Pianist Randy Weston, An Eloquent Spokesman For Jazz's Bond with African Culture, Dies at 92

Sep 1, 2018

Randy Weston, a pianist and composer who devoted more than half a century to the exploration of jazz’s deep connection with Africa, died on Saturday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 92.

His death was announced by his wife and business partner, Fatoumata Weston.

Over the course of an extraordinarily long and distinguished career, Weston carried on the pianistic and composerly tradition of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk before him. But he was steadfast in a specific sense of mission: he regarded jazz as an extension of African music, from its foundational essence to its living expression. He made this argument not only in eloquent conversation but also in powerful musical terms, often in recent years with his band African Rhythms.

An imposingly tall but soft-spoken man, Weston embodied the connections he espoused. His touch at the piano was emphatically percussive, but also elegant, resonant and clear. He worked with a sophisticated harmonic language often shaded in blue, and in his compositions — like “Hi-Fly” and “Little Niles,” which have become standards — he drew an unmistakable line from the African continent to the swinging verities of hard-bop and other strains of modern jazz.

“When you go to Africa, you become very humble,” Weston told Sheila Anderson last year, in a Salon Session interview at WBGO. “You realize that you are from thousands and thousands of years of civilization, and how much we have to learn from these people.”

WBGO's Sheila Anderson with pianist Randy Weston, April 2017
Credit WBGO

Weston made his first visit to the African continent in 1961, as part of a tour for the U.S. State Department. He visited Lagos, Nigeria on that trip, and returned there under the same auspices two years later. After a third visit in 1967, he decided to move to Morocco, finding deep spiritual resonance in the traditional music of the Gnawa. In Tangier, he opened and operated a popular jazz club, also called African Rhythms, from the late ‘60s into the ‘70s.  

But it would be an oversimplification to imply that Weston had an awakening during his trips abroad. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 6, 1926, he came up in a household conversant in African culture. His mother, Vivian, was born in Virginia; his father, Frank, was Panamanian, and a strong admirer of Marcus Garvey, whose pan-African message made a formative impression.

Weston studied classical piano before his professional career began after the Second World War, with bluesmen like Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Bullmoose Jackson. He encountered some important encouragement when, in 1951, he took a summer job as a breakfast chef at the Music Inn in the Berkshires. There he met the scholar and historian Marshall Stearns, who eventually asked Weston to accompany his lectures, some of which drew a decisive musicological lineage between jazz and the folkloric music of West Africa.

That connection gradually became more legible to Weston. “My good friend, the bassist Ahmad Abdul-Malik’s people were from the Sudan, and he played the oud, which has this thing of playing notes between the notes,” he recalled roughly a decade ago, in an appearance on NPR’s Piano Jazz. “I couldn’t get that sound on the piano. But when I heard Thelonious Monk play, I heard this same magic on the piano; even his way of swinging had that same element.”

Weston released his debut album, Cole Porter in a Modern Mood, on Riverside Records in 1954. The following year he was named New Star Pianist in the Down Beat International Critics' Poll. When he then released The Randy Weston Trio, featuring Sam Gill on bass and Art Blakey on drums, it notably opened with a composition titled “Zulu.”

During the ‘60s, Weston released a succession of boldly realized albums, including Uhuru Africa, which featured African hand drumming front and center, alongside a big band stacked with talent: Clark Terry, Yusef Lateef, Max Roach and Gigi Gryce, just for starters. The arrangements were by Melba Liston, a close collaborator who also worked with Weston on albums like Highlife (1963), Tanjah (1973) and The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1991).

But Uhuru Africa, which also incorporates lyrics and poetry by Langston Hughes, belongs in a category of its own. As Robin D.G. Kelley has observed, the album “acknowledged Africa’s cultural ties to its descendants, honored African womanhood and promoted the idea of a modern Africa, a beacon for a new future.”

Weston had some more commercial outings in the ‘70s, none more so than Blue Moses, released on CTI Records. It features Freddie Hubbard in peak swashbuckling form, and a rhythm team that often features bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham, along with several percussionists.

In African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston, a book written with Willard Jenkins and published in 2010, Weston recalls being unpleasantly surprised by the slick production of Blue Moses, but appreciative of the fact that it was the biggest hit of his career. 

By and large, Weston’s success was less a matter of commercial performance than cultural influence. He was a 2001 NEA Jazz Master, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2016 inductee in the DownBeat Critic’s Poll Hall of Fame. He won a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award and received several honorary doctorate degrees. Two years ago his personal trove of musical scores, correspondence, recordings and other materials were acquired by Harvard Library, in collaboration with the Jazz Research Initiative at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Along with his wife, Weston is survived by three of his four children, Cheryl, Pamela and Kim; seven grandchildren; six great grandchildren; and one great-great grandchild.

Last year Weston released The African Nubian Suite — his 50th album, and the first on his own African Rhythms label, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Recorded in concert in 2012 at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, it features narration by the scholar Wayne Chandler and poetry by the late Jayne Cortez.

Weston was planning to tour and record when he died; his fall calendar was to include an Oct. 17 concert for the World Music Institute at the New School. His message now lives on in his recordings and concert footage, and will continue to exert influence by personal example. “When I touch the piano,” he said in an All Things Considered profile last year, “it becomes an African instrument. It’s no longer a European instrument. I say that in a positive way, not a negative way.”

A previous version of this story, relying on information from a publicist, mistated Randy Weston's award from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It was a Doris Duke Artist Award, not a Doris Duke Impact Award.