African Rhythms

The Autobiography of Randy Weston

African Rhythms

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 51 b&w photos Published: October 2010

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Music > Jazz

The pianist, composer, and bandleader Randy Weston is one of the world’s most influential jazz musicians and a remarkable storyteller whose career has spanned five continents and more than six decades. Packed with fascinating anecdotes, African Rhythms is Weston’s life story, as told by him to the music journalist Willard Jenkins. It encompasses Weston’s childhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood—where his parents and other members of their generation imbued him with pride in his African heritage—and his introduction to jazz and early years as a musician in the artistic ferment of mid-twentieth-century New York. His music has taken him around the world: he has performed in eighteen African countries, in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, in the Canterbury Cathedral, and at the grand opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The New Library of Alexandria. Africa is at the core of Weston’s music and spirituality. He has traversed the continent on a continuous quest to learn about its musical traditions, produced its first major jazz festival, and lived for years in Morocco, where he opened a popular jazz club, the African Rhythms Club, in Tangier.

Weston’s narrative is replete with tales of the people he has met and befriended, and with whom he has worked. He describes his unique partnerships with Langston Hughes, the musician and arranger Melba Liston, and the jazz scholar Marshall Stearns, as well as his friendships and collaborations with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, the novelist Paul Bowles, the Cuban percussionist Candido Camero, the Ghanaian jazz artist Kofi Ghanaba, the Gnawa musicians of Morocco, and many others. With African Rhythms, an international jazz virtuoso continues to create cultural history.


“. . . Part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise. Mr. Weston is especially informative about how he briefly fled New York in his early 20s to escape the drug scene that was becoming endemic among young jazzmen, as well as about the making of classic albums like Uhuru Africa and Blue Moses." — Will Friedwald, Wall Street Journal

African Rhythms . . . will bring the jazz pianist-composer wider attention because he has a great story and a profound vision to impart. . . . [T]he man is a fascinating artist-teacher. His book is part musicology, part travelogue and part anecdote all woven together into a magnificent, insightful tapestry.” — Roger Levesque, Edmonton Journal

African Rhythms is a rich and heartfelt book, a good, informative read. My good friend Willard Jenkins (who is listed as arranger of it, with Weston as composer) has done an excellent job of organizing the material. His periodic insertions of the voices of many of the principals of the tale add flavor and perspective. Well done.” — A.B. Spellman, Chamber Music America

African Rhythms is filled with anecdotes told in a conversational and generous manner that brim with cultural history and pride.” — Clarence V. Reynolds, Network Journal

“[I] highly recommend this book for anyone that has a fascination for African music, culture, and of course the life of Randy Weston. In this autobiography, Randy does a great job of not only highlighting his music career, but also discussing the social and cultural barriers he had to constantly deal with, being an African-American jazz musician growing up in Brooklyn.” — Pat Les Stache, American Athlete

“Add this idiosyncratic autobiography to the mix and you have an even more vivid picture of who Randy Weston is – not just his influences, but his passions, experiences, and justifiable sense of having accomplished something worthwhile. On each page his personality comes through directly, especially since his ‘arranger’ Willard Jenkins has taken care to preserve the rhythm and flow of Weston’s voice as he told Jenkins his story during the lengthy series of interviews they did for this book.” — Pamela Margles, The Whole Note

“As much as anyone and in a singular way, Weston has shined a bright light on jazz as a confluence of sound, rhythm and spirit that emanates from African origins and speaks of a reality forever rooted in the experience of black people, wherever they’ve lived. . . . The new autobiography . . . [is] essential reading, and not just because Weston is one of jazz’s greatest living players and has a career path that overlaps with much of the music’s modern history.” — Larry Blumenfeld, Jazziz

“In this compelling autobiography, Weston outlines his upbringing in Brooklyn, his career as a jazz musician, composer, and bandleader, and most significantly his connection to the African continent. . . . Some chapters offer fascinating behind-the-scenes accounts of his travels throughout Africa and around the globe. Other chapters showcase his recording projects, his associations with jazz artists/composers such as Max Roach, Melba Liston, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie; and his tireless efforts to promote African cultural heritage. . . . Recommended. All readers.” — D. J. Schmalenberger, Choice

“No jazz fan should neglect Randy Weston.” — Greg Burk,

“Packed with fascinating anecdotes, African Rhythms encompasses Weston's childhood in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood—where his parents and other members of their generation imbued him with pride in his African heritage—and his introduction to jazz and early years as a musician in the artistic ferment of mid-twentieth-century New York.” — Bobbi Booker, Philadelphia Tribune

“Pianist Randy Weston is one of the most captivating figures in all of jazz, not only for his unorthodox rhythmic intricacies behind the keys and his eclecticism as a bandleader but also for his ceaseless world travel and his attempts to bridge his American upbringing with his pan-African past. Last year's African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston, published by Duke University Press, collected his tales of influence and adventure in his candid conversation style, showing the sparks of interest behind one of music's most challenging iconoclasts.” — Grayson Currin, Independent Weekly

“Randy Weston’s autobiography, African Rhythms, is a rich journey leading from his childhood in Brooklyn to Africa, around the world, and back again.” — David Greenberger, Metroland

“Randy Weston's long-anticipated, much-talked-about, consciousness-raising, African-centered autobiography, African Rhythms, is a serious breathe of fresh air and is a much-needed antidote in this world of mediocre musicians, and men. He takes the reader on a wonderful, exciting journey from America to Africa and back with the ease of a person who loved every minute of it. The book is hard to put down and is an engaging, pleasing literary work that is worthy of being required reading in any history or literature school course.” — Larry Reni Thomas, JazzCorner

“This is a worthy entry in the jazz-lit idiom and a fine account of a life well lived.” — March Chénard, La Scena Musicale

“This renowned jazz musician considers himself to be primarily a storyteller, and a central theme in this book and in his life is remembering where he came from, so that creating music is his way of connecting with his African heritage. A moving testament to a life well lived.” — June Sawyers, Booklist

“True jazz buffs will welcome this well-detailed, informative memoir, African Rhythms, by one of the most innovative musicians in America, Randy Weston, for it pays earnest tribute to the African origins, traditions, and their primary influence on the sounds that rose from Congo Square long ago. It is the finest jazz autobiography since that of the big band maestro Duke Ellington’s glorious remembrances, Music Is My Mistress. . . . Brilliantly rendered, intricately detailed, African Rhythms, a true collaboration between Weston and Jenkins, is a wonderful testament to a wise, spiritual man’s soulful quest to embrace the knowledge of his ancestors and elders while composing sounds that enlighten and nourish the heart.” — Robert Fleming, African American Literature Book Club

“Weston and Jenkins have created a delightfully unusual autobiography. African Rhythms lets this musical giant take you into one of the richest lives you are likely to encounter anywhere.” — Dave Barber, Inside CityFolk

“Weston’s book, African Rhythms, is just as powerful as his music, more so because it pierces the mind with stimulating words that will feed the spirit and may move readers to action. The life of Weston takes you on an exciting journey from Brooklyn to Africa, around the world and back again.” — Ron Scott, Amsterdam News

“Whether advocating black musicians' rights in the 1960s, recording with traditional African musicians in the 1990s or inaugurating the new Library of Alexandria in Egypt in the 2000s, the common thread which runs through African Rhythms is Weston's enduring love affair with African culture and its importance as the progenitor of jazz and pretty much everything else besides. This is an important addition to the jazz historiography and a long anticipated read for fans of this giant of African American music, aka jazz.” — Ian Patterson, All About Jazz

African Rhythms is perhaps the next truly wonderful jazz autobiography. It succeeds so fully not because of hyperbole or personality but because Weston—a pianist and composer criminally underappreciated even among serious jazz fans—has a unique musical story to tell. This story is highly recommended to jazz listeners, in large part, because it makes you want to dive back into one of the most gripping discographies in the music. . . . If you haven’t heard Weston’s music, really listened to it, then African Rhythms is the strongest possible incentive to tune in. Is there any higher praise for a book about music than that it got you to start listening?” — Will Layman, PopMatters

“No one has done more to explore and celebrate the African roots of jazz than pianist/composer Randy Weston. Weston demonstrates a pride in his ancestry and culture that is both the primary source of his artistic inspiration and the central theme that suffuses this fascinating autobiography. . . . Weston refers to himself as ‘a storyteller through music’ rather than a jazz musician. He's unsurpassed as a goodwill ambassador.” — Jay Trachtenberg, Austin Chronicle

“Now in his 80’s, Weston, in this book, sounds eternally optimistic and full of wonder about his life. He comes off as joyous and spiritual as his music. Reading this is enough to make you want to dig out whatever Weston CDs you might have and listen to them again with a greater understanding of what went into the music. This book is worthy of his expansive talents.”
— Jerome Wilson, Cadence

“Randy Weston is a monumental figure in contemporary jazz, a man whose creativity remains undimmed at the age of 83. He is a living link with the golden era of the 1950s and 60s, a time during which trailblazing musicians and revolutionary thinkers wholly energised African-American arts and politics. As this absolutely fascinating biography reveals, Weston. . . has lived a very full life that has seen him not only excel as a musician but also make hugely important cultural and political statements that had the intent and effect of uplifting blacks in America during a time of second class citizenship. A recurrent theme in the text is thus Weston’s focus on concrete initiatives to improve civil rights. . . . Essential reading for anybody interested in learning something of a great man as well as a great musician.” — Kevin La Gendre, Jazzwise

“Randy Weston knows more about jazz and more about Africa than most of us. Hence this book—more musical, philosophical and spiritual, with a more personal voice than most jazz autobiographies—is loaded with knowledge and insights about both topics. . . . From Stearns to the Gnawa musician healers of Morocco, from poet Langston Hughes to Dizzy Gillespie, Weston’s fascinating journey is well worth the read.” — George Kanzler, All About Jazz

“Weston has dedicated his life to spreading African music throughout the world and forging a bond with his identity as an African American musician. African Rhythms ably recounts his sometimes arduous journey to becoming a true cross-cultural ambassador.” — Jon Ross, DownBeat

African Rhythms is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Randy Weston—pianist, composer, bandleader, activist, ambassador, visionary, griot—takes the reader on a most spectacular spiritual journey from Brooklyn to Africa, around the world and back again. He tells a story of this great music that has never been told in print: tracing its African roots and branches, acknowledging the ancestors who helped bring him to the music and draw the music from his soul, singing praise songs for those artistic and intellectual giants whose paths he crossed, from Langston Hughes to Melba Liston, Dizzy to Monk, Marshall Stearns to Cheikh Anta Diop. And in the process, Mr. Weston bares his soul, revealing a man overflowing with ancient wisdom, humility, respect for history, and a capacity for creating some of the most astoundingly beautiful music the modern world has ever experienced.” — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“Randy Weston is a magical, spiritual, ebullient, and generous soul who just happens to be one of the most original composers and pianists of the last sixty years. African Rhythms is his fascinating story in his own voice—a story that starts in Brooklyn and moves through the Berkshires, Africa, and Europe before returning to Brooklyn. A wonderful read.” — Michael Cuscuna, jazz producer and writer


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Randy Weston is an internationally renowned pianist, composer, and bandleader living in Brooklyn, New York. He has made more than forty albums and performed throughout the world. Weston has been inducted into the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame, designated a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and named Jazz Composer of the Year three times by DownBeat magazine. He is the recipient of many other honors and awards, including France’s Order of Arts and Letters, the Black Star Award from the Arts Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana, and a five-night tribute at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Willard Jenkins is an independent arts consultant, producer, educator, and print and broadcast journalist. His writing has been featured in JazzTimes, DownBeat, Jazz Report, Jazz Forum, All About Jazz, Jazzwise, and many other publications. He contributed two chapters to Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Arranger's Preface / Willard Jenkins xi

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction 1

1. Origins 5

2. Growing Up in Brooklyn 18

3. The Scene Shifts to the Pacific 28

4. Postwar: Escaping the Panic 37

5. Post-Berkshires: Succumbing to the Irresistible Lure 55

6. Enter Melba Liston 70

7. Uhuru Afrika: Freedom Africa 82

8. Making the Pilgrimage 102

9. Touring the Motherland 114

10. Making a Home in Africa 135

11. Connecting with the Gnawa 171

12. Building a Life in Tangier: The African Rhythm Club 183

13. Festival Blues, Then Divine Intervention: Blue Moses 194

14. Post Morroco and the Ellington Connection 206

15. Compositions and Sessions 220

16. The African Rhythms Quintet 235

17. The African Queen 252

18. The Adventures of Randy Weston 262

19. Ancient Future 278

Conclusion: Randy Weston . . . Philosophically Yours 299

Discography 305

Awards and Citations 323

Index 325
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, 2011 ARSC Certificate of Merit in the category of Best Research in Recorded Jazz Music

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