Book Review: African Rhythms: The Autobiography Of Randy Weston (Refiguring American Music)
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
True jazz buffs will welcome this well-detailed, informative memoir,
African Rhythms, by one of the most
innovative musicians in America, Randy Weston, for it pays earnest tribute
to the African origins, traditions, and their primary influence on the
sounds that rose from Congo Square long ago. It is the finest jazz
autobiography since that of the big band maestro Duke Ellington's glorious
remembrances, Music Is My Mistress. "Arranged" by jazz writer-producer Willard Jenkins
from a collection of interviews and observations over a four year period, it
spans over 60 years of Weston's personal and creative life.
Weston, 85, has his West Indian father to thank for his African cultural consciousness, which was nourished by his immersion in the richness of the Brooklyn jazz scene, the sanctified Black church, the down-home blues, and the lilting calypso from its immigrant neighbors. The pianist learned a deep appreciation of the Mother Country from the works of J.A. Rogers, Alain Locke, Father Divine, and Marcus Garvey, The book conveys some of the magic of those Brooklyn years, detailing the closeness of that black-and-tan community before the advent of the Second World War II.
It is to his credit that Weston is so forthright about the decline of Black Brooklyn post-war with drugs and crime, and very candid about his escape and revitalization in the Berkshires. Road tours in the late 1940s only strengthened his musical chops and resolve. By the politically liberating times of the 1950s and 1960s, he embraced a Pan-Africanist consciousness, reveling in the fire of independence of his African brothers and sisters from colonialism. He visited there in the first half of 1960, which is summed up in his classic big-band recording, Uhuru Africa. The soul of this memoir centered around Africa with its culture and music, its many memorable festivals, its collaborations with the master musicians. Look for his marvelous encounters with Fela Kuti, the wizard of Afrobeat, and the Gnawa musicians of Morocco. In fact, Weston lived there in Morocco, running a jazz club for six years.
Uhuru Afrika / Highlife
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Audio CD (July 1, 1991)
Number of Discs: 1
Every page in this remarkable book has Weston's significant memories of the people and places he met. His story is replete with such names as Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Melba Liston, Leonard Bernstein, Ava Gardner, Yusef Lateef, Nina Simone, and so many others. There is not any gossip or dirt about these people, because everything is about the purity and integrity of the music that Weston loves so much.
Listen to his words about why jazz , this richly accented African music, bewitches us, the listener: "Each piece is a message; it's like speaking, you can speak and people can get bored to death with what you're saying, but when you speak if you put certain accents on certain words your speech can be more interesting. I learned from Duke that you have to constantly tell the story of that song." (pg. 218)
Brilliantly rendered, intricately detailed, African Rhythms, a true collaboration between Weston and Jenkins, is a wonderful testament to a wise, spiritual man's soulful quest to embrace the knowledge of his ancestors and elders while composing sounds that enlighten and nourish the heart.