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African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston

Randy Weston and Willard Jenkins

(Duke University Press; US: Sep 2010)

In jazz, the most gripping autobiographies have been dominated by voices or stories that simply could not be denied.  Art Pepper is hardly a well-known player, but his Straight Life is one the few classic jazz autobiographies because it dealt so frankly with his drug problems.  Miles Davis wrote a book in his uniquely crass and honest voice, telling crazy stories with abandon and flinging his blunt opinions to every corner of the page.  Charlies Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog is part psychoanalysis and part myth-making—less concerned with getting down the facts than with establishing a groove.  Lady Sings the Blues is mostly just plain made up, having helped to create the useful myth of Billie Holiday for fans to enjoy.


African Rhythms is perhaps the next truly wonderful jazz autobiography.  It succeeds so fully not because of hyperbole or personality but because Weston—a pianist and composer criminally underappreciated even among serious jazz fans—has a unique musical story to tell.  This story is highly recommended to jazz listeners, in large part, because it makes you want to dive back into one of the most gripping discographies in the music.


Weston’s jazz story is unique in several ways.  Unlike most players, Randy Weston started his career without serving a long series of apprenticeships as a sideman in other bands.  Despite a fascinating relationship with and set of “lessons” from his idol, Thelonious Monk, Weston essentially started out as a leader.  And he did this unusual thing in an unusual way and place: by leading a trio and participating in a jazz education series at several resort hotels in the Berkshire Mountains.  Though Weston was born and raised in Brooklyn, he “made it” in the least likely place of any modern jazz player.


Second, and most importantly, Weston’s consciousness from an early age—and eventually and dramatically his music—was informed by Africa.  Of course, all jazz has an indirect African connection through the genesis of the blues as slaves tried to reconcile their musical culture with European scales and traditions.  But Weston was raised by a father who was keenly proud of African culture, who kept African art and history alive in his house, and who encouraged his son to travel to Africa to understand himself.


“I had been dreaming of traveling to and even living in Africa for as long as I could remember”, Weston writes.  “For me the entire continent of Africa is Mecca”, and in 1961 for the first time “I was going home…  I can’t stress enough how thoroughly conditioned I had been toward Africa by my father”.  Weston was chosen to be part of a delegation of 29 African-American artists including actor Brock Peters, choreographer Geoffrey Holder, soprano Martha Flowers, singer Nina Simone, and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.  Weston’s description of the start of this trip is unforgettable:  “I was so over the top in my excitement, I could swear I felt the rhythms of the plane engine change [when the plane came into Nigerian airspace], which later inspired me to write a pieces called “Lagos”...  I know it was my imagination, but that’s where some of the greatest ideas come from.”


This passage is typical of Weston’s story and his manner of telling it.  He is passionate about music and about Africa, right up to the point of being spiritual about it.  But in the end Weston is as much a practical Brooklyn kid as he is an African-inspired mystic, and you can see that his career and art is the result of allowing himself to be transported by the intangible but also putting hard-nosed effort into getting results.


Weston had been chosen for his first trip to Africa in large part because he had already been writing, performing, and organizing on behalf of an African consciousness in jazz.  Together with trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, Weston created the African American Musicians Society in New York and created a large scale composition that became the album Uhuru Afrika.  The Society pioneered the idea of jazz artists retaining he rights to their compositions and teaching jazz in the schools—putting into effect a form of musical self-determination—and Uhuru was a massive project that required the collaboration of a big band, the poet Langston Hughes, African language specialists, Latin percussionists, and players and singers (including Max Roach, Peters, and Flowers) who spanned the classical and jazz worlds.  In Weston’s own words, Uhuru Afrika was “the most important music I had ever written.”


Ultimately, Weston would return to Africa again in 1967, this time making the decision to stay to live in Morocco, where he started and ran the African Rhythms Club until 1972.  Weston narrates this adventure with a loose and easy style, seeming to float through it all with a combination of passion and whimsy.  His kids join him in Africa, and we get a partial glimpse of his relationship with is son Niles (later Azzedine), who starts playing hand percussion with the old man at club.  If is all seems just a bit like I Love Lucy (“Tell Little Ricky to bring his drums down to the club, Lucy!”), then you’re getting some of the breezy style of the narrative.  It skips its way back to America, through various record dates, on trips to Japan and Europe, and back again.


This is mainly a musical biography.  While Weston is very serious about music and about the meaning of Africa in his life, we get precious little writing that delves into the man, his family, or his feelings about things beyond music and cultural identity.  Weston is more revealing about what it’s like to be a rather tall man (which he refers to incessantly and reveals is the origin of his most famous tune, “Hi Fly”) than to be a son or husband or father.  The richest relationship described in the book is with arranger Melba Liston.


Weston’s “arranger” for African Rhythms is DC-based jazz writer Willard Jenkins.  The seams of the book, sewn together by Jenkins we can assume, are fairly obvious.  Weston tells stories, and Jenkins does a fine job of putting it all together.  But there are a number of glaring repetitions in the text that make clear that Weston must have been dictating his story as he went along, sometimes forgetting what had already been told.  There is too much, “as I said before”—statements that may have been made weeks apart by Weston but that appear only a page or two apart in the book.  It’s a small criticism, but one that is important.  Weston’s story—even narrowly tailored as a travelogue and musical tale—is an important one.  One wishes it had been crafted with a bit more sense of style.


The musical story here is the reason African Rhythms works.  Everyone knows that jazz has critical roots in West Africa, but Weston demonstrates that jazz had a powerful meaning in its return to Africa, and that African has been able to be an important influence on jazz a second time, through the vision of an artist willing to use the continent as a source of fresh beats and forms.  Weston makes the case that jazz was a noble and empowering art form as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but that it was also still open and flexible enough to allow Africa to inform it all over again, seamlessly.


Most importantly, if Weston’s music ever seemed not quite to fit into the narratives of the easy histories of jazz (New Orleans begat swing begat bop begat cool begat hard bop begat free jazz . . .) we now understand why.  Weston himself came to jazz on a somewhat crooked, original path, and he turned the music back toward Africa for personal reasons.  But the results, at least as described on the page by Weston and Jenkins, sound compelling.


If you haven’t heard Weston’s music, really listened to it, then African Rhythms is the strongest possible incentive to tune in.  Is there any higher praise for a book about music than that it got you to start listening?

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Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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Randy Weston, live in 2009, playing a whole lot of piano
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