It's America in the early 1930s and Randy Weston is growing up in New York City, where all of the era's social changes -- including the Great Depression and an increasing influx of non-European immigrants -- are evident to both him and his parents. In fact, according to Weston's biography, African Rhythms, Weston's father, a restauranteur of Jamaican descent who was born in Panama, tells his son, "Never forget what you are. You're an African. Though you were born here in the United States, you are an African. An African born in America, do you understand? Wherever you travel all over this planet, you must always come back to her."
In retrospect, it's easy to understand why Weston would, during a stellar career as a jazz pianist, fuse African rhythms and musical structures into the American art form he first learned in the clubs of New York. And it's easy to understand why in the '60s and '70s Weston would settle in Africa, making a home for himself in Tangier, Morocco like other American expatriates, including Paul Bowles and William Burroughs. He was different from Bowles and Burroughs in two crucial respects: Weston was a family man, taking his children with him to the continent; and Weston is black, his mission in Africa was to showcase the deep connections between Africa and the African diaspora. That's still his mission, which is why Weston is in such a state of despair. In the United States, he says, new generations of Americans lack even a passing understanding of Africa's historic importance to jazz and other cultural traditions that we now think of as strictly "American."
"If more people understood the contributions of Africans to civilization, it'd be a different world," Weston tells me in a phone interview from his home in New York. "People know little about Africa's contribution to America. Slavery was a sad story, but a beautiful story came out of it through the emergent blues and jazz traditions."
Now 86, Weston has been in the top tier of his profession for the past 50 years, and he continues to accrue the honors of someone who has no plans to stop. Last year, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation named him a fellow in its prestigious program. The year before, Harlem's Apollo Theater honored Weston for his long career. And the year before that, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) inducted Weston into its Jazz Wall of Fame, putting him in the same company as Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. Weston had personal connections to all three jazz icons (as an up-and-coming artist, Weston once performed for Parker at the house of drummer Max Roach). More than any U.S. jazz artist still touring, Weston is a living bridge to America's jazz past, and to the promise that jazz can regain a popular foothold in the United States.
In recent years, polls have documented jazz's precipitous decline in audience appeal, especially among younger audiences. A 2009 survey by the Jazz Audiences Initiative showed that only 17 percent of jazz ticket-buyers are under the age of 45. And overall, according to the initiative, jazz-goers are devoting a much smaller proportion of their overall collections to jazz than in years past. Like other jazz stalwarts, Weston thinks this trend can be reversed through education programs, particularly programs aimed at school-aged children.
"They took music education out of schools, and children don't know about jazz," Weston told me. "Everyone should know who Louis Armstrong is. We have to get to the 4- and 5-year-olds, and let them know jazz is the only new music of the 20th century. Jazz is the classic music of America."
"In the '50s and '60s," Weston adds, "jazz music was always being presented on television, like on the Jackie Gleason show. Today, it has absolutely no (place) on television."
I first saw Weston perform at the 1996 Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco, then at a 2008 arts conference in Tangier. Both times, Weston played with Gnawa musicians, African-Moroccan artists whose centuries-old, string-based music provides an ideal counterpoint to Weston's piano jazz. Weston's albums feature this same seamless intertwining, with African rhythms playing off of Weston's keyboard work. On his 1960 release, Uhuru Afrika, poet Langston Hughes contributed lyrics, which were translated into Kiswahili, for Weston's song, "African Lady." In the album's liner notes, Hughes wrote, "When Randy Weston plays, a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet, emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea."
I would add this: Having met Weston in person, and having listened to his music for many years, I can say that he retains an enthusiasm for jazz's potential that is remarkable. As he told me in our interview, "I loved this music with a passion before I ever played a note."
Randy Weston's African Rhythms Trio performs at Yoshi's Oakland on Friday, July 13, 2012, and Saturday, July 14, 2012. For tickets and more information, visit yoshis.com.
[Article modified July 10, 2012 to include reference to Weston's biography, African Rythms.]