Nestled in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, Randy Weston's house is a tribute to the roots that feed him as an artist. Inside the 78-year-old composer and pianist's home, Brooklyn gives way to Africa and comes back again. His gracious living room is filled with the objects that inspire his own creativity, from African artwork to books to his Bosendorfer piano.
Weston grew up in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, and his father purchased this house in 1945. "We were the first black family in the neighborhood," Weston recalls. One of the living room's walls features portraits of Weston's mother and father that look down over their son as he works. "Those are the king and the queen," Weston chuckles. "They make sure I do right!"
In truth, Weston's parents instilled in their son values and priorities that he carries to this day. "I was about six years old," Weston says, "my father said to me, 'My son, you are an African born in America. Therefore, to know who you are, you have to study Africa.' We had many books in the house, and had pictures of African kings and queens on the wall. My dad came from Panama, but his family was Jamaican. Education was very, very important to them-that's a crucial part of Jamaican culture."
Weston says that his parents' deep love of African history and culture, and their quest to provide him with a black-positive message in the 1930s and '40s, was a font of inspiration. "They gave me pride, they gave me dignity and they let me know that we are a beautiful people, and we have a great heritage," he says. "So those books-and my parents-kept me spiritually healthy. My mother came from Virginia, and she was a very spiritual woman. And I think of my research as being spiritual, not intellectual," he emphasizes.
By the mid-1950s, sparked by his parents' teachings and his own musical sensibilities, Weston became increasingly involved with African music. After touring North and West Africa with the U.S. State Department as a jazz ambassador in 1967, Weston relocated to Morocco. "I was in Rabat for one year," he recalls, "and then in Tangier for six years. I opened a cultural center and club named African Rhythms in Tangier. The club was an avenue to project and respect traditional African music, and at the same time a place to bring all the variations of Africa-from Cuba to Brazil to Venezuela to the U.S.-back home. We had blues singers from Chicago, Gnawa music, Congolese bands, jazz-you name it." For much of his career, Weston has reiterated the connections between African music and jazz, including on such albums as African Cookbook, Uhuru Afrika and Spirit! The Power of Music.
The erudite Weston still dedicates a great deal of his time to research; his intellectual curiosity looms just as large as his towering 6-foot-8 frame. One wall of the cozy living room is filled with books, neatly arranged by subject matter. "These books are just endless resources," Weston says, "and I collect more and more and more and more." He enjoys having a library at the ready. "For example, I might wake up one day and say, 'I want to think about ancient Egyptian music today. The next day it might be the history of Ghana, or Charlie Parker, or Art Tatum. So having these worlds to enter just through books is something magical."
A small TV rests in one bookshelf in Weston's living room, but the pianist says it doesn't often get used. "I don't watch that, except for some ball games," Weston says with a grin. "Between playing the piano, composing, learning something about my ancestors and learning something about the music of Africa-believe me, that's 24 hours a day!"
"Ones that I remember from very far back were the books by J.A. Rogers, one of our great African-American historians who specialized in anthropological photography. When I was a kid in the 1930s, he put out several books that explained our African heritage at a time when to have a black skin was a complete disaster. Between the texts and the photos, you could just dream over his books. The ones I read then are the same ones I read now."
"I lived in Morocco for seven years, and I've been to 18 countries in Africa. For me, though, Africa is all one place, because African music cuts across all frontiers, boundaries, titles and languages. There's a certain common musical foundation that you find across the continent, north, south, east and west. But my very first trip to Africa was to Nigeria in 1961, for an American Society of African Culture tour. We were all so excited on the first trip. When we arrived, we kissed the ground. That's our ancestral home, no matter where we live. And wherever I go, I want to hear the traditional music, the oldest music. If it's lasted so long, it must be very powerful!"
"I have some beautiful things given to me over the years, like vegetable-dyed mudcloth textiles from Mali and carved wooden masks from Ivory Coast. In the end, though, all the art forms are music. Photography is music, painting is music, dance is music. It's the most sacred art: you can't see it, you can't touch it, but it can touch you."
"I love basketball and football. I like the Jets a lot, and I like to see the Knicks win, but I just love a good game; I'm not so fan-orientated as I used to be. These kids are so good now: you see these seven-foot-tall basketball players running like ballet dancers. I took my family to Madison Square Garden recently to see the New York Liberty play, and those women amazed me-they were hitting those threes like they were nothing!"