Jazz musician

Born: April 6, 1926;

Died: September 1, 2018

RANDY Weston, who has died aged 92, was a jazz giant in every sense. At 6’ 8” tall he was an imposing presence with extra-large hands but his style at the piano was always nimble, elegant and persuasive and his compositions, which included the jazz standards Little Niles and Berkshire Blues, will carry on his name wherever jazz is played across the world.

Born in Brooklyn, New York to Frank, a restaurateur from Panama, and Vivian from Virginia, Weston was brought up very much aware of his African heritage. His father told him he was an African who happened to have been born in the US and encouraged the young Randy to investigate African history beyond colonialism and slavery. They often went together on trips to museums to look at artefacts from Nubia and Ghana and learn about the great African empires.

At home the family listened to music constantly. Jazz, particularly Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, was a favourite but blues, calypso and gospel music figured strongly too. They also attended classical music concerts and the opera and Randy was sent to piano lessons but he did not become involved with the instrument until he found a teacher who encouraged his interest in jazz.

Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Nat King Cole and Art Tatum were piano royalty to Weston and although he was playing at dances and functions by his mid to late teens, he did not harbour any ambitions of turning fully professional in those days. In 1944, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the army and served three years in an all-black unit, spending much of that time in Japan where he shared leftovers with local people who had lost everything during the war.

On returning to Brooklyn he took over his father’s restaurant and befriended musicians including Thelonious Monk. For Weston, Monk’s piano playing sounded like he thought people might have played in Africa 5000 years before and he absorbed much of Monk’s style as well as that of Duke Ellington.

In his mid-twenties, Weston felt ready to become a full-time musician. He played with saxophonist-blues singer Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and rhythm and blues bandleader Bullmoose Jackson but soon escaped New York to get away from the heroin that he had begun dabbling in. He worked as a breakfast chef in the Berkshires in rural Massachusetts where he met the scholar and historian Marshall Stearns. Stearns asked Weston to accompany his lectures, which drew a lineage between jazz and the folkloric music of West Africa, and important connections were made as Stearns introduced Weston to Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, Cuban percussionist Cándido Camero and Sierra Leonean drummer Asadata Dafora.

Back in New York, Weston was full of musical ideas and recorded his first album, Cole Porter in a Modern Mood, for Riverside Records in 1954. The following year he was voted the new star pianist in the prestigious DownBeat magazine’s International Critics Poll and when he released his next album, which featured Art Blakey on drums, he debuted a new piece, Zulu.

Weston first visited Africa in 1961 on a trip to Nigeria with an American Society for African Culture delegation that included Nina Simone, bandleader Lionel Hampton and the poet Langston Hughes, who wrote the lyrics to Weston’s Uhuru Africa album. On another tour in 1967, organised by the American State Department, the final stop was Morocco, and Weston immediately felt at home. He made arrangements to move there as soon as he returned to the US and for the next seven years he lived in Rabat then Tangier, running a venue, African Rhythms to illustrate the African roots of jazz and blues, and using Morocco as a base for extensive touring across Africa and Europe.

While living in Tangier he befriended the master of gnawa, North Africa’s spiritual music, Malem Abdellah el Gourd and for the next 50 years they enjoyed an association that saw them touring the world and playing concerts including one in Canterbury Cathedral. Weston’s interest in gnawa and his determination to bring it to wider attention would eventually lead to him receiving a special presentation from King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

After he moved back to New York, Weston visited Africa regularly. He continued to create music that reflected the continent’s traditions and when the record company CTI invited him to record his Blue Moses album for the label, he accepted. He was quite surprised to discover, when the test pressing arrived, that the arrangements that his long-time collaborator, trombonist-composer Melba Liston had lovingly prepared had been swamped by orchestrations. He accepted the results, which also featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham, with good grace as CTI’s commercial acumen gave him, he joked, his one and only hit album.

Weston composed and recorded prolifically, winning Grammy nominations in both jazz and world music categories, and his many honours included a five-night celebration of his music at Montreal Jazz Festival in 1995, which featured gnawa and a duet with saxophonist David Murray, the French Order of Arts and Letters, and most recently, the Legends of Jazz award from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem last year.

He was planning to tour this autumn and is survived by his wife, Fatoumata, children, Cheryl, Pamela and Kim; seven grandchildren; six great grandchildren; and one great-great grandchild.