Randy Weston Dies at 92

The esteemed pianist, composer, and bandleader was also jazz's premier Afrocentrist

Randy_Weston

Randy Weston (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Randy Weston, an NEA Jazz Master pianist, composer, and bandleader who dedicated his career to exposing jazz music’s extensions of African lineage and tradition, passed away in his sleep on Saturday, Sept. 1, at his home in Brooklyn. He was 92 years old.

His death was announced by his wife, Fatoumata Mbengue-Weston, and his longtime friend and biographer, Willard Jenkins. The cause of death is still to be determined.

An early disciple of Thelonious Monk, Weston adapted the eccentric pianist’s percussive approach, in which he heard deep African influence. The latter was the unshakable lens of Weston’s worldview, and spreading awareness of it was the mission of his musical life. Concerts by the imposing (6’7″) Weston often resembled ethnomusicological presentations on the many traditions of the continent he called “The Motherland.” “All this music has the African pulse,” he said on his final recording, 2017’s The African Nubian Suite. “You can call it hip-hop, you can call it jazz, you can call it whatever you want to call it; it’s Mother Africa’s contribution.”

Randolph Edward Weston was born on April 6, 1926 at Peck Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn, and grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. His mother, Vivian Moore Weston, was a native of Virginia; his father, Frank Weston, was of Caribbean heritage, born in Panama to a Jamaican family. He was raised primarily by his father, who operated a restaurant in Brooklyn and was a staunch follower of Marcus Garvey—raising his son to always be conscious of his African heritage.

The elder Weston also surrounded his son with music, whether on records and radio, in concert, or in the person of the neighborhood musicians who frequented the restaurant. (Weston grew up with drummer Max Roach; the pianist Wynton Kelly was his cousin.) He also made sure that his son received piano lessons. “He gave me Africa; he gave me music … so he gave me everything,” Weston would write of his father in his 2010 autobiography (with Willard Jenkins), African Rhythms.

After serving on the Pacific Front as a U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Weston returned to New York and immersed himself in music, first playing with Benjamin “Bull Moose” Jackson and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson before forming his own trio with bassist Sam Gill and drummer Art Blakey, and spending his summers at the Music Inn in the Berkshires. He made his first recording, an album of Cole Porter standards, in 1954; his breakthrough release came in 1958 with Little Niles, a concept album of original songs about children (his own and those of friends and family). The title track of that album, along with the earlier “Hi-Fly,” would eventually become a standard.

From the beginning of his career, Weston had been incorporating African elements into his music, but they took center stage with his 1960 release Uhuru Afrika—an album-length suite that incorporated the lyrics of Langston Hughes (delivered by actor Brock Peters), intense polyrhythms, and large ensemble arrangements written by Weston’s friend and longtime collaborator Melba Liston. The album was released just as liberation movements began sweeping the colonial nations of Africa, resulting in its censorship by the South African government. It was a turning point in Weston’s career, marking his increasing focus on emphasizing the African roots of jazz.

In 1967, during his third visit to the African continent on a State Department tour, Weston made a profound impression on the nation of Morocco, and vice versa; he took this as a sign and moved to Tangier with his children, remaining for five years and operating a jazz club, African Rhythms. He also studied with Morocco’s native Gnawa musicians. In 1972 he made a recording based on his Moroccan experience, Blue Moses, for CTI Records; Weston was ambivalent about the record, his only one with electric piano, but it became his bestselling album.

Returning to the U.S. in 1973, Weston continued to perform live and make occasional recordings, the latter becoming more frequent after he signed a contract with Verve Records in 1989. He assiduously pursued his quest to reinforce the African traditions in jazz, recording twice in the 1990s with Gnawa musicians and incorporating Chinese music as well with 1998’s Khepera, featuring pipa player Min Xiao-Fen. In the 2000s, Weston formed his African Rhythms Quintet (sometimes expanding to a sextet with tenor saxophonist Billy Harper), with which he worked for the remainder of his life. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2001.

“I come to be a storyteller; I’m not a jazz musician,” he wrote in the introduction to African Rhythms. “God is the real musician. I’m an instrument … Africa taught me that.”

Weston is survived by his second wife, Fatoumata Mbengue; three daughters, Cheryl, Pamela, and Kim; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild. His son, Niles Azzedin Weston, died in 2007.

Wake and funeral information is as follows:

WAKE
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 9
VISITATION: 1:00 -7:00 pm
WAKE SERVICE: 4:00 -7:00 pm
FRANK BELL FUNERAL HOME
536 STERLING PLACE
BROOKLYN, NY 11238
HOMEGOING SERVICE
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10
VIEWING: 3:00 – 4:00 pm
SERVICE: 4:00 -7:00 pm
CATHEDRAL OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE
1047 AMSTERDAM AVENUE
NEW YORK, NY 10025

Read Jeff Tamarkin’s 2016 JazzTimes interview with Randy Weston.

Anastasia Tsioulcas caught Weston at home for JazzTimes in 2005.

See JazzTimes reviews of Weston’s albums The African Nubian Suite, Khepera, and the Mosaic Select three-CD boxed set including many of his classic ’50s and ’60s recordings.