Randy Weston, jazz griot, dies at 92

Ron | 9/13/2018, 3:03 p.m.
Randy Weston, the Brooklyn native and son of Africa, died peacefully Sept. 1, at his brownstone in Brooklyn. He was ...
Randy Weston's wife Fatoumata Mbengue-Weston (middle) Risasi Dais

Randy Weston, the Brooklyn native and son of Africa, who made the history of the motherland a prerequisite to his live performances and many albums such as “Uhuru Afrika” (1960), died peacefully Sept. 1, at his brownstone in Brooklyn. He was 92.

His wife of 17 years, Fatoumata Weston, confirmed his death.

The NEA Jazz Master was presented The Founders Award by the Jazz Gallery in 2018, and that same year in July, he performed at the 70th anniversary of the Nice Jazz Festival. In 2002, he performed with bassist James Lewis for the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt. During the same year, he performed with Gnawa musicians at Canterbury Cathedral at the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury.

Weston also played at the Kamigamo Shrine in Japan in 2005. During one of my visits to Japan with the singer/songwriter Okaru Lovelace, she took me to the shrine and introduced me to the soryo (minister). He informed me the space was so crowded he had to allow people to sit upstairs (which really wasn’t a sitting space). He praised Weston’s memorable performance, how he played with the local musicians using their traditional instruments and the great respect Japan had for him.

“In the late 1970s I had the first opportunity to perform with Randy at a fundraiser for SWAPO to raise funds for support against apartheid in South Africa (this showed his commitment to the struggle for civil and human rights worldwide),” said his longtime band member T.K. Blue. “It was the first time I played ‘Hi Fly,’ one of his compositions that is an international jazz standard.”

Weston’s group of more than 40 years was named African Rhythms for a reason. It was the music of the ancestors that predated slavery.

Weston’s music, from “Uhuru Afrika” (Roulette, 1960) to “Sound—Solo Piano” (African Rhythms, 2018), the last album before his death, was a swinging totality of African beats kissing blues spirits dancing with the history of our ancestors as their voices reflected on ancient civilizations while the maestro’s bold piano melodies called upon musicians with traditional instruments to be a part of this musical equation that some call jazz.

Such was the music that played for two consecutive days during the Wake and Homegoing Service for Randy Weston. Rain fell profusely throughout the celebration. However, that didn’t seem to stop the griot’s many fans, students and friends from around the world.

So many people attended his “wake” at the Frank Bell Funeral Home in Brooklyn it was difficult to step inside the door. The aisles were filled with chairs, and a few people sat on the floor.

Rain was pouring, but inside an oasis appeared where a celestial being illuminated the entire space. It was warm and bright, and love and harmony was in the air, along with big smiles, tears, sadness and mighty joy. That was the emotional mosaic of colors filtering into the room, as Randy Weston lay in his coffin dressed like an African king, a musical warrior in his fine blue robe and fila.

The smile on his face gave me a sign he had already left that empowered 6-foot-7 frame and was now our celestial being, who illuminated the room so brightly as the ancestors welcomed him home. As he took his seat next to his parents, Vivian and Frank Weston, they watched from above as we mere mortals gave praises to the great man, who had given us so much.

Yes, I can say the Rev. Dr. Herbert Daughtry, New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron and his wife, Danny Glover, Viola Plummer, Gail Boyd (Randy’s longtime attorney) and Bertha Hope spoke and although their experiences were different, the words and praises were one. Afterward, as we went our separate ways, we realized those nouns such as friends, fans and even family all meant one thing: We were all Randy Weston’s grateful students.

The following day (Monday) the rains continued as more than 1,000 people filled the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the homegoing service for Randolph Edward Weston.

The huge castle-like church was filled to capacity as the family walked in under the echo of African drums that rattled your soul to the core, making you want to shout, “Randy I’m here.” The mighty drums played on louder and louder in praise and awe of this great human being now gone. The mighty drums were the same ones that were banned during slavery.

The mighty drums played as people stood silent, as some clapped and some whispered stories of Randy. Some took photos as the drums roared on. The same ones that were banned in Marcus Garvey Park some years ago—something to do with gentrification. And the drums played on for a giant of a man who stood for the things he knew were right.

This big day was the “homegoing.” No more seeing Randy, not even in his human shell that smiles. At this moment, the ancestors were giving him his crown for work well done. Don’t you see it sparkling? Don’t you see the glow? Look up toward the cathedral’s vast ceiling. That has to be his crown sparkling because it’s dark outside.

Shhhh! The many speakers have begun. They came from as far as Senegal, France and Switzerland. Weston’s longtime friends and collaborators, Willard Jenkins and Robin Kelley, were the hosts. Speakers included Maurice Montoya (Randy’s booking agent for many years), Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director and vice chair of the Jazz Foundation of America, Jean Phillipe Allard, this writer, Wayne Chandler, actor Delroy Lindo, Professor YaaLengi Ngami and Acklin Lynch.

Randy’s longtime band, African Rhythms, performed his composition “Hi-Fly” with saxophonist/flutist T.K. Blue, bassist Alex Blake, percussionist Neal Clarke, trombonist Robert Trowers and saxophonist Billy Harper with special guest pianist Monty Alexander, Cecil Bridgewater and Louis Hayes. The great percussionist Candido also joined the stage, with performances by Minh Xiao on pipa and Malaam Hassan Jaffar on guimbri. What a homegoing. By now he has reached home and is settling in with the ancestors, speaking of what should and can be down here among us mortals.

What of his music? Well, let’s see. The bible has its holy scriptures, the Quran is the central religious text of Islam and the “African Cookbook” represents Randy Weston’s kaleidoscope of music. Granted “African Cookbook” is the title of his 1969 album for Polydor, but it is most apropos for his recordings from 1960 to 2018. It a guide for us to listen and follow from “African Nubian Suite” (2-CD set), “The Storyteller,” “The Spirits of Our Ancestors,” “Blues to Africa,” “The Healers,” “Nuit Africa” and “Uhuru Afrika” to “Sounds: Solo Piano.” In his seven decades, he has recorded more than 70 albums.

My thoughts on visiting Randy—It was more than a mere house visit. It was a short journey to Mecca, a shrine in the midst of Brooklyn’s Clinton-hill section, where family, scholars, musicians and friends from around the world visited.

His residence was The International Cultural University of Randy Weston. On my visits, I always had my notebook and pen—No telling where his journey of words would take us.

Taking notes wasn’t a good idea. When you are in the presence of a master, paying close attention is key—watching his mannerisms and that big smile kept you engrossed.

Our conversations covered what most college courses missed: Ancient world history (the ancient empires of Africa), African history and African-American history. He discussed these topics not only in his home but also during his many performances around the world, from Bill’s Place to Sistas’ Place to Paris, Senegal and Japan.

He discussed ancestors, such as the Black queen Candace, Empress of Ethiopia (332 B.C.), one of the greatest generals of the ancient world, and Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Jimmy Rushing, Melba Liston, Thelonious Monk and Candido. His tenor voice flowed like the waters of the Euphrates River.

He was like Dr. Ben. He laid his facts out, sharing the ancestors’ contributions to the world before the birth of Christ, the purposely lost facts that were deliberately left out of the history books. “The strong truth comes from our ancestors,” Randy said. “This isn’t about me. It’s about the ancestors.”

When I left his universal brownstone, I felt invigorated. I held my head a little higher and straightened my gait, and like my mentor, I was showing off a big smile. This anointed griot had equipped me with a spiritual knowledge of African culture and moved me with his music.

And like any good professor, he gave me materials to ponder from books to DVDs or CDs. Listen to the double CD-set “African Nubian Suite.” “It’s all in there,” he said to me as I left a few weeks ago.

That was the magical power of Randy Weston. His conversations were always a learning experience. After leaving his presence we were inspired to do more, to strive to a higher state of being.

And now we have to dig a little deeper, because he has joined the ancestors who he loved and respected so much. We might not be able to touch him or physically see him, but he lives in our souls and African rhythms dance in our veins like the Niger mambo.

To keep his flame burning, we must take up his tradition of sharing the history of our ancestors, from the ancient empires of Africa to its musical roots of this music we call jazz.

Randy said, “It’s not about me, it’s about the ancestors. It’s about the music, not me.” Well, now he is an ancestor and it is about him.

Randy Weston, we will love you as long as the African winds whisper your name, and that is for eternity.

Weston’s son Azzedin predeceased him. He is survived by his wife, Fatoumata Mbengue-Weston; three daughters, Cheryl Weston-Farella, Pamela Weston, and Kim Weston-Moran; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.