Remembering Randy Weston

April 6, 1926 – September 1, 2018

A tribute to the jazz pianist-composer

Randy Weston (April 6, 1926 – September 1, 2018), who recently passed away at the age of 92, was a major jazz pianist, a skilled songwriter, and a great believer in jazz’s connection to ancient African music.

Born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn, Weston studied classical piano and early on was attracted to jazz and swing music.

He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. and then ran his father’s restaurant while meeting many jazz musicians who ate there.

Inspired by Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Count Basie and most of all Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, Weston worked in the late 1940s with swinging r&b groups led by Bull Moose Jackson, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Frank Culley (with whom he made his recording debut in 1949).

After working with Kenny Dorham and Cecil Payne, in 1954 Weston recorded his first album as a leader, Cole Porter In A Modern Mood.

From that point on, Weston was primarily heard as a leader, recording an impressive string of albums for the the Riverside, Dawn, Jubilee, Metrojazz, and United Artists labels, introducing such originals as “Pam’s Waltz,” “Berkshire Blues,” “Little Niles,” and his best-known original “Hi Fly.”

In addition to leading a trio, Weston was often heard heading larger groups that emphasized modern music’s connections to Africa including on his albums Uhuru Afrika, and Highlife, both of which utilized the arrangements of Melba Liston.

In 1961 Weston traveled to Africa as part of a U.S. cultural delegation to Lagos, Nigeria.

In 1967 he returned to Africa, setting in Morocco where he lived and performed during 1967-72.

Back in the U.S. but traveling around the world, Randy Weston stayed very active up until his passing, playing a Carnegie Hall concert on his 90th birthday, and completing his autobiography (which was arranged by Willard Jenkins) African Rhythms in 2010.

Here is Randy Weston in 1985, leading his African Rhythm Orchestra at the Montreux Jazz Festival, performing “Hi-Fly”; baritonist Cecil Payne is among those featured.

-Scott Yanow