An Investigation of the Life, Influences, and Music of Randy Weston.

AuthorSquinobal, Jason


In an article written in 1973 for the journal, Black Perspectives in Music, J.H. Kwanbena Nketia highlights the important and continual relationship between African and African American music. Nketia states "The relationship between African and Afro-American music is dynamic and unbroken at the conceptual level in spite of the differences in materials to which these concepts are applied." (1) This statement articulates the importance of African music in the creation of African American music, at its inception, and continued development of African American music in modern times. This relationship has not always been recognized in past music scholarship. Nketia says, "The importance of the music of Africa in historical studies of Afro-American music has tended to be seen more as providing a point of departure than as something that continues to be relevant to the present." (2) There are studies that give African music credit for the continual influence it has had on African American music; however, Nketia's words are as relevant today as they were in 1973. It is my intention to present a study that is sensitive to the claims made by Nketia. The work presented here identifies the continued application of traditional African musical and cultural traits in jazz composition and performance.

Many jazz musicians utilized traditional African traits in their music. Randy Weston was not the first musician to do so, however jazz fans and scholars will remember him because his experiences, influences, and music clearly demonstrate the importance traditional African culture played in his life. Weston was born in Brooklyn during the Harlem Renaissance. Political views that predominated African American culture at that time greatly influenced his parents. Weston's father felt a particularly strong connection to his African heritage and instilled Marcus Garvey's version of pan-Africanism into Randy Weston's consciousness. (3)

While his father was a great influence on his early childhood, Duke Ellington, one of the most important musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, also influenced Weston. Ellington reinforced the importance Weston's father placed on knowing their African roots. At the same time, Ellington, a dominant musical figure of the Harlem Renaissance, became an important musical influence on Weston.

As Weston grew up, he looked up to the musicians of the bebop jazz era. In Weston's view, their music contained a greater sense African heritage than music made by musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Thelonious Monk, one of the most significant contributors to bebop, befriended Weston and became a mentor to the young man. In Monk, Weston recognized "the spirit of an African master." (4) While Weston learned to interpret music similar to Monk's musical style, he also developed a keener sense of African aesthetics through his personal relationship with Monk.

As a young adult, Weston took every opportunity to hear and learn about traditional African music. He went to performances, listened to recordings, and interacted with African delegates at the United Nations. Weston's interest and research in traditional African music coincided with the growing cultural interest in Africa among the general African American population during the 1950s. The turbulence of intense civil rights activism during this period encouraged Weston to merge African music with jazz in his composition, Uhuru Afrika. All of the above influences helped Randy Weston to be conscious of his heritage, and through his musical output, he was able to connect with that heritage in a way that was significant to him.

In the early 1950s, Weston had already established himself as a prominent jazz pianist before ever recording any African inspired work. Therefore, one might ask, why did he feel the need to focus so intensely on African music? Weston answers this question by stating, "We are still an African people and to understand ourselves better and understand the world better, Africa being the first civilization, I've got to study and learn about what happened a thousand years ago." (5) In a personal interview, Weston stated, "The history of African people did not begin with slavery but goes back thousands of years." (6) The importance of understanding African history and heritage as it relates to American history and heritage is the first step to improving the lives of all Americans through acceptance, equality, and diversity.

I have divided this project into two sections. In "Musical and Social Influences Early Life", I will focus on the influences that aided in Weston's development. A comprehensive understanding of the influences that were instrumental in shaping Weston's philosophical view of life and his musical output is vital to understanding not only what kind of music Weston created, but equally important, why he chose to produce jazz infused with African music. In "The Music of Randy Weston", I examine the use of African music in Weston's compositions during the early part of his professional career. In this section, I analyze Weston's music using techniques designed to flush out the intentional use of African musical traits in both large ensemble composition and piano performance.

Musical and Social Influences Early Life

Jazz pianist/composer Randy Weston was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 06, 1926. He is best known in the jazz community for his use of traditional African material in both written compositions and improvisation. Weston was not born or raised in Africa, but in Brooklyn; therefore, he had to study and research traditional African music in order to become familiar with it enough to compose using African elements.

From an early age, Weston sought out a diverse musical education. "I used to get early Folkways recordings- prison songs, field hollers, the old blues- so I was already searching." (7) His parents' love of music and African American heritage encouraged Weston's search. "I grew up listening to Negro spirituals on my mother's side, I listened to a lot of West Indian calypso on Pop's side. So when I went over there, [to Africa] I heard both in their raw form. I heard the basic rhythms that I recognized from the calypso music, and I heard some of the singing and hand clapping that I heard in the church on my mom's side." (8)

Weston's father influenced him greatly by introducing him to the music and concepts popular during the Harlem Renaissance. "My father took me to see Duke [Ellington] and Andy Kirk at the Sonia Ballroom and Brooklyn Palace. We'd hear [calypso bands] Duke of Iron and Macbeth in Harlem... we listened to [my mothers] spirituals. I grew up in a rich culture, a rich period." (9) The rich period Weston talks about, the Harlem Renaissance period, most certainly had a profound influence on Weston's childhood development.

In addition to listening to diverse styles of music, Weston also searched out books to read. "As a boy I was always going to libraries, and my father would have at home books to learn more about my history, my heritage, because I certainly wasn't getting it in the schools." (10) Weston's father always tried to instill the importance of Weston's African heritage; he would say, "Africa is the past, the present, and the future." (11) Weston's father was a Panamanian born Jamaican and was very interested in the cultural writings of Marcus Garvey. (12)

Duke Ellington's Influence on Weston

Duke Ellington was a particularly important influence on Weston, both musically and philosophically. Musically, Weston assimilated Ellington's creative use of timbre, in his piano voicings and his band orchestration. Weston also credits Ellington for directly influencing his use of African music. "Duke Ellington.did a lot of composition about Africa. [He] knew the connection; so it's not something brand new, it was just something that got cut off. Without the influence of those before me, there wouldn't have been any Randy Weston." (13) Ellington's recording "The Drum is a Woman," among others, was certainly influential to Weston's own compositional techniques as will be examined later.

Ellington and his music had a great influenced on Weston but the two musicians also share many philosophical beliefs. Marcus Garvey influenced both of them profoundly. In fact, Ellington went so far as to suggest that Garvey's work influenced many musicians. In his autobiography Ellington states, "Bop... is the Marcus Garvey extension." (14) Weston, like Ellington, connected with Garvey's concept of Pan-Africanism and the assertion that much of African America's African heritage came via the Caribbean. I will expand on the importance of this fact in regards to Weston in detail later on. However, it is clear that both Ellington and Weston shared a clear understanding of Pan-Africanism that was associated with the Harlem Renaissance movement and the writings of Marcus Garvey.

Finally, in the liner notes to his recorded tribute to Duke Ellington, Weston explains the debt and gratitude he owes to Ellington. He states:

I was trying to play funny things in between notes, trying to get sounds on the piano, but I hadn't heard anybody do that yet until I heard Monk. Ellington had been doing it all the while--before Monk, before me, before any of us. Duke in the 20s was already doing this but he had his full orchestra and he was so creative that it was hard to catch up to Ellington. Duke wrote many songs about Africa and about African people. But, he also wrote about calypso, about the Caribbean. The worth of the Duke, his music, and his most valuable appendage, his orchestra, to black or African musicians like myself, cannot be underestimated. (15) As Weston matured, he began studying the piano seriously during the 1940s, at the height of the bebop jazz era. He grew up in Brooklyn and lived next to Max Roach. Roach, a drummer and significant contributor to bebop, encouraged Weston to continue playing. While Weston hung...

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