Like the Civil Rights Movement, much American jazz of the 50s and especially 60s looked backwards and forwards at the same time, situating a new American empowerment upon old African roots. From Kenny Dorham’s Blue Note classic Afro-Cuban and Dizzy Gillespie’s Birks Works to Art Blakey’s Drum Suite and Sun Ra’s The Nubians of Plutonia, this turn east was fueled in part by revolutions in the Caribbean and Africa, where anti-colonial liberation movements were spreading quickly even without the modern benefits of Twitter, Blackberries, and 24-hour cable news. Add John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass sessions to the preceding list and Randy Weston—the pianist/composer who brings his rugged yet intimate solo style to the Nelson Music Room on October 21—still defines the fusion of African rhythms and American jazz more than anyone else.
Born and raised in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, Weston first fell under the musical spell of Duke Ellington, who prefigured the 60s boom in African rediscovery as early as the 1920s, and Thelonious Monk. Weston told Downbeat Magazine that his father relentlessly instilled in him the importance of his African heritage: “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.” Making good on the mantra, Weston’s first recorded composition was “Zulu,” and roughly six decades and 40 LPs later, he released the autobiography African Rhythms with Duke University Press.
Weston’s most famous work, 1960’s Uhuru Afrika, was banned by South Africa’s Apartheid government in 1964. Michael Cuscuna, who has reissued Uhuru Afrika on two different occasions, praised the LP for its honesty in a 2005 Downbeat article. “So much music in the 60s used Africa superficially as window dressing, but this was the real deal—an honest, well-written, well researched fusion of jazz and African music,” Cuscuna said. With help from the arranger Melba Liston, Weston assembled a 28-piece orchestra reflective of the diaspora to whom the album was dedicated. The percussion section alone included musicians from Nigeria, Cuba, and the U.S. On “African Lady,” Chapel Hill-based opera soprano Martha Flowers and Broadway baritone Brock Peters sang lyrics by Langston Hughes, the preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Like Marcus Garvey and his descendents in the Black Consciousness Movement, as well as rising African leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, the Weston of Uhuru Afrika fought to overturn everything from racist Hollywood stereotypes to centuries of colonially imposed inferiority myths, musically bridging the sophisticated cultures of ancient Africa and modern African-Americans. This was all before he ever visited Africa. His first trip there was in 1961, as part of a U.S. cultural delegation that included Hughes, among others. Weston’s 1964 album Highlife: Music From the New African Nations anticipated the American obsession with West African rhythms nearly a decade before his peers. After a 14-country tour in 1967, Weston settled in Tangier, Morocco until 1972, opening a jazz club called African Rhythms there.
By then, Weston had fully established his own inimitable sound on the piano. He’d shown a natural affinity for the blues, and had also grown up with Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a bassist of Sudanese descent who was proficient on the North African stringed instrument the oud. Weston was fascinated and tried to incorporate it into his already percussive piano technique. And he had been tutored as a young pianist in the 1940s by Monk, whose influence can still be heard. Monk never attributed his angular style to African origins, but for Weston, there was little question about the matter. “At first I didn’t understand what he was doing,” he said in a 2010 AllAboutJazz interview, “but I went back again, and what I can say about Monk is that I heard ancient Africa in his music.” That’s what Cuscuna meant by the “real deal”: instead of grafting African rhythms and spirits onto American jazz, Weston divines them from the inside.