When Randy Weston talks about his roots, he goes back a lot further than childhood or his parents’ record collection. He means the origins of humanity.
Though genre specialists point to his pioneering meld of African folk influences and jazz, the pianist aims for something much deeper than a mere technical achievement.
“You can be in St. Louis, you can be in Argentina, you can be in Cuba, or you can be at the North Pole. When the ancient ancestors of Africa touch you, you fall in love with the African culture,’’ he says. “To go forward we got to go back.’’
The seemingly indefatigable musician celebrated his 87th birthday this month amid a series of quintet performances in New York City. He’ll cap a two-day residency at the New England Conservatory with a free concert at Jordan Hall on April 18, for which he’ll be backed by the NEC Jazz Orchestra, directed by Ken Schaphorst. Its 18-student membership will swell with various guests for selected tunes, prompted by the wide range of influences reflected in Weston’s work, from Moroccan Gnawa music to the big band format in which he set his first Afro-jazz opus (“Uhuru Afrika’’ in 1960) and to which he’s frequently returned.
As a young musician in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Weston might have emerged on the scene during the late-1940s flowering of bebop; he even remembers showing a new composition to an approving Charlie Parker while hanging out in the kitchen of his neighbor, Max Roach.
But he hadn’t yet decided to pursue music full-time and was busy running his family’s luncheonette. Seeking a reprieve from city summers and the discouraging prevalence of heroin he saw around him, Weston visited Western Massachusetts in 1954, working assorted jobs at Berkshire summer resorts.
Incredibly, it was a dishwashing job that gave him his first foothold at the Music Inn in Lenox, where Columbia University professor Marshall Stearns convened roundtable discussions on the history of African-American music, and luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis taught at the short-lived but influential Lenox School of Jazz.
Weston already had a deep interest in African history and culture from his father. In Lenox, he saw the historical and cultural dots connect.
“I met Mahalia Jackson doing a class in the afternoon on African spirituality in the black church. Dr. Willard James [of Spelman College] would teach me about field hollers and how we communicated when we couldn’t speak the European languages, how we had that cultural memory going back to thousands of years of African civilization,’’ Weston recalls in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “You usually just heard about slavery and colonialism.’’
He’d play the house piano after work, and among those attracted to his Thelonious Monk-influenced style was the head of the Riverside record label, who promptly signed the 28-year-old to his first professional contract.
Though he wrote some of his best-loved tunes around that time, like “Berkshire Blues,’’ “Little Niles,’’ and “Hi-Fly,’’ it was with “Uhuru Afrika’’ that he fully committed to the commingling of modern styles and ancient sounds that distinguishes his most memorable work.
Weston first visited Africa the year after that album’s release, and he returned for a tour in 1967 that inspired him to settle in Morocco for several years. He opened a nightclub in Tangier, booking a mix of acts from Congolese vocalists to Gnawa masters and a Chicago blues band.
“Whether you call it hip-hop or jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba or the black church, it all has that African pulse, that African spirituality,’’ he says. “It’s the African pulse that’s in all of our music, wherever we were taken, whatever we came in contact with — whether it was a piece of wood, or a washboard, or a rubber band, or making music with our feet and our hands.’’
Weston has worked prolifically in the solo, small-group, and big-band formats, though frequently to indifferent commercial response. After a relatively sporadic output in the 1980s, he announced a creative resurgence with the double album “The Spirits of Our Ancestors’’ in 1992, kicking off a fruitful era that continues today. He was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2001, but he still inhabits that indeterminate territory of the somewhat under-the-radar legend.
His decades-long musical relationship with the late trombonist Melba Liston yielded many of the arrangements for Weston’s full-band efforts. All the material in the April 18 concert is sourced from her arrangements.
Schaphorst excavated a
Liston arrangement of Weston's “Sweet Meat’’ that seems never to have been played in concert. “It's a real pleasure to work on these arrangements with the students because they're so well crafted,’’ he says, “but for me the real treat is to hear Randy himself.’’
Though Weston is a frequent speaker at schools and an on-stage storyteller, he says his ongoing inquiry is spiritual, not intellectual.
“I heard a magic in the music. The magic of Mother Nature,’’ he says, “the magic of the galaxy, the magic of the stars — the magic that African people were in tune with.’’