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Remembering Pianist Randy Weston, with a Focus on His Unsung Connection to Panama

Nick Michael
Pianist and composer Randy Weston in Panama, in 2016

As we continue to remember pianist and composer Randy Weston, who died on Sept. 1, we’re reminded of his devotion to the motherland, Africa. But how many people know about his ties to Central America — and in particular, his deep connection to Panama?

According to Weston, his Pan African musical philosophy, and the reason he plays the piano in the first place, began in Panama with his father. Back in 2016, The Checkout had the opportunity to celebrate Randy Weston’s 90th birthday in Panama City. He was being honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Panama Jazz Festival, and that moment seemed an ideal place to delve into this lesser-known detail of Weston’s background.

He said the honor he received in Central America really pointed back toward his father, Frank, who first fell in love with the sound of the piano at a hotel in Panama. Later, as the Weston household took shape in Brooklyn, Frank became the most important influence for young Randy, in terms of instilling a lifelong Pan-African perspective in art and music.

“Morocco’s home and I’m home here too in Panama,” Weston said, “but especially when I’m in the Caribbean and Africa, because my father said, ‘Always look for black people wherever you go.’ When you find us, you are going to find us on the bottom of pile, but you are going to find deep culture, you are going to find music that is very spiritual, whether it’s Cuba or Brazil or Spain.’ So, wherever I go, I look for the black people. And Duke Ellington said, ‘Watch black people — the way we move, the way we talk, the way we cook our food, the way we dance, the way we argue — that’s the spirit of our music.’ So between my dad and Duke Ellington I couldn’t go wrong.”

View this post on Instagram The Chief. Baba Randy Weston Homegoing, Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A post shared by vijay iyer (@vijayiyer) on Sep 10, 2018 at 4:10pm PDT

On Sept. 10, many gathered at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in Manhattan for a homegoing service, in remembrance of this figurative and literal jazz giant. Many literary figures and artists converged in the ceremony — as did the members of Weston’s working ensemble African Rhythms, featuring T.K. Blue, Neil Clarke, Robert Trowers, Billy Harper, and bassist Alex Blake, who was born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn.

They performed Weston’s theme song, “Love, The Mystery of.” In this program, we learn the story behind that song, written by the Ghanaian drum master Kofi Ghanaba. We’ll also hear music from Weston’s last recording, The African Nubian Suite, and a duo with Weston and Blake titled “Nanapa Panama Blues.”

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For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.