Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Conversation With Randy Weston

Randy Weston radiates greatness.

The legendary jazz musician possesses a rare combination of gentle grace and regal bearing. Even people who have no idea that the 83-year-old was apprenticed by Thelonious Monk, was produced by Duke Ellington and was a collaborator with the likes of Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus surely recognize that Weston exudes a powerful energy. It was all I could do to keep from bowing in his majestic presence during the hour I spent with Weston Thursday morning at the American Jazz Museum.

Other obligations prevented me from attending Weston's free presentation at the museum that evening. One friend characterized Weston's performance as "simply stunning." Another associate, Joel Francis of The Daily Record, was part of the audience of about 200 people. "The music was spellbinding," he reported. "It was incredible to witness a musician of this caliber in such an intimate setting. "

Weston's beautiful Senegalese wife was on hand and a television cameraman made a brief appearance. Otherwise, museum C.E.O. Greg Carroll (below) and I had the pianist and composer to ourselves. I recorded the discussion, but the roar of vacuums and the relentless chirp of smooth jazz spilling in from the museum's atrium make a complete transcription impossible.

A few choice quotes from our conversation follow.

"I feel the spirit of my Creator and the spirit of my grandfather." - how he experiences the music of Africa

"You are an African born in America." - the message given to him by his grandfather

"You have to study the great empire of Africa." - a suggestion that has informed his life

"I wanted to look at African music from an African perspective." - about Uhuru Afrika, the sadly out-of-print landmark recording

"Randy Weston, thanks for giving me Africa." - what he was told by Dee Dee Bridgewater

"I wanted to find out where the hell we came from." - about his exploration of Africa

"That's our music. That's where we all come from. That's why we all feel it." - of humanity's common African heritage

Music and spirituality
"I make to communicate with people. I'm having a spiritual dialogue with people. Every time I perform I have a spiritual experience." - on the power and the meaning of music

"Charlie Parker is just as spiritual as Mahalia Jackson. In Africa they don't separate the secular and the spiritual. It's all one." - on the artificial separation of secular and sacred music

"All of us were little boys in bow ties. None of us could go party after that. We went home and went to bed." - recalling a Saturday night performance by Mahalia Jackson

"Our music is based on love. Our music is based on respect. Respect to our family, elders and ancestors."- about the meaning of his music

"Music is our real language. God is the real musician. We are all the messengers." - on the significance of music

"If you know there are cosmic rhythms you can reach other dimensions." - on the use of music by African tribes to expand consciousness

"You can't become six until you're five. You can't play the song of a 60-year-old until you've been 59." - on musical progression

"Music was created to soothe you. The other side of music is music to stir you." - on the power of music

The decline of jazz in popular culture
"We don't have access to the media. We don't exist." - in response to Carroll's disappointment about poor attendance at the press conference

"We have average music. We have average times." - on the domination of popular music

"People are hungry for something new." - on why he believes jazz will enjoy a resurgence in popularity

"Our music is not defined. They don't know who we are." - on jazz' unpopularity among black Americans

"Our music is only meant to get to the few. Our music has always been an intimate music. We're like chamber music." - citing reasons why jazz isn't more popular

Defining jazz
"I've always considered my music African rhythms." - how he describes his style of music

"Jazz is African music in the United States." - on his dislike of the word "jazz"

"I call it spiritual music." - on his preferred definition of his music

(Original images by Plastic Sax. I'd to thank Suzetta Parks for allowing me the great privilege of meeting Weston.)