Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Randy Weston's Fascinating Musical Journey

Randy Weston
African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston
Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins
2011: Duke University Press

2011 has seen a number of important biographies and autobiographies involving significant jazz and blues artists. One of the best may be African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston. Instead of the usually by x as told to y, this book informs us it was composed by Randy Weston and arranged by Willard Jenkins. This probably more accurately describes the process which the great composer and pianist Weston and journalist, educator and broadcaster Jenkins produced this book.

Weston has led a remarkable life, growing up in a very culturally aware home and having crossed paths with and worked together with some of the most remarkable individuals. His father was a follower of Marcus Garvey and the message of self-determination that is seen in his pride as a black man and this is reflected in his life. The rich narrative takes us from his growing up in Brooklyn in a neighborhood where Max Roach, Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan and Ray Copeland were also growing up to his embrace of the "Motherland" including his travels there and his living there and operating a famed club there to being recognized as the Jazz Master he is.

The narrative takes us to the Berkshires where Weston's a career as a jazz pianist began with him participating in programs on jazz history with pioneering jazz historian, Marshall Stearns and then made his first recordings with bassist Sam Gill for Riverside, followed by one that used his own compositions and an early live recording. The memories and perspective of Orrin Keepnews who produced those early recordings are quite valuable. He is simply one of many of Weston's associates who help fill in the story.

Melba Liston is amongst the most amazing of the persons that Weston has been associated with and we are introduced to her. They worked together first on the Little Niles, record date and her arrangements continued to enhance his music over the decades, even when she had suffered significant health setbacks. And then there was Weston's Uhuru Afrika, his suite dedicated to Mother Africa, and his involvement with the African American Musicians Society. While known as a composer already, he considered this his major work to date and collaborated with many including Langston Hughes, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, Clark Terry, Charles Perslip and others. It also took some effort to get his label to release this project with Weston having to do an album based on a Broadway show. But it did, and he also recalls later performances of this suite. And its message was heard, leading to the South African government banning it.

Weston would soon make a pilgrimage to Africa as well as tour their with his band whether playing pioneering festivals or on State Department sponsored tours. Eventually, Weston settled in Tangier which became the base for much of his activities and opened up his African Rhythms Club, which became a focal point for jazz and African Culture in North Africa. It was also where he connected with the remarkable Gnawa people with whom he developed a close rapport as a people and their music.

And at some point he returns to the United States and resumes his career as an honored elder of the music. He discusses some of his compositions and other significant performances, talks about his present band and its members (and they contribute their impressions as well). African Rhythms also contains a discography of his recordings and a list of the honors he has received. It is a truly wonderful read.

This was a purchase.

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