African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston 1


For the last several years I’ve been thoroughly immersed in the deep, broad and multi-faceted challenge of working with pianist-composer Randy Weston on his autobiography.  I’m very happy to say that our book, African Rhythms: the autobiography of Randy Weston, composed by Randy Weston, arranged by Willard Jenkins, after our many travels and painstaking work — not to mention the fact that neither of us is retired and must still work for a living, which stretched the project out a bit time-wise — will be published by Duke University Press in 2009.  NEA Jazz Master pianist-composer-bandleader Randy Weston is very much the underrated and somewhat overlooked artist whose story is full of life’s twists and turns, all informed by an abiding African-centricity that is arguably without peer in the jazz world.  His life has been touched equally by not only Duke EllingtonThelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins and Melba Liston, but also by J.A. Rogers, Marshall Stearns, Cheikh Anta Diop, and the Gnawa Masters of Morocco, plus all manner of high masters, seekers, seers, soothsayers, and spiritualists across the globe… musical and otherwise.   


Thus we begin a series of anecdotes in this space from our book African Rhythms, leading up to the publication date.  One important figure in the life of Randy Weston is the great poet-author-social commentator and world traveler Langston Hughes.  You’ll find several mentions of Randy in Arnold Rampersad’s epic two-volume biography of Hughes and the pianist-composer speaks very fondly of his experiences with the writer, such as this tasty anecdote from their friendship.


    After "Uhuru Afrika" [Weston’s 1960 opus recording for United Artists, since reissued several times including most recently as part of the Mosaic Records "Randy Weston Mosaic Select" box set; for Uhuru Afrika Langston Hughes penned the liner notes and wrote lyrics for the suite’s lone vocal selection "African Lady"] Langston and I stayed close.  In fact when he died in 1967 at a French hospital in New York his secretary called and said "Randy, in Langston’s will he wants you to play his funeral with a trio."  I thought ‘man, Langston is too much!’  They had some kind of religious ceremony someplace else, which I was unable to attend.  But the ceremony Langston really wanted and had specified in his will took place at a funeral home in Harlem.  It was a big funeral home that seated over 200 people with chairs on one side of the place.  In the other room was Langston’s body, laid out in a coffin with his arms crossed.  The band was Ed Blackwell [drums], Bill [Vishnu] Wood [bass], and me.  They had arranged for us to play in front of the area of the funeral home where the guests sat, surrounded by two big wreaths.  Ed Blackwell got very New Orleans, very superstitious about the setting.  He said "man, I’m not gonna touch those flowers.  It’s weird enough we’re here in the first place."  So we had some guys move the flowers so we could set up the band.


    The people filed in and had a processional to view Langston’s body.  Lena Horne was there, so were Ralph Bunche, Arna Bontempts, and a whole lot of dignitaries.  We set up the band and I went outside for a minute to get a breath of fresh air.  Langston’s secretary came out and said "OK Randy, it’s time to start."  I said "where’s the minister?"  He said "there’s no minister, you guys start the service!"  I stayed up all night the night Langston died and wrote a piece called "Blues for Langston" because I knew he loved the blues more than anything else in the world.  He and Jimmy Rushing, those two guys really made an impact on me about the importance of the blues and what the blues really meant.


    Before we played I stood up and said "well folks, I wrote this blues for Langston Hughes since he loved the blues so much, so we’re going to play the blues."  We played one hour of all different kinds of blues and in between selections Arna Bontempts read some of Langston’s poetry.  The funniest thing I remember about it was that Lena Horne told me later "ya know, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know whether to pat my foot or not…"  But the story is that Langston put us all on.  Two weeks later I got a phone call from his secretary who said "Randy, I forgot to tell you, Langston said to be sure the musicans are paid union scale!"


Stay tuned to this space for further anecdotes from African Rhythms, detailing the rich life and singular life and times of NEA Jazz Master composer-pianist Randy Weston.  As the longtime member of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band, trombonist  Benny Powell has said "…With Randy Weston we don’t play gigs, we have adventures…"

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