Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

An Investigation of the Life, Influences, and Music of Randy Weston

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

An Investigation of the Life, Influences, and Music of Randy Weston

Article excerpt


In an article written in 1973 for the journal, Black Perspectives in Music, J.H. Kwanbena Nketia highlights the important and continual relationship between African and African American music. Nketia states "The relationship between African and Afro-American music is dynamic and unbroken at the conceptual level in spite of the differences in materials to which these concepts are applied."1 This statement articulates the importance of African music in the creation of African American music, at its inception, and continued development of African American music in modern times. This relationship has not always been recognized in past music scholarship. Nketia says, "The importance of the music of Africa in historical studies of Afro-American music has tended to be seen more as providing a point of departure than as something that continues to be relevant to the present."2 There are studies that give African music credit for the continual influence it has had on African American music; however, Nketia's words are as relevant today as they were in 1973. It is my intention to present a study that is sensitive to the claims made by Nketia. The work presented here identifies the continued application of traditional African musical and cultural traits in jazz composition and performance.

Many jazz musicians utilized traditional African traits in their music. Randy Weston was not the first musician to do so, however jazz fans and scholars will remember him because his experiences, influences, and music clearly demonstrate the importance traditional African culture played in his life. Weston was born in Brooklyn during the Harlem Renaissance. Political views that predominated African American culture at that time greatly influenced his parents. Weston's father felt a particularly strong connection to his African heritage and instilled Marcus Garvey's version of pan-Africanism into Randy Weston's consciousness.3

While his father was a great influence on his early childhood, Duke Ellington, one of the most important musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, also influenced Weston. Ellington reinforced the importance Weston's father placed on knowing their African roots. At the same time, Ellington, a dominant musical figure of the Harlem Renaissance, became an important musical influence on Weston.

As Weston grew up, he looked up to the musicians of the bebop jazz era. In Weston's view, their music contained a greater sense African heritage than music made by musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Thelonious Monk, one of the most significant contributors to bebop, befriended Weston and became a mentor to the young man. In Monk, Weston recognized "the spirit of an African master."4 While Weston learned to interpret music similar to Monk's musical style, he also developed a keener sense of African aesthetics through his personal relationship with Monk.

As a young adult, Weston took every opportunity to hear and learn about traditional African music. He went to performances, listened to recordings, and interacted with African delegates at the United Nations. Weston's interest and research in traditional African music coincided with the growing cultural interest in Africa among the general African American population during the 1950s. The turbulence of intense civil rights activism during this period encouraged Weston to merge African music with jazz in his composition, Uhuru Afrika. All of the above influences helped Randy Weston to be conscious of his heritage, and through his musical output, he was able to connect with that heritage in a way that was significant to him.

In the early 1950s, Weston had already established himself as a prominent jazz pianist before ever recording any African inspired work. Therefore, one might ask, why did he feel the need to focus so intensely on African music? Weston answers this question by stating, "We are still an African people and to understand ourselves better and understand the world better, Africa being the first civilization, I've got to study and learn about what happened a thousand years ago. …

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