Randy Weston is one of the elder statesman in jazz. At 83, he has been at this before many of his listeners were born. He does not tour or record as much as he used to, so it was a very special occasion when Weston entered the stage at Yoshi’s in San Francisco on February 7, 2011 for a one-night, one-time special performance.
He was there to promote his new book, his first book, African Rhythms. Befittingly, he was interviewed by Anthony Brown, a UC Berkeley jazz professor, drummer and popular bandleader who had once produced an interview with him for the BBC.
At 6’ 7” Weston, clad in his customary African-derived garb, is an imposing presence. He has been gigging since the 1940s and was in the US Army during World War Two, operated a restaurant, before releasing his first album “Cole Porter In a Modern Mood” in 1954; Down Beat then voted him “New Star Pianist” in its 1955 International Critics Poll of 1955. Since then his singular percussive style has continued to evolve. Through it all he has stressed his belief in “one humanity.”
During the half-hour of back and forth Weston told any number of stories including how he had had piano lessons for 50 cents per and how the teacher an older female had hit him on his hands with a ruler when he made mistakes. He also talked about watching Monk play with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and at Monk’s home where Monk had sagaciously advised him to “listen to all kinds of music.” He told us “I love Basie” and that pianist Art Tatum was so gifted he was “frightening.” The late famed drummer Max Roach introduced him to Ghanian musician Guy Warren whose composition “Memory of Love” is a Weston staple as well as to Haitian music.
Randy who once owned a nightclub in Morocco lauded the Gnawa musicians with whom he has performed and recorded and talked about ten superb days he had spent in Ghana — an experience which marked his first homecoming to Africa. “I knew I was home” he told us.
Then it was time for him to sit down and play the grand piano. He began with Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and then segued into other compositions by Duke including the rhapsodic “Jitterbug Waltz.” As he played he taped a foot clad in a large polished black shoe and the spider-like fingers of his right hand traveled up and down the keys. He ended the evening with "Hi-Fly" (first recorded in 1958) Berkshire Blues and Little Nile (which “I wrote for my son.”)
A standing ovation brought an encore “The Healers" which Randy introduces as “a tune I wrote about in my mind what it must have been like to have made the first musical instrument....music is magical.” He concludes with a short cacophonous flourish.'