Sunday, January 20, 2019

Randy Weston - The Len Lyons Interview

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

With the death of pianist, composer-arranger and bandleader Randy Weston on September 1, 2018, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles embarked on a WestonQuest.

We dug through the Jazz literature on Randy Weston at our disposal and found material to create a compilation of writings about Randy that will appear on these pages in a series of subsequent postings. It’s our small way of attempting to do justice to Randy’s career in music, one that spanned almost 70 years. Not many artists are fortunate enough to be productive for almost three quarters of a century!

The following will be among the featured writings on Randy and his music:

  • “Randy Weston (Afrobeats)” and essay from Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz
  • “Randy Weston Interview,” in Len Lyons, The Great Jazz Pianists
  • Liner Notes to the New Faces at Newport [1956] Metro Jazz LP [E1005]
  • Liner Notes to The Modern Art of Jazz Dawn LP [DLP-1116 reissued as Dawn CD-107 by Fresh Sound Records]
  • The insert notes from the booklet to the Mosaic Select Randy Weston 3 CD set [MS 004]
  • The relevant excerpts on Randy and his music from The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.; Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, ed.; The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Barry Kernfeld, ed.
  • “Randy Weston interview” in Art Taylor, Notes and Tones
  • Ira Gitler, “Randy Weston, Downbeat, xxxi/6, (1964), p. 16
  • Mark Gardner, “Randy Weston,” Jazz Monthly, xii/11 (1967)
  • Larry Birnbaum, “Randy Weston: African Rooted Rhythm,” Downbeat, xlvi/15, (1979)
  • Ted Panken, Randy Weston DownBeat Interview, August 2016.

To date, we have published Randy Weston In Memoriam by Robert Ham which appeared in the November 2018 issue of DownBeat and the Gary Giddins piece - “Afrobeats.”

Here’s the interview published in Len Lyons’ The Great Jazz Pianists that provides a 1983 perspective on Randy and his music.

“Randy Weston is an imposing, almost regal figure. Large-limbed and graceful, he stands six feet seven inches tall. Wearing a dashiki and a colorful skullcap, he greeted me in his motel room overlooking San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. During much of our interview he methodically rubbed body oils into his hands, feet, and neck. Weston seems to glow with pride when he speaks of Africa, where he lived from 1967 to 1973 and operated a cultural exchange center for musicians called the African Rhythms Club.

More than any other jazz pianist, Weston incorporates African elements into his playing in an obvious way. He shifts meters frequently-between 4/4, 3/4, and less common metric patterns. He also uses the bass register of the piano as a kind of tonal drum. During a rrio set the night before (with James Leary, bass, and Ken Marshall, drums) Weston demonstrated an uncanny ability to establish driving, hypnotic rhythms by using only one or two chords-sometimes only one or two notes-per measure. He has perfected what Bill Evans called the rhythmic displacement of ideas. There were times he made the whole room sway to his personal beat.

Weston's exposure to African culture and its derivative music began in childhood. His father, born in Panama, was of Jamaican descent and operated a restaurant in Brooklyn, serving West Indian cuisine. Realizing that Randy would not learn African history at school, his father educated him in his heritage at home. The restaurant was frequented by jazz musicians, who exposed Randy to the music of New York during the rise of modern jazz. He remembers listening to Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, Art Tatum, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Erroll Garner. His most important influence, evident from the degree of space, or silence, he leaves in his music, was Thelonious Monk.

Weston began his career at the unusually advanced age of twenty-three, and his first job was accompanying the blues singer Bull Moose Jackson. He then worked with saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and drummer Art Blakey. In the late fifties Weston met historian

Marshall Stearns and toured with him on a lecture circuit, giving demonstrations of jazz piano styles. Wcston became well known as a composer, especially of jazz waltzes like "Little Niles" and "Hi-Fly," which have become classics in the jazz repertoire. In 1960 Weston composed "Uhuru Africa" for a big band and vocalist, with text provided by poet Langston Hughes. In 1967, following a State Department-sponsored tour of fourteen African countries, Weston moved to Tangier, Morocco, where he established the African Rhythms Club. In 1973 he moved to Paris. Since then he has done most of his playing in Europe and Africa.

Weston is very disturbed by the picture of Africa presented in America. "All we hear about are the problems of Africa," he said, "like wars, famines, and racial problems. That's what makes the news. But there are tremendous musical and cultural experiences there." His own African experience, he explained, made him aware of spirituality, nature, and the historical role of the musician in African culture. "He was a communicator, whose task it was to spread knowledge of the traditions of the people. He was a healer, too; scientists in the West are just beginning to look into music as therapy. There is music for weddings, funerals, and virtually every aspect of life. In Africa today the musician is still an integral part of all community life."

Weston sees jazz piano as part of the black man's Africanization of European instruments. "I would like to have been there when our people first came into contact with these instruments," he said. "Can you imagine the excitement, the freshness of the first encounter? To me, what Louis Armstrong did was fantastically modern, really avant-garde." My line of questioning begin with the origins of jazz.

What is your vision of the connection between African music and American jazz?

Let's go back as far as we can, farther back than [cornetist] Buddy Bolden, and imagine the first African who was brought here as a slave. His instruments were taken away from him because they were a means of communication, a way of keeping the traditions alive, a way of keeping the people together. The music we developed here on new instruments, which we call jazz, or gospel, or blues, calypso, bossa nova — they all have the same basic traditions.

What makes our music different? The rhythm is tremendously complicated, especially in most indigenous African music. Improvisation is very important. The individual sound of each player, of every handclap, is very important. The music is based on flatted thirds, blue notes, as we call them. When you hear the religious songs or the songs of sadness in Africa, you can hear the beginning of the blues. Creating something new out of the blues is the real genius of our music [jazz].

It's also very important in this tradition to see the artist work, not only to hear him. Each musician does a completely different thing when he plays. So you're losing something in both jazz and African music if you only listen to a recording. There's also an extremely evident spiritual quality in Africa which you can also hear in Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, or Monk. Getting back to these original sources nourishes our newer ideas.

Has your closeness to African drumming and rhythms made you more critical of American jazz drummers?

Not at all, It taught me what tremendous creativity there must be in this music to produce jazz drumming. I hear jazz drums as a collection of African drums, and I think drummers are working more and more on producing direct African sounds and rhythms.

What is the response of Africans to jazz or to jazz piano?

First I have to say that I think it's a miracle that African and European influences came together to produce jazz. It's an act of God. That's the only way I can understand it. How the Africans respond to jazz in its present form has a lot to do with who is playing it. Any group heavily into the blues form would be fantastic. If the musicians were avant-garde, half the audience would probably walk out. What's the most important element of our music? To play the blues - that's the way I was taught. Incidentally, that's the way our music is always taught, not from books, but aurally, by hanging out with other musicians. Playing the blues was always the test while I was young.

My band played for audiences from Morocco and Tunisia as far east as Beirut. We played for audiences who had never heard a concert, not to mention a jazz concert. But I always had an African drummer with me. I would say to the audience, "This is your music after it crossed the Atlantic, after it came into contact with European civilization. Your music has changed in our hands, but the basic traditions are still the same. This is what happened to your music."

I wrote something called "African Cookbook"; it's in 6/4 time. The music
goes in waves, not in a strictly divided beat. It's jazz, but the similarities [with African music] are very deep. On occasion the audience would raise their hands in the air and take the song away from us with their hand clapping. They never lost a bear. They'd keep the song going and wouldn't let us stop playing.

Can you recall your first experiences with the piano in this country?

I remember very well. When I was a teenager in the forties, we had the
most fantastic music all around us. My father had a great record collection: Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford, gospel groups, and so on. But he would never have described it as jazz. It was so much a part of our lives; it was just music, our music. It didn't have a name. Like a lot of musicians my age, I was a first-generation New Yorker. My father came from Panama by way of Jamaica. My mother was a Virginian.

I didn't want to study music at first. As you can see, I'm physically big, and I was six feet tall when I was twelve years old. So I wanted to be an athlete. But my father was very wise. He knew that the streets were rough and that the best way to keep a boy off them was to give him a musical instrument to study. Of course, I was in complete revolt. My first piano teacher started me on Bach, which seemed to have no relation to my life at all. The battle was waged for three years with my father physically forcing me to practice. Finally the teacher told him to save his money. "This cat will never play," he said.

After a while I got to know some musicians who showed me some melodies that caught me. I got another teacher who realized that I wanted to swing everything, so he gave me some popular music along with the classical. In the army I started to learn theory from other musicians, and afterward I went to a GI school in Brooklyn, where I played with some fine people.
I should also mention that the influence of the black church was very powerful. Naturally I didn't want to go there either, but my mother took me every week. I heard gospel music regularly and suddenly began to understand the piano better and how much it meant to our people. Churches were the only place black people could congregate because it was assumed the pastor had things under control. Certainly everyone could be watched. And that's where the piano was kept - a European custom - and Christian/European music was played there. But we responded to it, as Africans.

Were there particular pianists you were aware of at the time, pianists who influenced you?

"Influence" is an interesting word. I'd say there are pianists whose souls have entered me, like Monk. From other pianists, maybe one melody, or one bar, enters me - and it remains with me. To be more direct, there was a time that I started to play like certain people I was hearing. I was successful with Count Basie. I really could imitate his style, which was probably one of the easiest to play. Yet I was fascinated by his sense of rhythm and space. He could say so much with so few notes.

Next came Nat "King" Cole. I'd never heard a piano played with so much beauty and taste. That's also one of the qualities I like in John Lewis. Each note is sheer beauty. Art Tatum shattered me and frightened me, so I never
consciously thought I was playing anything like Art. But when I play, I hear Art. Like I hear four or five notes from one of his runs. He taught me to be more daring. I guess Monk came after the Tatum thing.

Another musician I've been close to since my teens is [bassist] Ahmad Abdul Malik [who played bass with Monk and the oud, an Egyptian stringed instrument]. His father was Sudanese, so he had a definite Eastern influence. In fact, on an album with [saxophonist] Johnny Griffin in the late fifties they recorded jazz with Eastern and African music, probably one of the earliest records to do that.

Coleman Hawkins has been very important to me. In fact, I got to know Monk through him. For a time I tried to play piano like Hawkins played saxophone. Anyway, Monk played for Coleman, which is how I first heard him. I remember thinking, this is it! This is the direction we have to go in. It's like going back to the source in order to progress. Of course, a lot of artists are taking other directions, new directions, but I think there's only so far you can go that way. We can go further by continuing the source of the tradition. That means going back to the East, to Africa, Asia, and India.

Yet electronic instruments seem to be leading us in a technological, Western direction rather than hack to the sources.

Yes, I think so, but I also think it's temporary. Although we're using electronic, complex, and mechanical devices, away from nature's instruments, we're also searching for a more natural existence in other ways. There's a great increase in the interest in natural foods, exercise, natural medicine, and so on. When I left America and was without its contact for six years, I came back without a recording from 1965 to 1972. People told me I just had to make a record, so I complied with several compositions about Morocco for the album Blue Moses. Then I was told, "This is the electronic age, and you've got to use an electronic piano, too." Well, I don't like the electric piano because my sound is my voice, and my voice is what makes me unique. You don't hear my sound on the electric. But I listened to these people. I compromised and played it their way. Well, this record was a blessing for me - it got tremendous airplay, and I'm very grateful for it. But I don't ever want to make another record like it. When I hear myself on electric piano, I cry a little because I don't hear my sound.

In our music that sound is very important. A personal sound is the most difficult thing to achieve; it's an extension of yourself. Years ago Coleman Hawkins would walk into a club, and all he had to do was play one note - he wouldn't have to play a lot of notes because he had that sound. I've heard Monk stop an audience dead by hitting one chord. That's part of the African
tradition. We've got to maintain this tradition even though we've come in contact with other cultures; it's our nourishment.

When you play the [acoustic) piano, which type of instrument do you prefer?

Each individual instrument has a soul, a certain spirit or quality. You do have a name on that piano: Steinway, Baldwin, Bosendorfer, Bechstein. These are my favorites. But in Venice I played on a full concert grand, a Steinway, in a beautiful theater with twenty-five hundred people in the audience. It was like a battle. I really had to work to play that piano, and I couldn't explain it. When I listened to the tapes later, I realized I could not get in tune with that piano. Then, a month later, I played in France on exactly the same type of piano, and I couldn't do anything wrong with that instrument. It was pure pleasure to me.

Could it have been you? One night you were "on," but in Venice, you were "off."

That happens, too, but not in this case. It was the instrument. Pianos are made by men, so their spirits enter into it. Each individual instrument becomes different regardless of the brand name.

There's another thing I've thought about piano companies: I'd like to see them make their instruments more available to jazz artists in return for endorsements. My impression is that the companies are more classically oriented.

Some jazz artists do get terrific cooperation. Oscar Peterson is now supplied with Bosendorfers.

The Bosendorfer is more than a piano; it's an orchestra with those nine extra notes in the bass.

Yet Oscar told me he doesn't use them, that they'd have to be written for.

Yeah, but I use them, maybe because of my African direction. There's a whole octave of drums down there. I've been able to use that piano quite frequently in Europe.

What types of pianos did you find in Africa?

They tend to fly them in from Europe. The weather just isn't very good tor pianos there. It's too humid, and most of them have to be "tropicalized." I don't think the Africans make pianos at all.

Do you think there's anyone who is showing the way to the future of jazz piano music?

McCoy Tyner, without doubt. He's showing the way to the future, yet he's maintaining the tradition, the rhythmic quality, the spiritual vitality, the humor, the sadness. If he only knew what a fan I am!
It's gratifying to see how well received his music is, too.

That's right. You've really said something there, because what he's doing is so important. When Monk and the other giants stopped playing, the other
cats had no idea where to go. They were without a leader. Some of them have become more involved with European classical music, and others are searching for something new in electronics. The idea is to get back on the track, and McCoy is on the right track.””

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.