Issue 2 : Spring 2011

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  • Jason Squinobal

    Who is Jason Squinobal?

    Jason Squinobal earned his PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in April 2009. His dissertation titled “West African Music in the Music of Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and Randy...

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Pan-African Rhythms: Exploring the Cultural and Political Influences of Randy Weston’s Music

 

Jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston is best known in the jazz community for his use of African traditional material in both written compositions and improvisation. Weston was neither born nor raised in Africa. His familiarity with African musical elements was derived from independent research on African music and literature, which began in his early childhood under the guidance of his parents.

Born April 6, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York, Weston from an early age Weston sought out a diverse musical education. During his childhood he “used to get early Folkways recordings; prison songs, field hollers, the old blues” (Musto, web). His parents had a deep love of music and a great appreciation for African American heritage. They strongly 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, [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. (Gitler 36)

Weston’s father further introduced him to the eclectic music scene of New York City during the 1920s and 30s. “My father took me to see Duke [Ellington] and Andy Kirk at the Sonia Ballroom and Brooklyn Palace. We’d hear [the calypso bands] Duke of Iron and Macbeth in Harlem...I grew up in a rich culture, a rich period” (Bouchard 20). The rich period Weston talks about, the Harlem Renaissance, had a profound impact on Weston’s musical development. The Harlem Renaissance grew out of the political and cultural activities of African Americans who were working hard to promote African American civil rights and cultural heritage during the 1920s and 30s. The movement was propelled by poets, writers, artists, musicians and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B DuBois, and not least Duke Ellington, Weston’s main musical influence during his formative years.

Duke Ellington

Ellington’s mark on Weston was both musical and philosophical. Musically, Ellington’s creative use of timbre in his piano voicings and his band orchestration strongly impacted Weston’s compositional techniques. Weston also credits Ellington for inspiring 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” (Musto, web). In the liner notes to his Portraits of Duke Ellington recording, 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 Duke, his music, and his most valuable appendage, his orchestra, to black or African musicians like myself, cannot be underestimated. (Weston web)

Weston shared many philosophical beliefs with Duke Ellington. Among these were the ideals of Garveyism. Weston credits his father for introducing him to Marcus Garvey’s work (Weston, personal interview). According to Bouchard, Weston’s father, a Panamanian born Jamaican, was very interested in the cultural writings of Marcus Garvey (20). This interest in Garveyism would, in turn, impress itself on Weston. “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” (Musto, web). Weston’s father always tried to instill the importance of his African heritage in him; he would tell Randy, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future” (Panken 20).

The writings of Marcus Garvey played a paramount role in shaping the Harlem Renaissance. Duke Ellington, a major player in the Harlem Renaissance noted that a large majority of musicians were influenced by Garvey’s work. In his autobiography Ellington states, “Bebop…is the Marcus Garvey extension” (109), implying that musicians of Weston’s age where creating music as a way of interpreting and extolling Garvey’s philosophical views. The philosophical connection that Duke Ellington and Randy Weston shared in Garvey’s work further strengthened Ellington’s musical influence on Weston.

Thelonious Monk

Weston took advantage of growing up in the cultural Mecca that is New York City and spent every opportunity that he could seeking out live performances of traditional African music. Brooklyn was a particularly valuable community for him. Weston states, “I grew up in Brooklyn with the great bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, whose father was Sudanese. He also played the oud, and when we were kids he’d take me to Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn to hear musicians play the instruments of North Africa and the Middle East” (Panken 20). This exposure led him to the music of Thelonious Monk. Although Monk did not consciously use African material in his music, Weston felt that Monk had an unconscious spiritual connection to Africa.

Listening to Brooklyn musicians performing on traditional African instruments, Weston heard quartertones and notes in-between the Western half steps. He absorbed the music and attempted to apply it to the piano. While trying to capture the essence of the quartertones on the piano Weston realized that Monk had already accomplished this through his use of chord cluster voicings (Weston personal interview). “[Monk] was the most original I ever heard” Weston recalled, “he played like they must have played in Egypt 5,000 years ago. For me it was pure African piano” (Bouchard 21).

Weston first heard Monk play in Coleman Hawkins’s band. Monk was one of Hawkins’s favorite young players and he often defended Monk against his detractors, of which there were many (Gourse 35). Weston introduced himself to Monk and arranged to visit him at his apartment. During one visit to Monk’s apartment, Weston states, “He played piano for almost three hours for me. Then I spent the next three years with Monk” (Gourse 77). Though Monk hardly spoke during their get-togethers, Weston learned a great deal from the man. He continues, “Later I found out that Sufi mystics didn’t speak through words. Ancient, wise people knew how to speak without words” (Gourse 77). Monk was a big influence on Weston’s development as a person and a musician. Weston looked up to Monk as a mentor. In an art form where originality is placed at a premium, Weston considered Monk the most original pianist he had ever heard.

Like many listeners, when Weston first heard Monk play with Hawkins’s group Monk’s unique style struck Weston as abrasive and unpolished. However, Weston’s opinion changed after hearing him again. “The next time I heard him, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in. That happened because Ahmed Abdul-Malik played with Monk, and he would take me to Atlantic Avenue” (Gourse 77). Abdul-Malik, Monk, and Hawkins played together often in bands lead by both Hawkins and Monk (Gourse 77). Weston states that “Monk was from another dimension…but most pianists in the 1940s didn’t like Monk. They said he couldn’t play. But I knew he was the most original pianist I ever heard” (Gourse 79).

So what attracted Weston to Monk and his music? It was Monk’s approach to rhythm and timbre that spoke to Weston. In Monk’s playing Weston heard a natural, unconscious African element. Weston was aware of the similarities between the piano styles of Ellington and Monk and those similarities further strengthened his appreciation for each musician. Though Monk did not openly display an interest in Africa or African traditional music, it is clear that the spirit of Africa was strong in Monk and Weston could sense this. In an interview with Leslie Gourse, Weston states:

I loved Monk personally because he was a master, but not in the Western sense. In the West, to be a master, all you have to do is play well, that’s it. From my years with traditional Africans I learned that in the East, you have to be respected in your community. And in Monk’s neighborhood, when we walked together, people acknowledged him. To be a master, you have to be clean of mind and spirit. And he was clean of mind and spirit. He did not speak it, didn’t waste words; he lived it. In our tradition, our people didn’t talk a lot. Monk was from that tradition… When he said something, it was powerful. It was different. (80)

Weston had the opportunity to travel throughout West Africa on two State Department sponsored tours in 1961 and 1963. He also brought his own groups on private tours of West Africa in 1967 and 1968 (Weston, African Cookbook, Liner Notes). These trips gave Weston the opportunity to hear first hand the same music he so eagerly collected from African delegates at the United Nations (Goddet, 9). According to Gourse, when Weston went to West Africa he came to realize that Monk was “like the reincarnation of the ancient spirit of Africa. Randy didn’t hear Europe in Monk’s music. He heard the way an African hears. He heard spiritualism and mysticism” (79).. Monk’s influence on Weston became greater as Weston began to study African traditional music and culture during the 1960s. “After years in Africa I came to believe that God sent prophets to bring us beauty in life,” says Weston. “Monk was that for me. He shared music with me…we shared and became inseparable” (78).

Uhuru Afrika, the Black Arts Movement and Pan-Africanism

Many scholars identify the Harlem Renaissance as having spanned from about 1920 to the mid 1930s (Lewis xv). However, as is evident above, jazz musicians like Ellington, Monk, Abdul-Malik, and Weston carried many of the concepts developed during the Renaissance on through the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s during a time of political unrest and struggle for civil rights, African Americans developed a renewed interest in their African cultural roots, and another movement similar to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s began to bloom. This movement, “known collectively as the Black Arts Movement...[was] a nationalistic, Pan-African cultural awakening that was ‘nurtured by a belief in the positive value of blackness’...it became acceptable, respectable, even expected, for African Americans to seek out, believe in, and display their mythological roots” (Floyd 185). Jazz musicians and their music became an important element of the Black Arts Movement. Through their music they reconnected with African cultural roots, playing an important role in changing American perspectives on African traditional music.

Randy Weston began composing and performing professionally during the Black Arts movement. His influences up to that point: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Marcus Garvey among them, had prepared him for the political climate, and his interest in African traditional music and culture flourished. Weston composed and recorded an extended composition advocating civil rights and celebrating strides that had been made at the time. He called his political suite Uhuru Afrika. Unlike many of the other political jazz suites of the Civil Rights era, Weston’s composition was not restricted to commentary on the political struggles in America. Weston chose to dedicate his composition to the struggles and strides made by Africans throughout the diaspora. This directly reflects the degree to which Weston was influenced by Pan-Africanism, an ideological movement that advocates the unity of African and African descended people worldwide. Pan-African unity, according to Floyd, was based on the premise “that black people all over the world share an origin and a heritage, that the welfare of black people everywhere is inexorably linked, and that the cultural products of blacks everywhere should express their particular fundamental beliefs” (100).

As the Civil Rights struggle surged in the United States, African nations were slowly gaining their independence from European Colonialism. Ingrid Monson points out that “The domestic civil rights struggle was consistently viewed as intertwined with the fate of Africa and anti-colonialism more broadly” (107). Many Caribbean nations were also gaining independence from their European colonizers at the same time. Africa and its diaspora were intimately connected by European colonialism and New World slavery, likewise the struggles for civil rights in America and the struggles to gain independence in Africa and the Caribbean strengthened the notion of a Pan-African connection between Africa and the African diaspora. Weston’s Uhuru Afrika, in fact, commemorated the emergence of new, independent African nations, freed from the claws of colonialism (Weston, personal interview).

By 1960, seventeen African nations had gained independence. This was a source of joy and inspiration for Weston. He considered the nations that had emerged to be a source of inspiration for nations that were still struggling under oppression (Monson 107). He also saw the independence of Africa as a source of inspiration for the struggle for equality in the United States. Uhuru, Swahili for “freedom,” voiced a general sentiment in the 1960s and was used throughout the African continent as a call for independence (Monson 107). The famed Ghanaian highlife band “Broadway Dance Band” changed its name to “Uhuru Band” when the bands proprietor revoked the use of the name Broadway Dance Band (Graphic Showbiz, web). Thus Weston chose the title Uhuru Afrika for his first extended work merging West African music with jazz.

Although Weston at this time he recorded Uhuru Afrika had not yet been to Africa, his idea of a connected African people, despite their location throughout the diaspora, most certainly influenced his extended work. Uhuru Afrika was one of Weston’s first conscious efforts to employ African music in a composition; it displays a fusion of traditional African material and elements of the diaspora. Record producer Michael Cuscuna has reissued Uhuru Afrika twice. He shows his appreciation of Weston’s Uhuru Afrika by stating, “So much music in the ‘60s used Africa superficially as window dressing, but this was the real deal—an honest, well-written, well researched fusion of jazz and African music” (Jenkins 28).

On November 16, 1960 Weston began recording Uhuru Afrika and his choice of musicians for this recording was very specific. Weston states, “I wanted to use a big band, and I wanted to use artists from Africa and artists of African decent. Jazz musicians, cats from the Broadway shows, a classical singer, a guy from East Africa, a guy from West Africa” (Goddet 9). He continues, “We wanted a rhythm section that showed how all drums come from the African drum” (Jenkins 28). The rhythm section included Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, Caribbean drummer Candido, and Cuban percussionist Armando Peraza. It is clear from Weston’s statements and his choice of musicians that he attempted to incorporate many different types of African music into his composition.

As a result of Weston’s work on Uhuru Afrika, he was able to bring together African, Caribbean, and African American musicians from very different cultures and used their common African roots to synthesize a Pan-African musical style. The use of musicians from Africa and the African diaspora makes Uhuru Afrika an important composition during the Black Arts Movement. Uhuru Afrika had an even stronger impact in Africa than it did in the United States. In 1964, the South African government banned Uhuru Afrika because of its encouragement of freedom from Apartheid (Weston, web).

Conclusion

This examination of Randy Weston’s musical and philosophical influences reveal a complicated interaction between many different elements of African and African American culture that came together in a very specific way to shape Weston’s life and music. While his influences, experiences, and political and musical philosophies are similar to those of other jazz musicians who lived at the same time, no other person has adapted those influences in exactly the same way as Weston.

The cultural environment in America from the time of the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights movement was such that African Americans sought to connect with their African roots. Weston is a product of these periods. Due in large part to his father’s emphasis on the importance of recognizing his African heritage, Weston gravitated towards the use of traditional African music in jazz.

Randy Weston’s early musical and cultural influences transformed him into a mature and politically conscious musician during the 1960s. The journey began with other peoples’ perceptions of Africa and African music, but it culminated in Weston’s own experiences of Africa and his subsequent readjustment of his impression of African culture and music. As a result, he was able to gain a unique understanding of the music of his ancestors. He has continued to spread the ideas and images of African society and culture through his music.

Weston’s decision to integrate African music with jazz has not been without its challenges. In a personal interview Weston discusses some of the struggles he has had to endure: “Africa was a place to be ashamed of. [Africa was misrepresented] in the Hollywood movies, and in the educational system.” Synthesizing jazz and African music left Weston in a lonely position for many years, as “People considered Europe to be the highpoint of civilization.” His choice to integrate the two musics placed him in an “unpopular position at times,” states Weston, “but you have to do what you have to do.” (Weston, personal interview). Although it has been a very long process for Weston, he understands that it is important to understand the impact of African history and heritage on American history and heritage.

Understanding the life and music of Randy Weston is important because it provides awareness of the importance of the African heritage to Americans. Recognition of the existence of an African history and the vital part it has played and continues to play in the shaping of American culture is critical to the emergence of true equality in America.

 

 

Bibliography

Bouchard, Fred. “Randy Weston’s Pan-African Revival.” Downbeat Nov. 1990. Print.

Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is My Mistress. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976. Print.

Floyd, Jr., Samuel A. The Power of Black Music. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Graphic Showbiz. Modern Ghana. Uhuru Band: Echoes Of The Days Of Big Band Sounds. Web. Nov. 2007.

Gitler, Ira. “Randy Weston.” Down Beat 31.6 1964. Print.

Goddet, Laurent. “Interview With Randy Weston.” Coda 159 Feb. 1978. Print.

Gourse, Leslie. Straight, No Chaser: the Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. Print.

Jenkins, Willard. “Freeing His Roots.” Down Beat Feb. 2005. Print.

Lewis, Davis L. The Harlem Renaissance Reader. David L. Lewis ed. New York: Viking,

1994. Print.

Monson, Ingrid. Freedom Sounds. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Musto, Russ. “African Rhythms.” All About Jazz Feb. 2004 Web. 26 Sept. 2006.

Panken, Ted. “African Soul.” Down Beat. Oct. 1998. Print.

Weston, Randy. RandyWeston.com. “South Africa Bans Recordings by Lena Horne, Randy Weston.” Down Beat. Sept. 1964. Web. Feb. 2007.

 

Interviews

Weston, Randy. Personal Interview. 26 March. 2007.

 

Discography

Weston, Randy. African Cookbook. Atlantic, 1972. LP.

Weston, Randy. Portraits of Duke Ellington: Caravan. Verve, 1990. CD.

Afrobeat Journal - Article

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What a joy it was, to host Randy Weston and his eurontage here in the Berkshires on May 29. It was a concert for the ages, and provided great memories for the friends old and new and fans new and old. A very special day, to be sure. The meet the media panel relived important parts of Randy's early years. Thanks for sharing, Willard, and for being part of it.Ed BridePresident, Berkshires Jazz, Inc.

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