Randy Weston—jazz pianist, composer, bandleader—turned 80 last year. Along with a few other generation be-boppers, such as Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones, Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, he is one of the last survivors from the halcyon days of what was then being called modern jazz.
Weston studied with Thelonious Monk at Monk’s apartment in the late ’40s. He sat and listened for three years while Monk played his eccentric, boppy, poignant style of Harlem stride piano. He remembers that Monk had a photo of Billie Holiday on the ceiling above his piano that served the purpose of a Greek Orthodox icon. From Monk he learned that conventional virtuosity was not all there was to playing jazz piano.
Weston’s piano style is closer to Monk’s manner than any other jazz pianist, but with his own personal rhythmic and harmonic take on that style. He is like a Monk from an alternate universe or the son of Monk. He also learned from Ellington, Basie, Nat King Cole and Art Tatum. From Tatum he learned that conventional virtuosity was still a part of playing jazz piano.
Weston’s task, and that of the whole second generation of boppers, was to synthesize and give system to the mercurial innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Sonny Rollins and Max Roach, Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra all responded to this task in their own unique ways. All of them, and many other jazz musicians throughout the history of this music, have shown an interest in the music of Africa. For the last 45 years Weston has applied what he received from Monk, Diz and Bird, especially Monk’s practice of thematic improvisation, to his study and work with African music and musicians.
He first went to Africa in 1961 when he played in Lagos, Nigeria. He returned to Lagos two years later and in 1967 took his sextet across the whole continent. The next year he settled in Rabat, Morocco playing an increasingly African influenced music with his trio in a nightclub he ran through 1972.
He learned that the piano, besides being capable of playing the harmonic and melodic complexities of a Mozart sonata, could also be a drum, a pitched percussion instrument. A wealth of classic compositions, including such jazz standards as Little Niles, Berkshire Blues, The Healers, Blue Moses and Hi-fly, were the fruit of that knowledge. Among a wealth of brilliant recordings, he has summed up his American roots with beautiful tribute albums to his heroes, Monk and Duke Ellington. Last spring, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he brought the Gnawa Master Musicians of Morocco with him for the SFJAZZ Festival, combining the power of Islamic Sufi mysticism with the jazz musicians’ voodoo mysticism.
For his current gig, he is joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, a long-time colleague. Harper has also worked extensively with Art Blakey, Max Roach and Elvin Jones, all of whom had a deep interest in African rhythms and percussion. Although Weston has played in concert in the Bay Area not infrequently over the last few years, this will be his first club date locally in a long time. The combination of Weston with a hard-edged reed player like Harper in the intimate setting of a jazz nightclub harks back to the good old days when hard bop was heard every night in Lower Manhattan at places like Slug’s and the Five Spot. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear and don’t miss this modern jazz master.
Randy Weston, along with tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, will perform two shows daily Friday through Sunday at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. For more information, call 238-9200 or visit www.yoshis.com.
Photograph: Jazz legend Randy Weston is one of the last survivors of the halcyon days of modern jazz. He performs this weekend at Yoshi’s in Oakland.