Remembering Pianist and Composer Randy Weston

Randy Weston at the 2011 Chicago Jazz Festival (Photo: Bryan Thompson, Flickr).

At the recent Detroit Jazz Festival, I showed vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant a photo I took of Randy Weston last year at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. She reflected on Weston’s recent death and stared intensely at the photo of him seated about as inconspicuously as his imposing size would allow at the back of the auditorium. Salvant and Weston were both in attendance at the 2017 benefit concert at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem–Salvant was there to perform and Weston was there as one of the three honorees. When Weston accepted his award he succinctly said: “I only have two words: Joey Alexander.” It was Weston’s typical humility in praising the young Alexander’s performance, which at times was reminiscent of Weston’s often engaging heavy ostinato style, brilliantly embellished with a flourish of scintillating chromatics. When Weston’s death was announced at the recent Jazz Festival, I had already been informed by photographer George Johnson of Brooklyn, whom I was surprised to see in Detroit. Like Johnson, Weston was deeply connected to Brooklyn where he was born on April 6, 1926.

Weston’s glorious and productive odyssey was vividly recalled by hundreds of musicians, admirers, and family members at his homegoing celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Monday, September 10th. Master of ceremonies Willard Jenkins, who worked with Weston on his autobiography—he as arranger and Randy as composer—set the tone and pace of the celebration by recounting the long-awaited call from Weston to join him and his ensemble on a trip to Africa. “Are you ready to go to Africa?” Weston asked Jenkins on the Memorial Day call in May 2001. Jenkins quickly replied, “Why not?” “Ok,” Weston said, “We leave on June 7.” That ten-day journey solidified Jenkins’ relationship with Weston and like the celebration at the church, summoned a fount of memories from Jenkins and set the stage for moving reflections. These included the one from Professor Acklyn Lynch and softly imparted memories from Weston’s daughter, Cheryll Weston-Farella. She noted that it was at this church that Aretha Franklin had her last public performance for the Elton John Aids Foundation where she sang “I Say a Little Prayer.” Prayers prevailed at the start of Weston’s services along with Kemetic and Yoruba libations, which segued into a musical performance by the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir who offered soulful versions of “Precious Lord” and “Wade in the Water.”

Remembrances and musical performances were neatly balanced throughout the evening with professional connections from Maurice Montoya, who orchestrated Weston’s concert dates and appearances for many years, and Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America, who observed how instrumental Weston had been in supporting her organization. These words of appreciation morphed immediately into a triumphant selection from African Rhythm with flutist TK Blue, one of the longest members of Weston’s ensemble, leading percussionist Neil Clarke, drummer Lewis Nash, trombonist Robert Trowers, Billy Harper on tenor sax, and bassist Alex Blake on a robust rendition of “Love, The Mystery Of.” Blake, with his usual powerful and commanding strokes, was as impressive as ever during his solo moments.

Professor Robin D.G. Kelley read the obituary he co-wrote with Jenkins, and he invoked a number of jazz immortals, including Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Chano Pozo. “Stir them up,” he noted, “and you have Randy Weston.” It took more than five hours and a thesaurus of superlatives to capture the essence of Weston’s musical legacy, social and political activism, and the contributions he made to world culture, particularly his association with the Gnawan music of Morocco. And with Malaam Hassan Jaffar on the guitar-like guimbri the music was given a brief exposure, as was other international sounds from Minh Xiao Feng on pipa, a four-string instrument played like a guitar, and Senegalese kora master Malang Jobartch.

Matching the fervor of these performances were thoughtful encomiums from AmNews jazz maestro Ron Scott; historian and griot Wayne Chandler, and a Langston Hughes poem read by actor Delroy Lindo, who like Danny Glover the day before during Weston’s wake delivered warm and intimate impressions of their love for Weston. If there was a musical highlight—and it’s hard to choose from several engaging selections—it was African Rhythm’s version of Weston’s “Hi Fly” with pianist Monty Alexander and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater added to the group. They filled the church’s vast corridors with a sound that might have sought resonance with Franklin’s performance.

In length and eloquence it was comparable to the tribute from Senegal, read by Professor Yaa Lenge Ngemi, who is noted for his translation of the Cheikh Anta Diop’s “Civilization or Barbarism.” Weston was deemed an international treasure by the Senegalese leader, “one whose music reflected so many cultures.” What pianist Rodney Kendricks delivered in notes and the equivalence from Weston’s grandchildren and children as well as the presence of such musicians as Craig Harris, Onaje Allan Gumbs, and Patience Higgins; dignitaries like literary agent Marie Brown, artist Otto Neals, community activist Richard Green, jazz authority Greg Thomas, cultural maven Voza Rivers, writer Ellease Ebele Oseye, Weston’s widow, Fatoumata Mbengue, and you have an assemblage that compares favorably with “the chief’s” final words. “In Africa I discovered what the true purpose of a musician is,” Weston wrote. “We are historians and it is our purpose to tell the people the true story of our past, and to extend a better vision of the future.”

Weston more than fulfilled this mission, these imperatives and his 92 years were “not wasted” as one of the speakers stated. As Jenkins said at the beginning of the long celebration that ended with the African Rhythm delivering a rousing Weston classic “Blue Moses,” Weston was a story teller, and it took a multitude of voices to tell his story.

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Herb Boyd

Herb Boyd is a journalist, activist, teacher, and author or editor of twenty-five books, including his latest, “Black Detroit—A People’s History of Self-Determination” (Amistad, 2017). He is also the co-editor with Haki Madhubuti of the forthcoming anthology “Black Panther: Paradigm Shift or Scam” (Third World Press, 2018) on the recent film. His articles have been published in the Black Scholar, Final Call, the Amsterdam News, Cineaste, Downbeat, the Network Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. A scholar for more than forty years, he teaches African American history and culture at the City College of New York in Harlem, where he lives.