A jazz legend who may just know the secret to staying vital

By Howard Mandel

An 84-year-old pianist performing hither and yon upon publication of his autobiography might be thought of as taking a victory lap, but for Randy Weston, it’s business as usual. This NEA Jazz Master and huge eminence—6-foot-5-plus with hands the size of baseball mitts and fingers like long, thick cigars—protégé of the bebop originators and promoter of the notion that America’s modern vernacular music carries the essence of West Africa—was hale and hearty, spontaneous and playful, fronting his quartet at the Jazz Foundation of America’s loft party fundraiser Oct. 17. The man is in his prime.

Weston’s schedule through next April includes gigs at the Kennedy Center, Philly’s Kimmel Center, the Portland (Oregon) Jazz Festival, Boston’s Berklee College of Music and several venues in Chicago. But New York’s got him first and foremost. At the Tribeca Performing Arts Center over the next three weeks he’ll talk with Princeton University’s Cornel West and WQXR’s Terrence McKnight (Oct. 26), sign his book African Rhythms following a screening of the 2002 film Randy Weston in St. Lucia (Oct. 30) and front a 22-piece orchestra in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his magnum opus, Uhuru Afrika (Nov. 13), a four-part suite with lyrics by Langston Hughes originally recorded during the “Year of Freedom,” in which 17 African nations established self-governance after an era of Western European domination.

Though born and raised in Brooklyn, where he was friends with drummer Max Roach and through him met Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, et al., Weston has been enthralled with Africa since childhood. His Caribbean-born father subscribed to Marcus Garvey’s pan-African philosophy and embraced music of all genres by African Americans as cultural heritage. In childhood, Randy was encouraged to study piano, but considered himself a dabbler. As he says in his autobiography (“arranged by” Willard Jenkins, journalist, radio show host and arts administrator), “I was a bit intimidated because the ’40s on into the early ’50s were a time when many of the real monsters of the piano were around, and for a young guy like myself who hadn’t quite gotten his confidence up, it was a rather competitive atmosphere.”

His breakthrough came during the early ’50s: Working as a cook’s assistant in the Berkshires, where he’d gone to get clear of black New York’s scourge of gangs and drugs, Weston met Marshall Stearns, proto-jazz educator, and became his lecture-demonstrator. Subsequently, Weston socialized and collaborated with many critically acclaimed, virtuosic and progressive jazzmen and women (he developed a close professional relationship with trombonist/arranger Melba Liston), but his artistic temperament, Afro-centric leanings and personal modesty cast him for many years as a musician’s musician—and a black musician’s musician at that.

Over the past 40 years, since Weston first traveled to Africa and lived for a time in Tangier, jazz aficionados of every stripe have embraced him. Hang around, remain creative and productive: lo and behold, your artistry may gain the notice it deserves. So it’s been for Weston, whose music today is basically as it’s been right along but sounds timeless. His compositions, including “Berkshire Blues,” “Hi-Fly,” “Little Niles” and “African Cookbook,” are clear-cut and memorable but open to far-flung improvisation. His own playing is typically spare and deliberate, emphatically percussive yet tender, too. He has recorded with sizable ensembles and solo, repertoire of Monk and Ellington as well as works showcasing the handclaps, vocals and three-stringed goat-gut lutes of Gnawa musicians of Morocco. His sound is seldom hurried or outright aggressive, usually lyrical with hints of profundity. He is consistent but never offensive delivering his message of African essentialism. A big man, Weston makes a powerful impression with the lightest shtick.

At the Jazz Foundation benefit, Weston casually set up intense solos by his sidemen, longtime bassist Alex Blake, hand-percussionist Neil Clarke and guest tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. He set the pace, voiced the themes, laid down bass lines and held an implacable groove. Their fellowship was palpable; all knew exactly what to do.

Just before the music began, I whipped out my advance copy of Weston’s autobiography, asking for an autograph. Clarke glanced at his leader signing the inside jacket, and joked, “How’s that book end?”

“Haven’t finished it yet,” I admitted, “but I imagine with world-wide gratitude for Randy’s music.”

“I want to know, does he get the girl?” Clarke asked mischievously.

“Probably so; he always has,” I answered, glancing at Mrs. Weston, much younger than 84, wearing a leopard-print outfit, sitting in the front row.

Weston and Clarke guffawed. Jazz musicians age and stay vital.