs that are—certain sacred songs. You don’t sterilize and you don’t abuse them, because the tendency sometimes is to come from the West, and they take an African rhythm and just mix it all up. But all these rhythms have special meanings, because in African traditional society, everything is very well organized, and each rhythm, each sound, has a particular meaning and a particular story. So what happened, once I learned the piece, I wanted to record the piece. The chief said, “No, you can’t do that.” He said, “This is very powerful spiritual music.” And when he told me no, I didn’t play that song for one year. But I went back to him again, and I said, “Sir, I think people in the world need to hear this music, you know. And I won’t sterilize it. I won’t commercialize it. I won’t do anything to kill the beauty of the music.” So he gave me permission. Then after that, I played it. But if he didn’t, I would never play it, because you have a certain respect for these people, because they are in tune with the universe. They’re in tune with Mother Nature, you know, and you have to respect them. And I learned so much from these people, wonderful people.

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, you often quote the Somali poet Moussa.

RANDY WESTON: Yes. Yeah, he said—Moussa, I met him in Nigeria in 1977. He said, “Randy,” he said, “I’m going to tell you one thing.” He said, “The first thing that changes is the music, because music is the voice of God, is music.” He said, “Music is our first language.” We think French or English or Arabic or Spanish is our language. There was a time we didn’t have those languages. The language was music, because we listened to the music of the birds. We listened to the music of Mother Nature. We listened to the wind, the sound of thunder. So, he says, “When you have ordinary music, you’re going to have ordinary times.” Yeah, and I’ll never forget that, yeah. And when you have creative music, you have creative times, because music—you can’t see music. You can’t touch music. Music is the king of the arts, you see. And so, music is everywhere. But we tend to take music for granted. But imagine our planet without music. It would be dead, because all people have their music, you see.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk a little about African Cookbook and how you came to make that album?

RANDY WESTON: Well, again, that was during my period of wanting to write music about Africa, and I found out—

AMY GOODMAN: Before you moved there?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. I found out that the—I heard the African six-eight rhythm, you know. And when I found out that rhythm—

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?

RANDY WESTON: One, two, three, four, five, six, one, two, three, four, five, six. So that rhythm, you can dance if you’re two years old or if you’re 90. OK? So that rhythm, I wanted to have that rhythm, which represents the southern part of Africa. [plays in 6/8] So I wanted to do that. I wanted the melody to represent the northern part of Africa. [plays northern African melody] So the melody would represent the north, you see. So that’s how it was. And we had—I had a great group. The great Mr. Big Black, one of our greatest, greatest percussionists, came originally from the South, South Carolina, close to the Geechee people, the people outside of South Carolina, very close to Africa. And Bill Wood was on bass. And that’s how I created African Cookbook. And it was partly named for Booker Ervin, too, because he was such a great saxophonist, and sometimes he would play so good, we would say, “Cook, Book! Cook!” You know. So it was a combination of those things at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: You have described yourself as a “cultural warrior.” What do you mean?

RANDY WESTON: What’s missing today, why we have so many young people, I feel, who have problems of adjusting, is because they don’t have that cultural leadership that we had. You need a kind of leadership to give you pride in who you are, especially when you’re getting the reverse: you know, black color is no good; you know, your hair is no good; you know, you have no history. So, it was so, so important to have this kind of leadership, and we were blessed to have people like Muhammad Ali, people like Paul, people like Malcolm, people like A. Philip Randolph. We had giants in the black church. We had giants. We had many people—Frederick Douglass, going way back. We had great people. But these great leaders are not in the books, and the young people don’t know about them, you see?

What kept me strong was what happened before, because my parents taught me: “You come from royalty, sir. No matter what anybody else tells you, you’ve got beautiful skin, you’ve got beautiful color. You’ve got a great history. You’ve given much to the world, you know.” So they gave us that, you see? But we don’t have that [inaudible] today. And all those giants were into music, all of them. Adam Clayton Powell, Hazel Scott. All those giants were into the music. Langston Hughes. Because they knew the music was very important for us, because even if we couldn’t speak the same language, we could certainly speak the same music.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, we’ve talked about a lot of albums you did in the '60s, in the ’50s. But yet you continue to produce music, records. You've written your autobiography. And you work a lot with young people. What are you telling young people?

RANDY WESTON: Go back as far as you can. Realize that Randy Weston is—I’m just a disciple of Mr. Ellington, that I come from royalty. You think I can play the piano? Yeah, I can play the piano. But I come from giants of the piano. That we had our golden age of politics, of music, of culture—we had great people who were fearless. You know, those musicians, like, they couldn’t stay in hotels. They had to—they couldn’t—they wanted to put them on buses or on trains. Absolute segregation. Yet, when you saw those guys, they were dressed beautifully. Musicians wouldn’t go to a supermarket—I should say a grocery store, there was no supermarket in those days. They wouldn’t go to a grocery store. Tie, shirt, shoes shined, because a musician represented the highest point of dignity and class of African-American people. And young people have been deprived of that. So they don’t understand the sacrifices that Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, how—what they had to go through, and some of the places they had to play and some of the conditions. And yet, they had that spirituality, the black church, that spirituality, you see. So that’s what I tell them. Music is not just notes and paper. Music is spirit. And the further you go back in music, going back to Africa itself—collect some African traditional music and listen, and you hear everything that we do comes from there.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in Nigeria, music is also a means of political expression.

RANDY WESTON: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: You saw Fela Kuti perform two weeks before the Nigerian military raided the shrine—


AMY GOODMAN: —in his home, threw his mother out the window.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what that moment was like, when you saw him perform, and what he was performing?

RANDY WESTON: He was the most courageous musician I ever met in my life, Fela. He wanted to be the—Africa to be free. He wanted Africa to have its own everything, because, see, Africa is so rich. That’s why everybody’s there taking something, you know. Way before slavery, they were taking from Africa, because everything is there. Everything is there. So he—symbolically, spiritually, the president of Africa. But what he meant was, for Africa, African unity, you see. And sometimes, the powers that be don’t like that kind of freedom. And he was fearless, you know.

Yeah, and I’ll never forget the last time I saw him, you know, and I was so proud of Fela. I was so proud, because he demonstrated, which Paul demonstrated, an artist just playing your instrument is not enough. You have this talent for a reason. And you always got to serve the community, got to serve humanity, one way or the other. Then you are a true artist, you see? And that’s what Fela, that’s what Paul, that’s what all these people were like.

AMY GOODMAN: He directly confronted—Fela did—the military.

RANDY WESTON: Of course. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you think the military was going to raid the concert that night?

RANDY WESTON: I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised. Knowing Fela, I wasn’t surprised at all, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, they’re going to lock up the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in a minute, and I wanted to ask what you’d like to leave us with. I mean, in the last few years, we’ve seen you—I saw you at a—not far from here, it was in Brooklyn—at an event raising money for Haiti after the earthquake, and you recently performed at Max Roach’s funeral.

RANDY WESTON: Oh, yeah. Had to. That was my chief.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you perform?

RANDY WESTON: I did “The Healers.”

AMY GOODMAN: Could you play a little?

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, sure. It’s a song that people can think: Who were the first people to play music? How did music sound? What is music, you know? And when you go back and you go back and you go back, you find that these ancient people, they knew Mother Nature is the original orchestra. So they created music by being in tune with the universe, by being in tune with Mother Nature. So I wrote this song for all those great healers who did their best to try to teach the world of beauty, and also the beauty of music itself and how much Africa has contributed to the whole Western Hemisphere. You know, no Africa, there’d be no samba, no bossa nova, no hip-hop, no jazz. All that music that we think is original has been going on for thousands of years in its pure form. The blues, what they call the blues, is probably the world’s oldest music. What they call the blues, you can go all over Africa, and you’ll hear the music with traditional instruments, in the traditional language, you see. So anyhow, this piece is called “The Healers.” [playing “The Healers”]

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, “The Healers.” You are about to turn 86 years old on April 6. What’s your secret?

RANDY WESTON: Mom and Pop, and the Creator. I think they were happy.

AMY GOODMAN: As I see you play this piano, I mean, sometimes I think the piano is not big enough for you. You are six-seven.


AMY GOODMAN: And you kind of wrote a song about that: “Hi-Fly.”


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about “Hi-Fly”? And let’s end with that.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just, you know, when you’re my height—most people who are not this height, they don’t realize that the ground is a little further away, you know. And so, I used to think about that, because I used to be this size once. Then I was this size once, and I was this size once, you know. Then I kept growing up, right? And so, at that time—now my height is no big deal. You see the kids in high school are my height now. No big deal. But it was six-foot-seven, and so the song was about—based on the African rhythm, and generally how it feels to be six-foot-seven, and how the ground looks different to you than everybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: Want to play it?

RANDY WESTON: “Hi-Fly.” [playing “Hi-Fly”] “Hi-Fly.”

AMY GOODMAN: “Hi-Fly,” Randy Weston. I lied. Two more questions. This week, Whitney Houston died, at the age of 48. Grew up in the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. Did you ever meet her?

RANDY WESTON: Never did.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think of her music.

RANDY WESTON: Great, great artist. Great, great artist. She had, again, the black church, black spirituality. That spirit of the ancestors come out of her, you know? Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: But also dealt with the crisis of drugs.

RANDY WESTON: Yeah, unfortunately. Unfortunately, artists, you know, especially when you become more and more popular, all the people come and give you all kind of things that are not good for you, you know. That’s been happening for a long, long time. It’s so sad, you know. Yeah. Billie Holiday, you know, people like that, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: You knew Billie Holiday?

RANDY WESTON: I met Billie. Again, another handshake and a hug.

AMY GOODMAN: “Strange Fruit.”

RANDY WESTON: Yeah. Pure revolution, “Strange Fruit,” yeah. Powerful, powerful.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Randy Weston, you were born in 1926.

RANDY WESTON: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Bed-Stuy. You dealt with discrimination as an artist, as an African American. You served in a segregated unit in World War II.

RANDY WESTON: Sure, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: You come back. You fight for African-American musicians to be treated fairly.


AMY GOODMAN: You move to Africa.


AMY GOODMAN: You come back to this country. You continue with your music, one of the most influential jazz musicians of our day. And President Obama is elected. What are your thoughts on President Barack Obama?

RANDY WESTON: That the spiritual of Africa has come back. People need African spirituality. That’s what he represents for me. Not politics, no. He represents, for me, Mother Africa coming back, because African civilization was on the—was the first civilization. Then we went all the way to the bottom, everywhere. Everywhere you go, when you see black people, we’re always on the bottom. I don’t care where you go in the world, you see? So when Obama coming, for me, is spiritually Africa has come back on the top. And he inspires many of us. Sometimes we don’t realize it ourselves. But I don’t mean politics; I mean spirituality. Here we have an African man being the president of the United States. It’s very, very powerful.

AMY GOODMAN: Randy Weston, thanks so much.

RANDY WESTON: Thank you, Amy. I appreciate it. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I look forward to listening to your music for many years to come.

RANDY WESTON: I really appreciate it so much. Thank you. Thank you.

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