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Out of Africa

Well versed and well traveled, Randy Weston defined "multicultural" with his blend of jazz and African traditional music decades before the term became a divisive sociopolitical catch phrase. As if the 72-year-old pianist ever really had a choice in the matter.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, during the Depression, Weston lived in a neighborhood overflowing with disparate cultures and musical styles -- from jazz to traditional African music, from calypso to classical, from gospel to Arab strains, and on and on.

"I grew up being a tremendous jazz fan, collecting records, arguing, who was better: Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young?," Weston recalls. "My neighborhood was musically very rich. Music was everywhere. There was no television, no disco. [Laughs.] Everybody in the neighborhood knew where Lester Young was playing. It was such a wonderful period."

Already six feet tall by the age of 12, Weston originally set his sights on basketball and football. But his father had other ideas, and Randy reluctantly took piano lessons instead. His father's plans worked out pretty well. Weston is now a pioneer of African-influenced jazz whose work has been lauded in jazz circles the world over. He's been honored by King Hassan II of Morocco; he's been appointed Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture; he's been honored on the Celebrity Path in Brooklyn. And he's also penned a few jazz standards, most notably the waltzes "Hi-Fly" and "Little Niles."

"I'm totally shocked," Weston says of the response to his musical ideas. "I've become very humble. I don't know how it happened, because I grew up in the era of some of the greatest composers, some of the greatest pianists in the history of our music."

Weston came up during the '40s and '50s, when jazz was extraordinarily competitive. By the time he was 20, the bebop explosion was in full force, with pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell virtually redefining their instrument. Meanwhile, Art Tatum was intimidating every jazz pianist on the planet, Duke Ellington was the premier composer, Nat "King" Cole was still leading a remarkable jazz trio, and young pianists like Oscar Peterson and Billy Taylor were making their mark. Then there was Weston's cousin, the late Wynton Kelly, a pianist who injected earthy blues influences into bebop. (For those keeping score, Weston's other musical cousin is noted jazz-funk bassist Marcus Miller.) Such an atmosphere demanded the most from a musician, lest he be forgotten.

Entering the music business at 23, Weston played in some rhythm and blues bands, including one led by Houston alto-saxophone legend Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. He then moved into bebop, doing stints with Kenny Dorham and Art Blakey. Not surprisingly, a crucial component of his career was his friendship with Thelonious Monk; he even took lessons from the enigmatic musician.

"The first time I went to see Monk, I went to his house and he didn't say anything," Weston remembers. "I asked him a lot of questions and he didn't answer anything at all. I sat in his house for several hours -- just silence. I put it all together and I realized that there's another way of communication besides the spoken word. The next time I went to see Monk, he played the piano almost two or three hours for me.

"He had that other kind of communication. I think if you were in tune with it, it seemed very natural."

After releasing a series of successful '50s bebop recordings that owed much to Monk and Ellington, Randy Weston looked beyond 52nd Street for inspiration. His 1960 recording Uhuru Afrika -- a five-movement suite with several percussionists, including Houston's G.T. Hogan, and 13 horn players -- proved to be pivotal in its heavy reliance on African influences. Music influenced by the Big Continent from the likes of John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand and others would soon follow. Uhuru Afrika led to future efforts, most notably Monterey '66 -- which proved to be anything but dichotomous in its mixing of cultures.

Weston visited Africa in 1961 and 1963. In the late '60s, he moved to Morocco to run a club that centered on African and African-derived music. He stayed until 1972.

"I discovered the power of music like never before in Africa," Weston says. "Every song, every piece, every rhythm has a meaning, a story. To be a master musician in traditional societies, you not only have to play well, you have to be respected by the community. You have to be a very spiritual person. You have to know certain spiritual laws. Here in the West, all we have to do is play well. We can be the biggest scoundrels in the world, and if we play well, everybody loves us. In Africa, no."

From the mid '70s to the late '80s, Weston recorded sporadically, but he still toured heavily, mostly in Europe. His position as an innovator was already secure. Then in 1989, Weston began his association with the Verve label, for which he has recorded ten albums in the past eight years, including tributes to Monk and Ellington. Having all that music out there has boosted Weston's popularity in the United States, though he doesn't look to critics or sales for validation.

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