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Encore: Randy Weston Has Always Played For Africa

Sep 2, 2018

This story originally aired on Feb. 28, 2017 on All Things Considered.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston died this weekend. He was 92 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "HI-FLY")

MARTIN: Weston spent much of his career exploring the links between jazz and African music. At the height of the Cold War, he was invited to participate in the State Department's jazz ambassador program along with Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. Those world tours made an impression on Weston and cemented his commitment to bridging cultures through music, as he told Bilal Qureshi in 2017. We'd like to bring you part of that report today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RANDY WESTON: Today, everything is fast. The computer's fast, everything, blah (ph), blah, blah. 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).

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

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "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 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'S "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'S "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. He 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 MUSIC)

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. I said, how is that possible? I still don't understand it. But when I hear African traditional music, I get the message.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON AND HIS AFRICAN RHYTHYMS TRIO'S "LOVE, THE MYSTERY OF")

MARTIN: That's Bilal Qureshi from his report on Randy Weston in 2017. Weston died this weekend at the age of 92. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.