Randy Weston, 92, pianist whose jazz compositions explored music’s African beginnings
The foundation of Randy Weston’s music was in Brooklyn, N.Y., where legendary jazz drummer Max Roach was a neighbor, but his recording career was launched at the Music Inn in Lenox, rather than his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
“Drugs hit our community after the Second World War,” he told the Globe in 1999. “Many of my buddies were affected, and I wanted to get out of New York. Fortunately, I got a job as a breakfast cook in the Berkshires, and started playing solo piano at night in the hotels. That’s when I received a lot of encouragement, and where the people heard me who gave me my first recording contract.”
The chance encounter launched a career that lasted decades and was still going strong when he died Saturday, at 92, in his home in New York City.
His attorney, Gail Boyd, said in a statement that she spoke with Mr. Weston and his wife and business partner, Fatoumata Mbengue Weston, on Friday “and he seemed the picture of health as we discussed plans for travel and performances across the US, the Caribbean, and Africa. His sudden death is another reminder that we all need to live life to the fullest, and Randy did just that, bringing love and joy to his family, friends and fans.”
Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal called Mr. Weston “the jazz world’s leading proponent of African music and culture,” and wrote that he was “the acknowledged heir of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk in the realm of composer/pianists.”
Performing often in Boston, Mr. Weston staged the world premiere of his composition “Three African Queens” in 1981 during the National Center of Afro-American Artists’ Night at Pops in Symphony Hall.
He also had held residencies at Harvard University and New England Conservatory, where his compositions were performed by the Harvard Jazz Bands and the NEC Jazz Orchestra.
At 92, he was showing no signs of slowing down, listing upcoming dates on his website and performing in July with his African Rhythms Quintet at the Nice Jazz Festival in France. A towering presence, his height was listed variously from 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8.
Wherever he played, however, his music had a geographic home. “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,” Mr. Weston told the Globe in 2013. “To go forward we got to go back.”
His love and scholarly knowledge of African music was informed by more than studies at home. He began visiting the continent decades ago, “and was on a State Department tour during my third visit in 1967 when I decided to stay,” he recalled in the 1999 Globe interview.
“I lived in Morocco for seven years and visited 18 African countries,” Mr. Weston said. “I went to find out why I play like I play, and learned that I am a messenger with a duty to take my message to the world. It made me appreciate people like Louis [Armstrong] and Duke more and more, how they created such beauty out of such pain.”
For three of those years, Mr. Weston ran a club in Tangier, “where they speak Arabic, Spanish, and French. I spoke none of those languages,” he told the Globe. “It was totally crazy, but it was something I had to do. That’s the magic of music. It’s like a spiritual train. Get on that train and you’ll have some incredible experiences.”
Mr. Weston was born in Brooklyn on April 6, 1926. His mother, the former Vivian Moore, was from Virginia and was a domestic worker. His father, Frank Weston, was a Panamanian immigrant who worked as a barber and restaurateur and influenced Mr. Weston.
“My father, Frank Edward Weston, is from very proud people, and he wanted to instill that pride in me,” Mr. Weston recalled in 1999. “He loved Africa, and told me as a little boy that I had to know my ancestral home. He insisted on two things — that I study African history from before the continent was invaded, and learn to play the piano. Mom gave me the church and the blues. It was a wonderful foundation.”
While studying piano, he worked in his father’s restaurant. “We were open 24 hours a day and all of the musicians hung out there,” Mr. Weston recalled. “We had a gallery with articles about Dizzy [Gillespie] and Monk on the walls, and a jukebox where you could hear Stravinsky and Bartok as well as Duke and Sarah [Vaughan].”
He would later celebrate the music that was all around in his youth in his composition “African Village/Bedford-Stuyvesant.”
Roach “lived 3 blocks from my house, and his door was always open,” Mr. Weston told the Globe. “That’s where I met Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and George Russell. Between Max’s house in Brooklyn and Monk’s house in Manhattan, man!”
Among Mr. Weston’s best-known compositions included “Hi-Fly” (1958), and albums such as “Little Niles” (1958), “Uhuru Afrika” (1960), “African Cookbook” (1969), and “Blue Moses” (1972). His 50th album, “The African Nubian Suite,” was released in 2016.
For decades, he collaborated with arranger and trombonist Melba Liston, who died in 1999.
The National Endowment for the Arts honored Mr. Weston in 2001 with a Jazz Masters award, the highest accolade for jazz artists in the United States. In 2016, he was inducted into the hall of fame of DownBeat, the jazz magazine.
Mr. Weston received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and he held honorary doctorates of music from Brooklyn College, Colby College, and the New England Conservatory. His papers are archived in Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
“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 told the Globe in 2013. “It’s the African pulse that’s in all of our music.”
Mr. Weston’s first marriage, to Mildred Mosley, ended in divorce, according to The New York Times.
He subsequently married Fatoumata Mbengue, who was born in Senegal. She had received a graduate degree in accounting in Paris and had opened an African shop there when she met Mr. Weston.
The Times reported that in addition to his wife, Mr. Weston leaves three daughters, Cheryl, Pamela, and Kim; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.
Mr. Weston’s publicist said in a statement that a service will be announced.
“I’m really a storyteller through music,” Mr. Weston wrote in the 2010 book he authored with Willard Jenkins, “African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston.”
From childhood to his final performances in his 90s, Mr. Weston’s influences and collaborators included everyone from “grandmaster drummer Max Roach,” friends in Brooklyn, Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
“I’m constantly assembling all these forces to create my message,” he wrote, “a message which comes directly through me, passed down from the ancestors and ultimately from the Creator.”
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.