Tue | Dec 11, 2018

Randy Weston is all about that jazz - Pianist focuses on African heritage for Int'l Jazz Day concert

Published:Monday | April 30, 2018 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
Randy Weston
Randy Weston
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"Don't ask me about years. I am terrible with years," Randy Weston told The Gleaner during an interview yesterday in his Pegasus hotel suite. The 92-year-old jazz musician may not have the best memory when it comes to dates, but owns a fountain of knowledge greater than his six-foot seven-inch stature.

Weston's professional career in music started in the 1920s, on a path he did not plan. In fact, Weston said, "I had no [career] plan, or any idea that I would become a pianist and composer - but I took a chance."

His dream was to travel to Africa to learn about his heritage, and to date, he has visited approximately 18 countries on the continent - all of this made possible by his career.

"Once we study our heritage, it makes us stronger and more proud of who we are, and of how much we have given the world," he said.

He noted that if there was one lesson he could leave with students of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and patrons at today's International Jazz Day celebration, it is the fact that the genre and music in general were created in Africa.

"Jazz, ska, blues or bossa nova or samba, whatever it is called, the spirit of music is all African in the first place. It all comes from the traditional rhythms," Weston said.

"Playing music goes farther than the melodies and harmonies - it is a way of life. Not just knowing the notes and taking souls, it's about our spirit," he continued.

 

CONTROVERSIAL MUSIC

 

He noted that when he visited Jamaica in the 1960s with Melba Liston (a trombonist proclaimed the mother of Jamaican jazz education), their music was very controversial. They were identified as 'American negro' because, he explains, "At the time, people were saying you don't want to be identified as African." That way of thinking added to his motivation to christen his music - 'African Rhythms' - not just Jazz.

"Everywhere I go, it's the same thing - persons listen to Jazz, but don't give any credit to its history. But what you call Jazz is African," he said. "That truth is very important, especially because I grew up in a world where our culture is considered inferior."

Although Weston always goes back to the root, he listens to all types of music for inspiration, but admits that he is not very knowledgeable about dancehall.

"Whether it is a Bob Marley, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington (or Randy Weston), it is part of our ancestral memory - we don't realise what we are doing happened thousands of years ago," he explained. "I feel that when you truly love your ancestors, they will guide you. I was taught that my great-great-great-grandmother had to be strong for me to play the piano."

Weston urges young musicians to recognise their incredible power to create once the origin is accepted. He says his own strength comes from that, which, despite having to walk with a stick, is remarkable.