Tag: African American classical music

Omar Thomas Wins 2019 Revelli Award

A photo of a man with a black background and face paint

During the 2019 Midwest Clinic which was held over the course of four days (December 18-21, 2019) at McCormick Place in Chicago, the National Band Association (NBA) announced that Omar Thomas has been named the recipient of the 2019 William D. Revelli Award for his 2018 composition Come Sunday. The announcement that Thomas had received the $2,000 cash award, becoming the first African American composer so honored, capped a week during which there were several panels devoted to issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity at the annual Clinic, which is the world’s largest instrumental music education conference, drawing approximately 17,000 attendees.

Omar Thomas has been commissioned to create works for both jazz and classical ensembles and his works have been performed by such diverse groups as the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the San Francisco and Boston Gay Mens’ Choruses, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in addition to a number of the country’s top collegiate music ensembles. Born to Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1984, Thomas moved to Boston in 2006 to pursue a Master of Music in Jazz Composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the protégé of composers and educators Ken Schaphorst and Frank Carlberg, and has also studied under multiple Grammy-winning composer and bandleader Maria Schneider. While still completing his Master’s Degree, Thomas was appointed Assistant Professor of Harmony at the Berklee College of Music at the age of 23. He is currently on faculty in the Music Theory department at The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Omar Thomas’s first album, I AM, debuted at #1 on iTunes Jazz Charts and peaked at #13 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums Chart. His second release, We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements, was awarded two OUTMusic Awards, including Album of the Year. For this work, Thomas was also named the 2014 Lavender Rhino Award recipient by The History Project, acknowledging his work as an up-and-coming activist in the Boston LGBTQ community. Thomas is one of seven members of the Blue Dot Collective, a group of composers dedicated to creating new works for wind band that are “well-crafted, compelling, sincere, exciting, and fresh.” Music by Thomas was played twice during the 2019 Midwest Clinic. The Austin, Texas-based Grisham Middle School Honors Band, under the direction of guest conductor Jerry F. Junkin, performed Shenandoah, Thomas’s soulful and occasionally ominous 2019 reworking of the celebrated American folk song, and the Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina-based Wando High School Symphonic Band, under the direction of Bobby Lambert, performed the second movement of Come Sunday.

Omar Thomas describes Come Sunday as a “tribute to the Hammond organ’s central role in black worship services.”

Omar Thomas describes Come Sunday on his website as “a two-movement tribute to the Hammond organ’s central role in black worship services. The first movement, ‘Testimony,’ follows the Hammond organ as it readies the congregation’s hearts, minds, and spirits to receive The Word via a magical union of Bach, blues, jazz, and R&B. The second movement, ‘Shout!,’ is a virtuosic celebration – the frenzied and joyous climactic moments when The Spirit has taken over the service. The title is a direct nod to Duke Ellington, who held an inspired love for classical music and allowed it to influence his own work in a multitude of ways. To all the black musicians in wind ensemble who were given opportunity after opportunity to celebrate everyone else’s music but our own – I see you and I am you. This one’s for the culture!”

Thomas’s 11-minute, grade 6 work, received its world premiere on November 15, 2018 in a performance by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony under the direction of Anthony C. Marinello, ISU Assistant Professor and Director of Bands, at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall. It has subsequently been performed by the University of Miami’s Frost Wind Ensemble under the direction of F. Mack Wood, the University of Florida Wind Symphony under the direction of David Waybright in Gainesville, Florida, and the Michigan State University Wind Symphony under the direction of Kevin Sedatole, in East Lansing, Michigan, a video recording of which is embedded below.

The Revelli Award, which was established in 1977, is described on the website of the National Band Association as an accolade whose mission is “to further the cause of quality literature for bands in America. Works chosen as winners should be those not only of significant structural, analytical, and technical quality, but also of such nature that will allow bands to program them as part of their standard repertoire. Each year the contest receives approximately 50-80 entries from all over the world. Entries range in scope and quality and are from new to well-established veteran composers. During the evaluation process, entries are narrowed down to a select number of finalists, which are brought to Chicago each December during the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic. There, a panel of leading public school, university, and military band directors meets to determine a winner.”

The members of the 2019 Revelli contest selection committee were: Matthew McCutchen, University of South Florida (chair); Terry Austin, Virginia Commonwealth University; Marcellus Brown, Boise State University (ID); John Burn, Homestead High School (CA); Catharine Sinon Bushman, St. Cloud State University (MN); Col. Jason Fettig, U.S. Marine Band (DC); Jay Gephart, Purdue University (IN); Arris Golden, Michigan State University; Jennifer Hamilton, Red Mountain High School (AZ); Chadwick Kamei, Pearl City High School (HI); Tremon Kizer, University of Central Florida; Diane Koutsulis, Retired (NV); Jason Nam, Indiana University; Scott Rush, Fine Arts Supervisor, Dorchester School District (SC); Shanti Simon, University of Oklahoma; and John Thomson, Roosevelt University (IL).

Although Omar Thomas is the first African American composer to receive the Revelli Award, a female composer has still never received it.

Previous winners of the award include Donald Grantham and Steven Bryant (both of whom have received the award three times), John Mackey and Wayne Oquin (both of whom have received the award twice), Mark Camphouse, David Dzubay, David Gillingham, Jeffrey Hass, Ron Nelson, James Stephenson, Frank Ticheli, Swiss composer Oliver Waespi, and the late Michael Colgrass. British composer Philip Sparke (who has also received the award twice) and Swiss composer Oliver Waespi are thus far the only non-U.S. based composers to receive the award. Although Omar Thomas is the first African American composer to receive the award, a female composer has still never received it. (It should however be acknowledged that there were more works by female composers programmed during the 2019 Midwest Clinic than in any of its previous iterations. In addition to several works by Julie Giroux and Carol Brittin Chambers, concerts featured music by Jennifer Higdon, Kimberly Archer, and Karen K. Robertson. The Portuguese Orquestra de Sopros da Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa, under the direction of Alberto Roque, performed a movement from Carol Barnett’s evocative Cyprian Suite and two movements from Xi Wang’s Winter Blossom: In Memory of Steven Stucky, works which—along with Thomas’s music and Peter Van Zandt Lane’s Astrarum, performed by the Osakan Philharmonic Winds during the final concert—were personal favorites of the week.) A complete list of previous recipients of the Revelli Award is available on the website of the National Band Association.

The audience applauding at the conclusion of a wind band concert at the 2019 Midwest Clinic at McCormick Place in Chicago. Signage includes a composite image of flags from all over the world reflecting the nationalities of this year';s performing ensembles.

This photo of a portion of the audience for one of the wind band concerts at the 2019 Midwest Clinic should offer some idea of the vastness of this event.

Jeffrey Mumford: Creating a Different World

A photo of a man with a white beard against a brick wall

“I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation,” says Jeffrey Mumford, a composer who started off pursuing a career in the visual arts before music completely took over his imagination.

“I fully thought I was going to be an artist,” he explained during an hour we spent with him when he was visiting New York City for a performance last month. “I did lots of work in high school and I went to college as an art major. Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged. … I was working on it and then one day, there was white paint splattered all over it. Someone obviously didn’t like it. So I kind of ran to the music department for solace, because I was always interested in music anyway. … I came to realize that that was the best way I could express myself.”

Expression and, in particular, expressing himself his way, are paramount to Mumford, who has always rejected such binary polarities as atonality vs. tonality, Uptown vs. Downtown, or gnarly vs. lush. And he is particularly opposed to the belief that someone’s race, gender, or any other social categorization could or should determine the kind of music that person creates. According to him, “Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides. You offend these people who in the white community think that you’re encroaching on their turf and you offend people within your own community, unfortunately, who think that you’re writing white people’s music. I think I write my music. I write what I hear. I have many influences. … There’s no one such thing as black music. … If you’re a black composer, anything you write will be black music.”

In Mumford’s lexicon, Elliott Carter, with whom he studied for three years, “is a Romantic composer.” Yet at the same time, growing up “hearing Sarah Vaughan singing made a big impression” on him. Mumford’s eclecticism and refusal to be typecast might explain why his music was presented on one of the earliest Bang on a Can marathons.

  • Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • I think Elliott Carter is a Romantic composer.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • I fully thought I was going to be an artist. … Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • Increasingly the world we live in is not acceptable. So I want to create a different world.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • Eleisha Nelson should be much better known than she is …. She’ll never complain about a note. I can’t say that about everybody.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • Elliott Carter … was someone I felt very comfortable with. This legend and this little black kid from D.C.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • This Uptown/Downtown thing, when it was happening, I was always annoyed by these distinctions. Music is music.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • There are pieces where I’ve had to tear up several versions before I could get to the place where I wanted it.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • I really imagined the piece I wrote for Lina as a symphony for solo violin.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • I’m just so appreciative that I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing players.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • There’s no one such thing as black music.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • It would be nice if maybe you might want to program this piece in March and not February.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford
  • With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” … I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions.

    Jeffrey Mumford
    Jeffrey Mumford

Part of Mumford’s strong desire not be beholden to any particularly stylistic silo is that he wants “to create a different world” through his music. A through line, however, that connects a lot of his creative work is its evocation of clouds, which has fascinated him since his youth:

I used to look out the window in the summer time. There were thunderstorms all over the place in D.C., and the sky would turn purple and green. And you’d see these masses of clouds splitting off and recombining. That was so inspiring to me. Then still thinking I was going to be a painter, I just wanted to grab them, bring them into my room, and play with them. But those images have never left. So musically I want to recreate this sense that you can create an environment that you can live in among these clouds.

Certainly the beautiful aphoristic titles of Mumford’s compositions—e.g. her eastern light amid a cavernous dusk or of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light—evoke cloud imagery as well as poetry, and in so doing perhaps encourage a different kind of listening approach than if he simply gave his compositions the generic names based on instrumentation that so many other composers do, e.g. for the two examples cited above: Wind Quintet No. 1 and Cello Concerto.

But in addition to all of this ethereal inspiration, Mumford is also deeply rooted in humanism and wants his music to be a galvanizing force for making the world a better place and for people to think beyond simple answers. He was particularly passionate when he recounted the story of the Cleveland Orchestra premiere of the comfort of his voice, a work he wrote in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

An usher who’d been there for a long time came up to me and said, “Thank you for your piece. It wasn’t ‘We Shall Overcome’ again. It was much more complex because the man was so much more complex.” … With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the numerous other anthems that inspire our community, I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions. Does that make sense?  Then this usher came up to me and said thank you. “This piece for me meant a lot, to hear that you took a different approach than a lot of composers have taken when given this opportunity to do that.”

Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Jeffrey Mumford at the home of Bärli Nugent in New York, NY
May 22, 2019—11:00 a.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

  • If I feel the need to testify, that’s what I’m gonna do!  And I always encourage the people to do the same.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I always go with the feeling.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • A Yoruban priest gave me the name Hannibal in Brooklyn at the Blue Coronet.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I don’t follow people.  Humans did not give me the music.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I had ‘Trane in my head since I was 13.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • The spiritual land mass of humanity is music.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • What our world and what our nation are going through now is giving birth.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • The paradigm of what is called classical music is something that’s in flux now, too.  As it should be.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • To heal, you must become what you’re singing.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • We’re all in a prison, brother.

    Hannibal Lokumbe

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”


Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Plus Ça Change: Florence B. Price in the #BlackLivesMatter Era

A black and white photo of a mother and daughter

“While more and more blacks are being driven into homelessness,” a classical music fan fumed, “Mostly Mozart is rewarded with government, corporate, and media support.” The problem? No black composers on the program—not even Mozart’s great contemporary, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

We can easily imagine this critique as a sick Twitter burn from last summer, or last week. Calls to diversify classical music programs intensify regularly. But the sad truth is that many organizations are reluctant to pursue any path other than business as usual. (Others certainly aren’t.) Perhaps sadder still, the comment above dates from 1987. Mike Snell, a reader of Raoul Abdul’s music column in the New York-based Amsterdam News, wrote Abdul to eviscerate the media for not highlighting the systemic racism underpinning the lack of black representation on the concert stage.

Plus ça change.

Returning to the present: the music of one black composer, Florence B. Price, has experienced an extraordinary surge of public interest over the past year, mainly on the heels of extensive coverage of violinist Er-Gene Kahng’s world premiere recording of her two violin concertos in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Prominent U.S. orchestras, including the New Jersey Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra, programmed Price’s music during their 2018–19 seasons. The Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra recently released the world premiere recording of her Fourth Symphony on Naxos Records. And more ensembles will likely take up the mantle, both in the United States and around the globe. The Chicago Symphony, for example, recently announced that it would perform Price’s Third Symphony in the 2019–20 season.

Given the longstanding historical exclusion of African American composers, Price’s sudden rise to stardom might raise a few eyebrows. Is the sudden widespread interest in Price’s music a convenient fad? Are predominantly white institutions exploiting her legacy for short-term gain—what Nancy Leong has called “racial capitalism”? These are the right questions to ask. Their skeptical slant is justified when a major trade publication can obliviously describe women composers as “in vogue.” And it would be far from the first time that white musicians bolstered their careers on the musical labor of black women, or that black women’s musical accomplishments have faced unfair scrutiny upon entering white public consciousness.

We can only speculate about how Price’s resurgent presence on the concert stage might bring about deeper structural changes over the long term. But, if we listen carefully, her unique experiences as a composer and as a black woman present us with a more immediate opportunity to name and fight racial injustice today. Mike Snell’s complaints—and those of concerned musicians before and after him—show that time has refracted these injustices to the present.

Plus ça change, indeed.

Open Our Ears

The persistence of anti-black racism in classical music spaces stems largely from the white majority’s refusal to engage meaningfully with black voices—or even to listen. In a detailed critique of the new music communities in which he has participated, composer Anthony R. Green encourages us to “trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. When our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.” White people, even those with anti-racist sympathies, often recoil at the suggestion that they have harmed people of color and shift the discussion to defend their motivations—a phenomenon multicultural education expert Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” But the fact that Green’s observations are not new simply proves the point.

Green’s critiques revolve around the classical music industry’s propensity to pigeonhole black composers as “one-trick ponies.” This dehumanization, he argues, occurs when concert organizers think about music by black composers only during Black History Month or, in more recent years, for concerts with a social justice theme. “While this is not necessarily negative,” he adds, “the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked.” Florence Price’s daughter, Florence Robinson, expressed similar frustrations after Price died in 1953. Artists were happy to perform Price’s arrangements of Negro spirituals, but she found no advocates for her mother’s symphonic compositions.

Once a black composer finds an advocate, however, another problem is that concert organizers do not always think through the implications of poor framing. Price’s Symphony in E Minor, which Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra famously premiered in June 1933, appeared on a program ostensibly devoted to celebrating black musical achievement.

CSO program, June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 15 June 1933

It featured tenor Roland Hayes and pianist Margaret Bonds as soloists in addition to pieces by Price and Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But the opening number was an overture by John Powell, an avowed anti-black eugenicist. Powell’s presence was an acute indignity for Price and the other black performers, especially since Chicago’s black newspaper, the Defender, had publicly criticized Powell earlier that year.

To make matters worse, the event occurred the night after a concert celebrating American music, which had not only neglected to include any black musicians, but highlighted George Gershwin’s symphonic jazz compositions—pieces epitomizing white appropriation and presumed “elevation” of a fundamentally black style. Were African American musicians not American? The juxtaposition is startling.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Critical comparisons between the two shows were inevitable. One critic wrote about both as a unit. “Gershwin,” she observed, “looks like his music,” while John Alden Carpenter (whose Concertino had appeared on the second program with Margaret Bonds as soloist) “took up the white man’s burden” for the evening. Price, in contrast, “was given to little communicative inspiration.” By what standard we’ll never know. And black musicians of the era were painfully aware of these racist gaffes and slights, as William Grant Still, a composer who had grown up with Price in Arkansas, demonstrated in scathing commentary published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1950.

Fifty Years of Progress in Music

“Fifty Years of Progress in Music,” Pittsburgh Courier, 11 Nov. 1950

But what choice do black composers have in the matter given the racist status quo? Is saying no to a major opportunity a viable option, especially if it puts food on the table? In September 1940, a conductor in Detroit approached Price about setting up a performance of her orchestral music. He was “quite anxious to do something from your pen,” he told her, and asked for information about her orchestrations of black folk dances. Sensing the urgency of the situation, she sent him her abstract Third Symphony instead, along with a letter that has since become one her best-known artistic manifestos. Making sure he knew the character of the piece was unlike what he had requested, she added, “The other two movements—the first and the last—were meant to follow conventional lines of form and development.” The conductor had no choice but to program the piece, given few ready alternatives. But Price took a significant professional risk by not conceding to his original demands.

Price to Frederick Schwass

Price to Frederick Schwass, Florence Price Papers, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Mullins Library

As these episodes show, ignorant, racist framing of black music prevents black composers from fully expressing their artistic visions and hampers listeners from approaching a piece on its own terms. Unilateral concert planning carries the risk of reifying racist norms. Creating a just environment means working with composers to find a frame that shows their music at its best. And here we can take a cue from history as well—from a 1935 performance of Price’s Piano Concerto given by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra in which the evening’s featured black musicians had taken an integral role in planning.

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

#BlackLivesMatter and Classical Music

Following Trayvon Martin’s brutal murder in 2012, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomeli inaugurated the Black Lives Matter movement to publicize the precariousness of life itself for black Americans in a violently racist society—and, of course, to rectify the injustices underpinning it.[1] The halls of classical music may seem far removed from these issues, but only because they have remained predominantly white spaces. Indeed, as historian Kira Thurman has shown, classical music (even whistling it) could not protect Draylen Mason, a young bassist from Austin, Texas, from the bomber who targeted African American homes and ultimately killed him. White people must confront this stark reality, despite the luxury of being able to avoid it.

In her reflections on Mason’s death, Kira Thurman has explained that “we don’t know how to talk about” black classical musicians because “to be black and a classical musician is to be considered a contradiction.” This insight suggests that conventional writing about classical music and musicians tends to emphasize white (male) lineage and benevolence, usually at the expense of people of color. Stating one’s position in a prominent network, for example, is meant to be a signal that talent and grit, rather than race, gender, or status, led to success. Doing the work of justice will therefore entail developing a language that breaks reliance on white patriarchal norms and captures the nuance of an individual’s full humanity.

The experience of blackness cannot be reduced to violence, but I emphasize violence here since it has experienced its own series of refractions over the past several centuries—from family separation and horrific physical abuse under slavery, to lynching under Jim Crow and decades of unchecked police brutality. The pall of violence is so pervasive that many African American parents pass strategies for navigating it to their children in a family ritual known as “the talk.” And, as black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks have argued, black women are uniquely vulnerable.

Price was no exception, since violence had dramatically shaped both of her parents’ lives. A group of Irish bullies, for example, nearly assaulted Price’s father when he was a young man living in New York City simply for “wearing a tall silk hat” on the sidewalk. In a draft of his memoirs, Price annotated this moment as “the lynching.” Price’s mother, meanwhile, was abducted and nearly raped as a teenager in Indianapolis. Both were squarely middle-class, indicating that a relatively high socioeconomic status could not mitigate their victimization.

Conventional biographical writing about classical musicians leaves virtually no room for examining race-based experiences like these that might shape a musical career. The official biography of Price featured on the website of her current publisher, G. Schirmer, emphasizes her relationships to white institutions and teachers but elides the circumstances that brought her into contact with these individuals in the first place.

Price studied at the New England Conservatory, for example, but not because it welcomed her as an African American. Instead, her mother insisted that she take advantage of her racially ambiguous skin color to pass as a woman from Mexico and avoid unnecessary scrutiny of her African ancestry. This decision was not only a safety measure, but as historian Allyson Hobbs has shown, carried the potential to destroy families separated by the artificial color line. Likewise, though Price continued to study with prominent teachers in Chicago, as the biography states, she went to Chicago to flee from racist violence in Arkansas that culminated in an especially grisly lynching.

"Mob spokesmen asked Carter if he had any last requests. He asked for a cup of water and a cigarette, and these were granted, as was his request to say a final prayer. Members of the mob then put a rope around his neck, threw the noose end over a utility pole, and forced him onto the top of a car. One of them drove the car away, leaving Carter hanging from the pole. The mob then pumped more than 200 shots into the dangling corpse."

Description of a lynching

Further, musicologist Rae Linda Brown has shown that domestic violence caused Price’s marriage to fall apart shortly after the move, leaving her to raise her two young daughters with the assistance of a community of black women on the city’s South Side that included dear friend Estelle Bonds and her daughter, Margaret Bonds. That Price thrived in these environments says far more about her and the racist and misogynist circumstances she faced than the prestige that might have accrued from any institutional affiliations.

Justice, then, includes allowing a musician’s true self to be fully present when facing the public—to appear “at our best,” as Kira Thurman has called it. She explains that black classical musicians “embody the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung, making the familiar strange and uncanny. Our performances and our musical experiences challenge the bounds of blackness and whiteness and the histories of racial oppression that have tried to culturally and musically determine both.” Like Anthony Green, she insists that denunciations of racial profiling and critiquing structural inequality don’t have to come at the expense of aesthetic enjoyment—that violence and beauty are equally powerful. Papering over one or the other merely reifies centuries of structural inequality by sweeping it under the rug.

A Renaissance

Historical erasure is perhaps the most acute consequence of the institutional oppression and misunderstanding that Green and Thurman highlight. And here Price’s story offers another cautionary tale.

In 2009, a pair of renovators, Darrell and Vicki Gatwood, found a substantial cache of Price’s manuscripts —roughly thirty large archival boxes—at Price’s abandoned summer home near St. Anne, Illinois. These materials eventually moved to the Special Collections division at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library. This discovery and acquisition marked a true watershed for Price scholarship and advocacy, which had grown slowly but steadily with the limited materials Price’s daughter had already sent the university shortly before her death in 1975.

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009 Photo: Timothy Nutt

Price’s daughter, in fact, had struggled to find performances and publication outlets after her mother died in 1953. Some people tried to help but couldn’t, and she was occasionally suspicious of opportunists seeking to capitalize unfairly on her mother’s dwindling legacy. Things took a turn for the worse in 1974 when she became too ill to manage her mother’s affairs any longer. Barbara Garvey Jackson, a musicologist at the University of Arkansas, had been in touch her and finally convinced her to send a few manuscript scores to the university, including the famous symphony premiered by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.

With these slivers in hand, Jackson planted the seeds for a Florence Price revival by publishing a major biographical article in The Black Perspective in Music. Rae Linda Brown, a graduate student at Yale who had stumbled upon a manuscript of Price’s Third Symphony in an archival collection, soon joined her and became a new leading voice in the revival as she published numerous articles on Price’s life and music.

Over time, Jackson and Brown worked with several distinguished musicians and scholars, including Helen Walker-Hill, Mildred Denby Green, Althea Waites, Linda Holzer, Calvert Johnson, Trevor Weston, Karen Walwyn, and the Women’s Philharmonic to bring Price’s music to the public. This work culminated in Brown’s editions of Price’s Piano Sonata and First and Third Symphonies (co-edited with Wayne Shirley for the series Music of the United States of America published by A-R Editions), Jackson’s series of publications for ClarNan Editions, Weston’s reconstruction Price’s Piano Concerto, and several ensuing recordings. This extensive labor extends beyond the fact that Price’s vocal music has been a staple on vocal recitals, especially those given by African American performers, since the 1930s. Richard Heard collected many of these songs in his edition called 44 Art Songs and Spirituals.

After the St. Anne discovery, several new individuals became involved in this ongoing Price revival, most notably Arkansas-based composer James Greeson. He used materials from the new collection to form the basis for a 2015 documentary, The Caged Bird, which has screened at venues across the United States and has become a staple of educational initiatives around the country.

While researching black composers of the early 20th century, I visited the University of Arkansas in May 2016 to peruse the original Price archival collection but ended up using the entire new collection since it had opened to the public the previous year. A report on my work was broadcast over WUOL 90.5 in Louisville, Kentucky, a few weeks later. I collaborated with the station again in the summer of 2017 to host an all-Price concert at the city’s annual Muhammad Ali Festival, which featured members of the Louisville Orchestra giving a contemporary premiere of one of Price’s “lost” string quartets. The quartet segment was later rebroadcast nationally on the syndicated show “Performance Today.”

Meanwhile, other performing groups such as the Apollo Chamber Players, The Dream Unfinished, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the BBC Orchestra explored new areas of Price’s life and work.

Together, this collective but dispersed grassroots effort drew substantial new attention to Price’s life and music, which crested in the New Yorker and New York Times pieces mentioned earlier.

A White Savior?

If efforts to reinscribe Florence Price into the historical record were reaching new heights by the middle of 2018, what might the reification of structural inequality look like?

Publisher G. Schirmer announced last November that it had acquired worldwide rights to Price’s compositional catalog. In other words, the firm would serve as a clearinghouse for the publication, distribution, and licensing of Price’s scores. Previously, interested scholars or performers would have to visit the University of Arkansas to take photographs of the archival material (or pay the library for photographic reproductions) before engraving the music or performing from the manuscripts themselves.

Explaining the rationale behind the firm’s decision, promotional director Rachel Sokolow stated, “As more orchestras and presenters recognize the need to address diversity in classical music programming, we hope that Price’s oeuvre can be a valuable resource.” Citing the interest in Price that seemed to bloom after the extensive media coverage, G. Schirmer president Robert Thompson explained that it’s “important to insure that past composers like Julius Eastman and Florence Price are not forgotten, and that their legacies are living ones, celebrated through live performances and new recordings.”

On the surface, this may sound like a great idea with an ethical underpinning. Black composers like Price have obviously gone underserved for far too long. And the G. Schirmer website is far more convenient to access than a dusty archive. But, as musicologist Matthew Morrison’s work suggests, the firm risks joining the long line of predominantly white for-profit corporations hoping to circumscribe an equally white marketplace for black musical production if it overlooks the vibrant work that expanded the audience for Price in the first place.

At a glance, G. Schirmer’s official statements may seem reminiscent of what writer Teju Cole has called the “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” in which “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” Perhaps many organizations rushing to program Price’s music are riding an enthusiastic wave rather than redressing injustice. But Cole’s formulation also illustrates the sharp differences between how an organization perceives itself and what the historical record shows. “All [the White Savior] sees is need,” Cole writes, and “he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” In Price’s case, performing organizations neglected her music, but even G. Schirmer itself owns a small share of the responsibility for narrowing the marketplace and creating the lack of diverse programming we face today.

To wit: Marian Anderson premiered Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin in November 1939 at a Carnegie Hall recital, with a repeat in January. A representative from Theodore Presser jumped on the opportunity, but Price had so much leverage that she ended up going with G. Schirmer over an offer from the equally prominent Presser. In other words, G. Schirmer knew about Price and her music but offered to publish only a tiny fraction during her lifetime.

Songs to the Dark Virgin

Cover of Songs to the Dark Virgin, G. Schirmer, 1941

“When you [Anderson] introduce a song,” Price’s daughter once explained, “that is a signal for the publishers to try to persuade the composer to sign a contract for publication.” Price and Anderson worked together to capitalize on this knowledge of the system’s inner workings because Price occasionally had trouble finding publishers on her own. Ethnomusicologist Alisha Lola Jones has argued that this synergistic collaboration was a channel through which “black women empowered themselves to sound the (un)quieted, undisputed dignity of womanhood on the world’s stage” without the involvement of white benefactors.

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966, Marian Anderson Papers, University of Pennsylvania

But Price could not rely solely on a community of women to bring her orchestral music before the public, and therefore to have any hope of publishing it.[2] This institutional neglect of her music during her lifetime explains why so many manuscripts were awaiting “discovery” after her death in the first place. Promotional brochures dating from Price’s lifetime show that her prolific catalog was public knowledge throughout the industry. ASCAP, of which Price was the first African American woman member, produced these brochures and distributed them widely.

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Why did no one offer to work with Price or her daughter to secure a legacy—the kind of legacy that G. Schirmer is now rightly pursuing? Publishers? Conductors? Instrumentalists? Even in the supposedly vaunted world of classical music, profit-seeking considerations and their deep ties to systemic discrimination often trump ethical concerns. In the heady environment of an exciting renaissance, white organizations run the risk of refusing to acknowledge black voices, especially those of black women, virtually ensuring that these voices become unsung to their posterity.

Within the complex matrix of composers, publishers, venues, performers, audiences, and critics, we must all play a role in creating a just musical community. Or we will keep repeating the same patterns of oppression.

A Classical Postscript

As it turns out, Joseph Bologne’s music also has an esteemed but spotty publication history dating from his own lifetime in the late 18th century. Famous houses like Antoine Bailleux and Jean-Georges Sieber published him alongside J.C. Bach, Luigi Boccherini, and others. After a long publication hiatus, one of the foremost scholars of black music, Dominique-René de Lerma, worked with Peer International to publish a series of Bologne’s chamber music in 1978—a full decade before music fan Mike Snell wagged his finger at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival.

Plus ça change.


Thank you to Dr. Alisha Lola Jones and Samantha Ege for providing substantive feedback and additional sources for this essay.



1. BLM should not be confused with the Movement for Black Lives, which is a separate but occasionally overlapping organization.


2. University of York musicology Ph.D. student Samantha Ege is arguing in her dissertation that Price’s social circle did in fact offer material support for the Chicago Symphony concert once her piece became a viable option for Frederick Stock.

What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers

It has been more than six months since Helga Davis gave the keynote speech at the 2018 New Music Gathering. After a brief opener, she quoted August Gold—“If you want to know what you want, you have to look at what you have.”—and then proceeded to ask the audience to “look around the room, and see what the composition of [the] room [says] about what we want.”

Based on her challenge, we can ultimately conclude the following: if attending a music event and the people in the room of the event comprise mostly white cisgender men, then the greater collective “we” simply does not want people who are not white cisgender men to participate.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated, but for me this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming. After I attend concerts of music solely by composers who fit that expected image, the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” is inevitably evoked within me. Every time. In observing the greater world of classical music, the father of what we refer to as new music today, it is no wonder why black composers do not feel wanted. Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. Why not, for example, include Chevalier de Saint-Georges in a general music history class? After all, his career begins before Mozart’s (who utilized one of Saint-Georges’s melodic gestures in the finale of his Symphony Concertante in E flat Major, K364), his orchestra did commission and present the world premieres of the six Paris Symphonies by Haydn (all of which Saint-Georges conducted), and his own music was highly praised during and after his life. Yet his and other black composers’ non-existence in academic institutions tells black composers that we are not wanted, no matter how much success we gain. New music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today. Moreover, despite the recent increase in conversation about female, non-binary, transgender, and BAME/ALAANA/diverse composers, the programming of these composers has not significantly increased.

For many of us, there is a frustration. On the one hand, if the optics of new music are sending unwelcoming messages, then the next generation of would-be black composers will most likely not pursue composition. On the other hand, the general mistrust and falsehoods that exist within the new music community are already quite high, as evinced by #MeToo-related reports, countless social media posts and private conversations/confessions, stories of professors psychologically abusing their students or mis-teaching their students through their lack of honesty and inability to convey important messages, and more. Discussions about the semantics and accrual of commissions amongst composers of all levels are few and far between, and consequently the underpayment or non-payment of composers for new works occurs more frequently than what may be imagined. Professional recommendations for opportunities do not happen nearly to the extent that they could for all composers, and all of these injustices disproportionately affect black composers. Additionally, the number of ensembles directly reaching out to black composers is not significant enough to noticeably bring these composers parity. There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

It must be noted that it is impossible for me to comment upon every smaller, interior facet of new music with regards to such behavior; there are certainly localities and communities which are more welcoming, open, and inclusive than others, and I would love to learn more about this work that is being accomplished. However, if the aforementioned reality is true for any composer (as it certainly is for me), then the new music community not only has the responsibility, but also the incentive, to change. How, one might ask? There are some EXTREMELY simple steps:

Anthony R. Green introduces the "Freedom Rising"

Anthony R. Green introduces the “Freedom Rising” project by Castle of our Skins at the Museum of African American History’s African Meeting House, Boston, MA; IMAGE: Monika Bach Schroeder

1) If you are an active soloist or are in or run an ensemble of any size, program music by black composers. Program all of it, not just the “socially aware” music. Program it as part of events that happen in months other than February or March. Arrange portrait concerts. Arrange a non-“social justice”-themed concert and program works by black composers which fit this theme, and don’t make a big deal about the identity of the composers. After performing these works once, perform them again, and again, and again, for many years. Make them regular works on concerts. Give them to your students to study.

2) If you do not know any music by a black composer, create a playlist and have weekly listening sessions. Listen often. Listen to music that you do not like. Find music that you like and love. Engage with it critically, but respectfully. Mention black composers in conversations; when you are talking about how cool Gunther Schuller was, don’t forget Ed Bland or Julia Perry. When you are talking about how cool Chaya Czernowin is, don’t forget Tania León and Marcos Balter.

3) Share what you know and what you have learned about black composers. Outside of sharing this information with students and in conversations, write blog posts. Write articles. Make vlog posts and podcasts. Make memes and post them on your social media channels. Share stories and information and anecdotes on social media and other platforms. Share YouTube and Vimeo videos of performances and interviews. Hold listening parties. Spread the word about helpful resources, ensembles, organizations, and other entities doing such work in a powerful, significant way. Encourage people in your community to engage with this work, and be curious.

4) Demand more from your musical sources. Write to your radio stations, to your favorite YouTube channels, to your favorite ensembles; ask your teachers to include more music by black composers in the theory classroom, in the history classroom, in your private lessons. Those who have power will not know what the demand is until the demand is made. If there is really a demand, then make it known.

5) Support black composers and the soloists, organizations, and ensembles that program their music. Castle of our Skins (of which I am a co-founder) is one of a handful of organizations whose seasonal programming regularly consists of at least 90% music by black composers (as attested by its repertoire list), and it is, contrary to popular business-model or donor-related expectations in music, a successful organization. If you are in a position to commission or create an opportunity for a composer for a project, consider reaching out to a black composer, then work with that composer, support that composer financially, professionally, and emotionally. Do not give up on that composer, because perhaps that composer already feels abandoned by the new music and classical music communities.

6) When a black composer is expressing a grievance, listen with all you have. While conversations about black underrepresentation in classical music are generally positive and well-meant, such conversations are almost pointless if they do not include the voices of black people. Trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. We want to talk, but “it’s a privilege to be able to critique without professional fears.”* At one point in my life, I did not have this privilege. Perhaps I still do not have it. But when our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.

Lastly, remember to keep Helga Davis’s challenge within you at all times. When you are at a music event, especially a new music event, look around, see what is missing, and ask yourself what that says about what you truly want.


* My first encounter with this phrase was in the article: “Classical music’s white male supremacy is overt, pervasive, and a problem,” by Daniel Johanson, for Scapi Magazine, February 18, 2018. This article has since been removed from Scapi, but appears on other websites in various formats.

Randy Weston: Music is Life Itself

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

It has been more than three quarters of a century since the bebop revolution transformed how people made music together. So it is not surprising that so few musicians who came to prominence during that era are no longer with us, especially since so many—like Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, Eric Dolphy, and on and on–had tragically short lives. But what is more surprising is that one of these musicians, 92-years young Randy Weston, is not only still around, he’s still actively performing and composing and evolving, although to him there really isn’t a clear distinction between old and new music.

When we visited Randy Weston in his Brooklyn apartment, which was once the site of a restaurant his father owned when he was growing up and which helped to shape his attitudes about how to connect with audiences, he expounded on his all-inclusive worldview.  He pointed out that bebop and all of so-called jazz, which he prefers to call “African American classical music,” as well as numerous other musical genres have their source in the traditional music of Africa:

You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles.  But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival.  …  We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae! … My father said to me three things.  He said, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”

To Weston, different generations listening to different music from one another makes no sense. “When I was growing up, music was for everybody,” he said.  “I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.” And it’s something he has aspired to do since he first started playing in clubs as part of a trio at the age of 17.  Over the course of the last seven decades, several of Weston’s compositions—such as “Hi-Fly” (1958) and a waltz he composed in 1956 about one of his children called “Little Niles”—have become standards, and his 1972 album Blue Moses was a bestseller.

Weston wants to harness the power of music to make people aware of their history.  The contemporaneous declarations of independence of many African nations was the inspiration for his landmark 1960 suite Uhuru Africa, which featured a poem expressly created for it by Langston Hughes and was arranged by the undersung Melba Liston for an all-star ensemble that included Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Gigi Gryce, Yusef Lateef, Cecil Payne, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Candido Camero, and Babatunde Olatunji, as well as operatic soprano Martha Flowers and actor/singer Brock Peters. The album was banned in then Apartheid-governed South Africa but also led to Weston being invited, under the auspices of the American Society of African Culture, to perform in Nigeria in 1961. Weston returned there two years later and then in 1967 embarked on a U.S. State Department tour to Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The following year he moved to Morocco and lived in Tangier for seven years.

Living on the African continent and working extensively with musicians from a wide variety of traditions further expanded Weston’s compositional palette, and he continued to explore ways to make the European piano sound African.

“I go back to before it was a piano,” Weston explained.  “You’ve got wood.  You’ve got metal.  When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood.  After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot.  So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.  It just traveled north and some other things were done to it.  And inside it is a harp, an African harp.”

Although he ultimately returned to the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, Weston took back with him a whole world of experience which has informed the music he is creating up to this day. His magnum opus, the two-hour African Nubian Suite, which premiered in 2012 and was released as a two-CD set on his own African Rhythms label just last year, incorporates musical traditions from across the entire African continent, as well as the diaspora and even China.

“We all have African blood,” Weston asserted.  “Every person on the planet Earth.”

After such an ambitious tour-de-force, Weston refuses to rest on his laurels. He just issued Sound, another two-CD set which is all solo piano music, and a few days after we visited him he flew to Europe for performances in Nice and Rome:

Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts.  They say, “You’re taking us back home.”  I say, “We all are from there.”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Weston’s Brooklyn home
July 13, 2018—4:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  There’s a statement in your autobiography African Rhythms that I thought would be a great place to begin our talk.  It was an observation about African traditional music: the audience and the music are one.  I think the same could be said for just about all the music you’ve done in your life, and the same could have been or perhaps should be said for all music—any music that really works.

Randy Weston:  Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I became a young musician, playing local gigs and marriages.  We played a lot of dances.  You had to play for dance, otherwise you weren’t a musician.  And that goes all the way back to ancient Africa, that they’re one and the same, which means that the dancer is also an instrument.  Also, in our community, it wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience.  I don’t care whether it was calypso, the black church, the blues, or European classical music, they knew when the music was right.  And if you weren’t playing right, you were in trouble.

“It wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience.”

Growing up as a boy, I loved music before I ever even touched a piano.  Music was our way of life.  I grew up in a community of all the nationalities—people from the Caribbean, people from Africa, people from the South, people from Europe—all bringing their cultures.  It was so rich and so wonderful, but music was the key.  And I can’t emphasize too much, it was my mother and father who would bring the best music in the house—Duke Ellington, gospel, blues.  They weren’t musicians and they never studied music, so I wanted to find out how they could know so much about music.  But when you go to the motherland, the people in Africa are music.  Music is the first language.  It’s how we survived slavery.  It’s how we survive many hardships.  During the early ‘20s and ‘30s, they were lynching black people in this country—your skin was no good, your hair, all the stereotypes.  But it was music, whether it was the black church, where I had to be every Sunday with my Virginia momma, or during the week when I was with my Caribbean father—Panama, Jamaica, proud, Marcus Garvey, Africa, all the time. We would go to calypso dances.  We were just surrounded with music and there was no separation between the ages, no such thing as music for the young.  When I was growing up, music was for everybody.

So when Randy Weston plays the piano, I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.  And that’s the foundation of music in spirituality, which was passed down from our ancestors.  Every day I’m amazed at how they could create such beauty in this country after coming here in such terrible conditions.  I still don’t get it.  When I went to Africa, I found out that for African people, spirituality is so important, even despite all the diversities of people.  That’s the only way I can describe it, so a long way of answering your question as usual.

Some LPs of Randy Weston's music as well as piles of his CDs.

FJO:  You touched on many different concepts here. But since you touched on when you were growing up, I’d like to talk more with you about other things that were around you that I would dare say might have influenced your approach to how you relate to audiences.  Your father ran a restaurant and took meals very seriously.  A great chef can be considered a great artist, but you’d never have a situation where the chef is a great artist and he makes food that most people wouldn’t want to eat.  Yet we do harbor a notion that there is some great music that very few people can relate to.  What happened to create this distance between people who make music and everybody else?

RW:  We got away from the truth.  My father always taught me to always look for the origin of everything in life.  No matter what they tell you.  Try to find the origin of whatever that is.  Whether it’s language, whether it’s football, whatever.  My dad loved Africa with such a passion.  He would talk about Africa to people he didn’t even know in the street or in the restaurant.  When I was a young, young child, around six, he said, “My son, I want you to understand one thing: that you are an African born in America. Therefore you must study the history of Africa before it was colonized.  Before it was invaded.  Before it was sterilized.”  My dad had books on African civilization in the house and he had maps of Africa and also African kings and queens on the wall.  When we grew up, it was British East Africa and the Belgian Congo; Africa didn’t have its independence.  But he said, “We come from royalty.” He said, “They only thing they’re going to teach you is after slavery and after colonialism; you’re going to have a mountain full of lies. When you go to the cinema or when you go to school, people are going to say you’re inferior.  There’s a billion people on the planet, but I want you to be strong when you go out the door.” So growing up, because of my dad, I’d look at books and I’d go to museums.  I’d go back 6,000 years ago.  Just imagine what it must have been before Africa was occupied.

The way we were treated in this country, how come we don’t hate people?  You don’t do that because we’re all members of the planet earth; we’re all human beings.  We grew up like that.  We really loved to welcome all the different people of the planet.  My father’s friends were Jewish, Swedish, German, Italian.  You name it.  We’d go to their house and had Italian food.  Or we’d have Jewish food on a Sunday. My mother with her Virginia accent and my father with his Caribbean accent. They had different accents, but they were the same people. They got married and they produced me.

My dad’s second restaurant was right here in this house; my dad died, but his spirit is in this house.  He would have people come here from Africa, or from the Caribbean, or Europeans who told the truth about African history—scientists, musicians, painters, actors.  And with my mother at the black church every Sunday, I was absorbing these gospels and spirituals when I was a little boy.  So that’s my foundation.  And every day, I talked to my father and mother.  They gave me everything.  They gave me spirituality, which is difficult to understand.  They loved me and I was spoiled.  I’m not talking about financially.  My dad was a great cook.  He would cook all the Caribbean cooking.  My mother made Southern food from Virginia.  I had all that love, and not to mention the neighborhood, but that’s the foundation—mom and pop.

A framed photo of Randy Weston's parents

Randy Weston keeps a framed photograph of his parents on one of his walls as a constant reminder of their importance to him.

FJO:  Andy they had you take piano lessons.

RW:  My father, yeah.

FJO:  But that first set of piano lessons didn’t really work out.

RW:  No, because you know, I was six-foot at 12 years old.  In those days, I thought I was going to the circus.  I was tall.  Today, that’s nothing, right?  I played baseball and football.  And I couldn’t identify with the scales because all the music we grew up with was swinging—whether it’s the black church or a blues club on the corner or calypso dance, all the music had, as Duke Ellington says, that African pulse.  So I couldn’t identify with European music.  But that piano teacher, God bless her, for 50 cents a lesson, she had to deal with me for three years of torture—for her and for me. She’d hit my hand with the ruler.  But she gave me the foundation and that’s why she’s in my book.  I learned some things I got to appreciate when I got older.

FJO:  Well I have a theory that, aside from you saying that you didn’t identify with European music, you wanted to create your own things instead of playing what someone else wrote.  Even before you ever created your first composition, you had the attitude of a composer.

RW:  I didn’t know. I had no idea.

When I had come out of the Army, I went to my father’s restaurant and I was a frustrated musician. Remember, this was the period of royalty.  This was the period of the greatest musicians in the history of the planet—people like Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, and I could go on.  This was our royalty.  In the restaurant, you could go to the jukebox and play everybody from Louis Armstrong to Sarah Vaughan, to Louis Jordan.  We’d be open 24 hours a day in this restaurant and I was so in love with the music on the jukebox.

At this time, Miles Davis was living in Brooklyn and so was Max Roach, who I called the emperor of Brooklyn. Max was my teacher. Max Roach’s house was two blocks away from where we lived and my father’s restaurant.  When I had a break in the restaurant, I’d just go to Max’s house and sit in the corner.  That’s where I met Dizzy Gillespie.  That’s where I met Charlie Parker.  That’s where I met Miles Davis.  That’s where I met George Russell.  I’d sit in the corner and just listen to what they talked about.  And thanks to Max Roach and George Russell, I discovered the modern European classical music— Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud.  And Max would always tell me to listen to Baby Dodds, to go back and listen to all the African-American music you can find because that’s the purest music, because those people couldn’t speak the language.  They hadn’t gone to music school, so during the time of slavery and even after slavery, they approached it as African people.  The way they dance and the way they cook their food.  The way they attempted to speak the European languages.  Max taught me that.  He taught me about Chano Pozo.  When I heard that African Cuban drum with Dizzy’s orchestra in 1949 in what George Russell was writing for Dizzy, Cubana Be Cubana Bop, I fell in love with that drum.  I said I got to work with this drum.  Again, Africa.

And we had people like the great Cecil Payne.  Eubie Blake lived on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, right around the corner from my mother’s church.  I would go to Eubie’s house when he was about—whoo!— 95, something like that.  You didn’t have to call up and say Mr. Blake, can I come by and see you.  Oh no, you just rang the bell.  I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house and sit in the corner and he’d tell about the piano battles they had in 1890.  How they had this guy named One Leg Willie, and this guy could take one song and in each chorus he’d completely change the harmonies.  He never made a record.  So from Eubie, I got the history of our music going way back to the early-20th century.  So Brooklyn was very special because it was so much culture.

A shelf in Randy Weston's home featuring a variety of trinkets including a miniature model of the Brooklyn Bridge

FJO:  Your encounters with Charlie Parker were really interesting.  You actually even performed with him.

RW:  Again, Max Roach.  Max made me play for Charlie Parker.  I was shaking, because Charlie Parker was a high spiritual man—what he would do with that saxophone.  But Max said, “Hey man, play one of your songs.” I played something, but I was very nervous.  And then I went back to the restaurant and said, “Why did Max make me play for this guy?”—it was me and a drummer who studied with Max Roach named Maurice Brown.

“You don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing.  That’s a way to die.”

In those days we would hang out two or three days looking for music.  Some clubs would close at three o’clock in the morning and others would open up at four o’clock in the morning.  There was no television and no disco.  Everything was live, so we had that kind of experience.  So that night we went to go hear Tadd Dameron at a club called the Royal Roost.  Tadd Dameron was in a band with Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse; I’m not sure who the drummer was.  When you go out in the Royal Roost, you go down the stairs, and the bar is right there.  And there’s Charlie Parker at the bar.  Now Charlie Parker always kept his saxophone.  If he went to the supermarket—saxophone.  You’d never see him without that saxophone.  So he sat at the bar and I’m looking.  I wondered who he was talking to.  I didn’t think he remembered me.  So the young drummer said, “Man, he’s talking to you.”  He said, “Randy, how you doing, man?”  I said fine.  “So, whatcha doing?”  I said, “We’re gonna hear Tadd Dameron in the band.”  He said, “Come with me.”  He takes us upstairs and calls a taxi.  We go to 52nd Street, to a club, I’m not sure whether it’s the Three Deuces.  I’ve forgotten the exact name of the club.  We go into the club and there’s a group playing.  They’re playing their music.  Now you don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing.  That’s a way to die.  Don’t dare do that.  But Charlie Parker was so powerful; in the middle of the song, he went up on the stage and told the piano player to get up. Just like that.  And the piano player says, “Yes Bird.”  And then he told me to sit at the piano.  He did the same thing with the drummer, told the drummer to get up in the middle of the song and told the drummer [Maurice Brown] to sit.  Then he took out his saxophone.  He played one half hour with us, then packed up his horn and left and never said a word.  You don’t forget things like that, because I was with a master.

FJO:  That was your one and only gig with Charlie Parker.  The other really interesting, formative influence story in your life was your encounter with Thelonious Monk, which I think had a profound effect on how you make music and how you think about music.

RW:  Sure.  Absolutely. Why do you love certain artists?  What happens?  There’s some kind of communication there.  When I was 13-years old, I heard “Body and Soul” [played] by Coleman Hawkins. He was really the father of the tenor saxophone, and it was a big hit.  Coleman Hawkins was such a genius.  What’s so incredible about that “Body and Soul” is he’s not playing the melody, but you can hear the melody.  So when I heard this music, I went to my father and I said, “Dad, I want an advance in my allowance.”  I got 75 cents a week.  “I want to go buy some recordings.”  So he gave me the advance, and I went to the record shop.  I think it was about 35 cents for a disc in those days, and I bought three copies.  I hid two in cellophane.  The other copy I put on my pop’s record player, opened up the windows in the apartment, and put on “Body and Soul” loud so everybody could hear it.  I played Coleman Hawkins almost every other day.

The first time I heard Monk was with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street. He’s got Monk playing the piano.   I’m this amateur musician, and I didn’t know him. Monk wasn’t playing too many notes that night, so my immediate reaction was what’s Coleman Hawkins doing with this guy?  I had his recordings with Art Tatum and with Benny Carter.  But I went back again and heard “Ruby, My Dear” for the first time with Monk on the piano and Coleman Hawkins on the saxophone.  It was just love, the kind of love that you can only get with music.  My connection to Monk goes back to Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bass player.  He also played the oud and he would take me to downtown Brooklyn to listen to the oud and experience the music of North Africa and the Middle East.  He could play notes in between the notes.  I tried to do the same thing on the piano, but I couldn’t do it.  But Monk did it.

FJO:  He creates a very idiosyncratic sound, but of course it is still with the notes on the piano.  There aren’t any extra notes there, but he’s messing with your head.

RW:  Music is magic.  So when I heard Monk, and I heard that sound on the piano, I said, “Wow.  I want to find out how he’s doing that.”  So I went to his house, and asked if I could come see him.  There was a picture of Billie Holiday in the middle of the ceiling.  Monk was sitting in a chair playing music very softly.  I started asking him all kind of questions.  No response.  That’s it.  But I couldn’t leave the room.  I stayed in that room for hours.  Finally, I had felt I had to try to get out of this room.  I must have asked about one hour of questions.  No response.  I’m getting ready to leave.  He said, “Listen to all kinds of music.  Come and see me again.”  I went back one month later.  He played the piano almost two hours for me.

He pushed the magic of Africa in the piano for me.  Piano was not created to get that kind of sound. I discovered later on that he comes from Duke Ellington.  Duke was doing things with the piano, which I didn’t realize.  He was also creating all kind of magic sounds on the piano—basically the bass of the piano.  A lot of pianists don’t touch the bass.  But Duke, he’d do things with the bass of the piano to create things, you know. Oh, that music.  And all the music is so beautiful.  Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, all these people.  They create such original beauty.  They’re all original people.  So for me in 1959 to do a recording with Coleman Hawkins playing my music—man, that was one of the happiest moments of my life.  Roy Haynes was on drums on that date and Kenny Dorham on trumpet.

One of the walls in Randy Weston's home which is full of posters and photographs of various African people.

FJO:  Before we get to 1959, at some point several years before that something changed in your attitude about being a musician. You were on the fence for a very long time before you finally decided that that was what you wanted your focus in life to be.

RW:  Oooh, I was 29.

FJO:  That’s late.

RW:  But I was playing at 17.

FJO:  So what caused you to devote your life to being a musician?

RW: It happened up in the Berkshires.  I was working in this hotel up there—breakfast chef for a while, washing dishes for a while, chambermaid for a while, cutting down trees. But I discovered the Berkshires and all that music—the Boston Symphony Orchestra, chamber music, music students coming from all over the world.  I met Aaron Copland.  I met Lukas Foss.  I met Leonard Bernstein.  It was just an incredible place of music.  Plus the Music Inn and Marshall Stearns.

“I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart.  That’s not what I do.”

I’ll never forget this.  I helped these artists from Germany.  They were all victims of Nazism.  They were all elderly people, and they had a concert. They were violinists, violists, singers, and whatnot.  And I helped them with their baggage.  But in the meanwhile, when I’m in these places, I was playing the piano at night.  But just for me, you know.  So these three old ladies come to me and said, “Randy, we’re going to have a recital.  And we decided we’d like you to play.”  I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart.  That’s not what I do.”  They said, “No, no, no.  We want you to do what we hear you do at night.”  And that’s what I did.   They were saying to me, “We’re from the European classical world, but you’re doing something special on the piano.”  Max Roach was pushing me.  And other musicians.  But that really did it.

FJO:  And it wasn’t very long after that that you made your first studio recording.

RW:  Yes.  That’s correct, because I had discovered the music.  Marshall Stearns, oh man, he was something incredible.  I did about ten summers in the Berkshires.  Who do I meet up there?  Langston Hughes.  Olatunji.  Candido.  Mahalia Jackson, who was doing an afternoon class on African spirituality in the black church. Willis James, who specialized in field cry hollers, and he talked about how our ancestors during the time of slavery created music with sound because they couldn’t speak the European languages. I met so many incredible people.  Everybody I listened to and took something from.  Asadata Defora, the great dancer-choreographer from Guinea.  And because of Marshall, I also met John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Josh White.  He had this pan-African concept in music, and he would have these classes.  He’d have a blackboard, and underneath the blackboard would be Africa.  Then he had the different branches, like calypso.  I met Geoffrey Holder up there, too.

FJO:  But to go from being immersed with all those people to saying I’m now going to do my own thing was still a huge step as a musician. The first album you recorded was a collection of your interpretations of music by Cole Porter, because the record label wasn’t going to take a chance on an unknown person doing his own compositions.  But after that, most of what you’ve recorded is all your own music.  Every now and then, you would include a tune of somebody else’s that you made your own.  But it was very clear from very early on that you were creating your own music, whether you were performing by yourself or with other musicians.  And when you worked with other musicians, you weren’t telling them what to play, because you wanted them to bring their own thing to it.  You’ve actually said that you feel like a piece of music you create isn’t complete until you work on it with other people in a performance or in the studio—then it becomes complete.

RW:  Absolutely, because music is life itself.  In ancient tradition, music was just as important as science, astronomy, any kind of education.  Music was required because music was our first language, our spiritual language.  Even up to now, even up to last week, when I go to the piano and I look at that audience—and I’ve been doing that for a while—all the religions are there, all the colors are there, all the ages are there.  But we become one people when the music is right.  And it’s always magic for me.

“We become one people when the music is right.”

I have to be very humble with music. Why do I say that?  Well, what you talked about came from Duke and Monk.  They did their own music.  They’re my two biggest influences.  But at the same time, I had a talent and I didn’t realize I had a talent.  And I loved my children so much, so my first recording with Melba Liston was setting waltzes for children.  Children are so free.  So I put them to music.  I wrote those waltzes up in the Berkshires, because after the season was over, I stayed two or three weeks afterwards and it was very quiet, with a nice fireplace.  The Berkshires are so physically beautiful, as you know.  It’s gorgeous there.  And all of a sudden, these melodies came out.

Where this talent comes from, I will never know.  But it happened. How it happened is amazing.  I went to Boys High School in Brooklyn. That was a very good school.  Max Roach went there.  Cecil Payne.  Ray Copland, the trumpet player.  I was in this school, but I wanted to go to music school.  My father wanted me to get those academics; he wanted me to be a businessman.  Another reason why I had my own groups is because my dad would always do his own thing.  He said, “If you work for yourself, you work harder, but you can get your message across.”

FJO:  That album of waltzes for children was very important in your career. And the title track from that, “Little Niles,” became one of your most famous compositions.

RW:  Exactly.  Duke and Monk, and the other composers too, wrote music for their families.  Duke would write music about his mother, about his father, about his grandfather.  Monk would do the same thing.  That was our tradition.

FJO:  And Duke and Monk—and you, as well—were also part of the tradition of pianist-composers.  When people now think about the 1950s, they say Thelonious Monk, but there was also Elmo Hope.

RW:  Herbie Nichols.

FJO:  Exactly.  I was thinking about Herbie Nichols when I was thinking about your early recording career. He only ever got to record in a piano trio setting—piano with bass and drums.  But he always wanted to record with a mixed quintet, and it never happened.  The record labels never let him do that.

RW:  Wow.

FJO:  And then he died so young.  It’s interesting to compare that with the chronology of your recordings. That first album of Cole Porter tunes is just you and a bass player, Sam Gill, so it’s a duo. Your next two albums were trio sessions, but the album after that was a quartet with Cecil Payne. Then you recorded a mixed quintet session, and after that you began recording with larger ensembles, which is when Melba Liston entered the scene as your arranger. Talk about somebody else who never really got proper recognition; there was only one album released under her name in her lifetime. And even when she appeared on other people’s albums, she rarely took a solo.

RW:  I had to fight her to take a solo on our first recording.  She was just a humble person.  She was just like that.  First of all, I had never heard a woman play trombone before.

I must confess when I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Monk, I didn’t understand what they were doing.  What kind of music is this?  I didn’t understand it.  It happened right after the Second World War when everything changed.  I started working these clubs in New York.  I would play Birdland every now and then with a trio.  And Dizzy brought the big band.  He brought that band that had Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Charlie Persip, and Melba Liston—all the heavy young players playing this incredible music that they called bebop.  So he featured her.  He said, “I want you all to listen to an arrangement of ‘My Reverie’ featuring Melba Liston on trombone.”  She had this big sound on trombone, and she did the arrangement.  And the arrangement was so beautiful. When she came off the stage, I just had to introduce myself to her.  I said, “You don’t know me, but it was like magic.  Like we were supposed to meet.”  Then she moved from California to New York, and she got to know Mary Lou Williams—I knew Mary Lou, the giant; another queen, right?—because the two of them lived in Harlem. So somehow when I had a chance to do this recording for United Artists, my first recording for them, I wanted to do several waltzes for children, and I asked Melba if she would do the arrangements.

All Melba Liston wanted to do was to play and write music.  She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.  But when she was working on music, she’d have the girls go and buy her a dress, or buy her a pair of shoes.  She didn’t want to be bothered.  She didn’t want to be glamorous. I used to bring her a coffee to keep her awake when she was writing arrangements for Quincy Jones.  [And we worked together] from that point on, until she died. What a great, great, great arranger.

FJO:  Now, it’s extraordinary how successfully your music and her arrangements melded, but that doesn’t always happen. Many people did their own arrangements for that reason. Duke Ellington did his own arrangements until Billy Strayhorn came into his life and then they created things together, which were also extraordinary. To turn that work over to somebody else, there has to be a level of trust.  I’m jumping decades ahead now to your Blue Moses record. You thought it was going to turn out one way, and then you heard the record they released and it wasn’t at all what you thought you had recorded.

RW:  Well, that was in the electric piano days.  In the early ‘70s, if you wanted to make a gig, you’d better have a Fender Rhodes.  Don’t look for no piano.  Melba did the original arrangements of Blue Moses.  We were still living in Tangier, so my son and I came from Tangier to do the recording, but when I got there, Creed Taylor said his formula is electric piano.  I was not happy with that, but it was my only hit record. People loved it. [The arranger] Don Sebesky did an incredible job.  Because what had happened was we went back to Morocco, so I didn’t hear the music until it came from New York to Tangier.  Me and my son listened to it, and he said, “Is that us?”  But Don Sebesky did a fantastic job to capture all those colors of Blue Moses.

FJO:  So you were ultimately okay with all those extra layers that he added to it?

RW: Everybody’s okay with that.  And I can’t resist. I just don’t like electric piano.  But everybody says, “Man, you were fantastic on electric piano.”  So many people.  And I loved the musicians—Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington and Hubert Laws, Airto, and my son.  Everybody played beautifully.  I just was not happy with my sound, but that was required.  That was Creed’s concept, and it was a good concept.  It was a good concept because it became a hit record for me.

FJO:  And because it was a hit record, it actually got you out of debt for the music festival you organized in Morocco.

RW:  Exactly.

FJO:  It’s fascinating to hear that you’re okay with it even though it wasn’t what you thought it would be.  As you had said, you never have a finished idea. It’s always going to get reshaped in some sort of fashion when you work with other people. But you still have some kind of control over it when you’re actually there.  Or maybe you don’t.

RW:  Absolutely, because it was the story of my life in Morocco.  That’s a very, very personal experience—also for my son, because we lived there.  We lived with the people.  We traveled.  We hung out with the traditional people.  You know, we’d get together, we would read the Koran together, my son and I.  We would play chess together. He listened to the Gnawan musicians and started playing rhythms that I didn’t know he knew.  That’s what Blue Moses is all about.  I was in this small French car with my son, Ed Blackwell, and the bass player Bill Wood, and we drove from Tangier all the way to the Sahara. I’m driving.  The car’s so small that the wheel is between my legs, but I just loved adventure, I guess, at that time.  So we go to this village up in the Rif Mountains, and we see snow.  So I said, “Wow, I didn’t know there was snow in Morocco.”  I saw the people skiing, so I said, “I got to put music to that.” Then through the Rif Mountains and you go down to the Sahara.

FJO:  I think Morocco has the most extremely different kinds of terrain for that small a geographical area.

RW:  It’s true.  The music, the art, the clothing, the instruments—oh man, Morocco, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.  I used to go to the festival in Marrakesh. Once a year, they’d have people coming from everywhere.  Cats playing music on camels, on horseback, all kind of drums, dance music, it’s wonderful.  And I just say wow.  See, I love traditional music with a passion, because that’s where you get the soul and the spirit of the people.

Various musical instruments and other objects from Africa

FJO:  But how to reconcile that with the piano? The piano is this creation of the industrial revolution. It’s a machine, to some extent.  And there are all these stories about your tours in Africa and how difficult it was to get a piano for you in a lot of places.

RW:  Or they had an electric piano, and I would break it up.

FJO:  Well, some of them weren’t in very good shape to begin with.  But it’s still interesting given what you say about traditional music that you can create something that’s so personal with something that’s a machine—not an electric machine the way we think of machines today, but the product of industrialization to some extent.

RW:  Well, I go back to before it was a piano.  You’ve got wood.  You’ve got metal.  When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood.  After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot.  So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.  It just traveled north and some other things were done to it.  And inside it is a harp, an African harp.  So you took that harp and you laid it down, and you put the hammers and whatnot in it. That’s why I was saying the origin of things is so important for me. So when I go to the piano, spiritually, it becomes an African instrument.  Because I’m going all the way back to the beginning when I touch that piano. The Moors brought their music up through Spain, so it was coming from Africa, you know.

“When I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.”

It’s like I was telling you about Monk and Duke, and how they take that piano.  I used to love the sound of Count Basie and that piano.  Oh my God.  He’d just hit a few notes, but his sound, only Basie could get that kind of sound.  Nat Cole.  Another one.  He’s playing a piano, singing, I mean, looking at the piano, but the sound Nat King Cole got on the piano.  That’s why my latest recording, a double CD, is called Sound.  Why did I love Coleman Hawkins so much? It was his sound.  Why did I love Louis Armstrong so much? His sound.  Louis only had to hit one note and I say, “Wow!” That goes back to ancient times, because in the ancient days, when they started making instruments out of Mother Nature, out of the wood, out of the fish, out of the camel, a horse, whatever instruments, you know, they had to say certain prayers before they did the ceremony to make that drum, or that banjo, or whatever, because that is Mother Nature.

Sure, I grew up in New York, and I heard the best of us here, but where did Louis Armstrong come from?  Who was his great-great-grandmother?  What part of Africa did he come from to produce that kind of sound on the trumpet?  That never happened before.  And going all the way back, how would they tune the instruments?  They would tune the instruments by the sound of Mother Nature.  By the sound of the animals, by the sound of the birds, by the sound of thunder.  That’s how they would tune their instruments.  And that’s why the music of Africa is so diverse because it’s the most diverse place in the world.

And wherever you find African people, I don’t care whether it’s in Fiji—I discovered them in Fiji—whether it’s Brazil, Guadeloupe, Mississippi, Congo. Duke said there’s that pulse in the music.  It’s that pulse.  You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles.  But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival because without those early spirituals and blues, we would never have survived slavery.  Even after slavery was abolished, even when we supposedly got our freedom, we had to go over the world, which we had never been in touch with before because we were on plantations.  And from that, they create this music.  Man, I don’t know how they did it.

A poster for a 1985 African Music Festival

FJO:  Hearing you say all this reminds me of another comment you’ve made many times over the years, that there’s no old music.  But, by the same token, that might mean there’s also no new music.  Is that true?

RW:  You know, it’s not fixed, because music is free.  Musicians are free.  I could never speak for another musician, because music is invisible.  It’s the king of the arts.  But when I play with Gnawan musicians, they play the same songs all the time.  Now for Western ears that might seem boring, because you want to have something they call new.  So I wondered about that. But when they play the traditional music, they’re telling a story of their people.  They had given you the spirit of their people.  The way they cook their food.  The way they dance.  The way they dress.

Ellington, Armstrong, Eubie Blake, all those people created music for their African-American community.  You couldn’t just play music like today.  You had to report to the African-American community.  So all those great artists were not just able to play well.  They played in hospitals, prisons, old folks homes, raised money for a school and whatnot.  That was required. In African traditional society, that’s what a musician is.  Not just, “You’re so great.” That’s only a part of it.  You have to serve the community.  You have to tell the stories of your father, your grandfather, and whatnot.  And teach people that they may not have had the education or the technology, but they had wisdom.

“You have to serve the community.”

We don’t listen to the old people today, but when we grew up, we hung out with the old people.  We’d never leave the old people.  I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house, man he told me stories.  I met Luckey Roberts, who wrote a song called “Lullaby of the Nile,” up at his place. He was writing music about Africa.  A lot of the churches in the South were called the African Methodist Church, the African Baptist Church and whatnot.  Those people stayed in touch with the ancestors.  That’s why they got so heavy with the black church.  So despite the fact there was slavery, despite the fact there’s racism, they always tried to communicate with the creator.  Because wherever you find African people, I don’t care where it is, they’re going to have a very powerful, spiritual music.  Because all of our people, we know that there’s a higher power.

FJO:  I’d like to talk to you a bit about the first large-scale piece of music that you created that is African inspired, and that’s Uhuru Afrika. How that recording finally came about is pretty interesting.  You wanted to record it for United Artists, but they said they’d consider it after you made a jazz version of tunes from a Broadway show.

RW: I got to pick the show, but I had to do a Broadway show.

FJO:  And you picked Destry Rides Again.

RW:  Yes, I did.

FJO:  Did you go see it on Broadway?

RW:  Yes, and I met Harold Rome.  It was great.  He was an important composer.  Like I said, I had the experience in the Berkshires. The Berkshires made me check out all kinds of music.

FJO:  And of course that was also where you met Leonard Bernstein, who had one foot in classical music but the other foot was on Broadway.

RW:  Exactly.

FJO:  Harold Rome, though, had a career that was almost completely on Broadway. So what was it about his show that spoke to you?

RW:  Somehow I chose that one.  I don’t remember what the other shows were, but I picked Destry Rides Again.  It’s a cowboy show.  It was my cowboy roots.  (laughs)

FJO:  It only ran for a year and is sadly kind of a forgotten show at this point.  But it’s pretty interesting.  I have the cast album.

RW:  Really.

FJO:  It’s actually fascinating to compare it with your version of it.  I love how the four trombones interact with the piano on it, but it’s a far cry from the record that you wanted to make, which was Uhuru Afrika.

RW:  Of course.

FJO:  And even after you went ahead and recorded a jazz version of Destry Rides Again, United Artists still wouldn’t let you do Uhuru Afrika.

“We knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home.”

RW:  No, I did it with Roulette Records. I was very fortunate. There was a man named C.B. Atkins.  C.B. Atkins was the husband of Sarah Vaughan.  I don’t remember how we met, but he talked to Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, to let me do Uhuru Afrika.  [Atkins] was the key and that’s why I was able to put together that incredible orchestra.  We started right after the album of seven waltzes for children, me and Melba.  Melba was just like myself, in a sense.  She was a very proud African-American woman.  She had great pride in her people.  So we had that spiritual connection.  African cultures were just getting their independence.  And we knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home.  So I wanted to do a work of music to show—again the influence of the Berkshires—that we are global people.  And so, after spending time at the United Nations, talking to diplomats, going to see Langston Hughes, I got together with Melba a range of African people. We had an opera singer, Martha Flowers, a great soprano; we wanted her to represent African culture and European classical music.  We had Brock Peters; he was a folk singer and a Broadway guy.  Then we had Olatunji from Nigeria, Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba.  We had Charlie Persip on drums.  We had Ron Carter and George Duvivier on bass.  And we had Max Roach on marimba.

FJO:  And you also had Gigi Gryce on what was probably his very last recording.

RW:  Exactly.  Yusef Lateef, Gigi Gryce, Bud Johnson, Kenny Burrell, Les Spann, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Reggie Reeves, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson—it was something.  And Melba did all the arrangements.  It was delayed because I went to Langston Hughes, again who I met in the Berkshires. He was such a wonderful man.  He was an African-American writer who knew the importance of the music.  A lot of our writers have gotten away from the music.  Not Langston.  He wrote the first book of jazz for children.

That was a time when African countries wanted their independence, and the European powers at that time said, “No, you’re not ready for independence yet.” And Africa was saying, “Let us make our own mistakes; we want our freedom.”  So I went to Langston and I talked with him and said, “Can you give me a poem of Freedom for Africa?”  And I also wanted to celebrate the African woman—my mother, my sister, those women up until today, including my wife, who are always in the background and who struggle for us and take care of us but never get the credit, which included Melba Liston.  So he did. I wanted to use an African language, because when I was a child, I was very embarrassed, what you would see in the cinema for African people—always slaves, Tarzan, all that stuff.  We’re brainwashing these kids.  The whole idea was Africa had no language.

But the whole concept of language came from Africa!  So I went to the United Nations, and I talked to a lot of diplomats.  I wanted to use an African language.  They said use Kiswahili.  So I got a guy from Tanzania to translate Langston Hughes’s Freedom Poem from English to Kiswahili. Melba was writing out the music. We had to record two days in a row, starting at nine o’clock in the morning.  Musicians!  Nobody was late!  It was so spiritual.  And Melba was still writing parts.  We had musicians in my apartment writing parts on the ceiling, on the walls.  But we did it.  It was a very powerful message.

FJO:  It was so powerful that it wound up getting banned in certain places. It has the same impact as Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which was recorded that same year.

RW:  Oh, absolutely.

A poster for a concert benefit entitled Action for South Africa at the Belmont Plaza Hotel on May 22, 1961 which featured performances by Randy Weston, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Miriam Makeba (who is pictured on it).

FJO:  But curiously, you did all of this before you ever set foot in Africa, and it was probably what led to your being invited and traveling to Africa for the first time.

RW: I wasn’t supposed to go originally.  I think Phineas Newborn was supposed to go.  I think Benny Taylor was supposed to go.  But something happened, and a friend of mine worked for the American Society of African Culture in Manhattan.  This woman knew I had recorded music about Africa, so she came and took my LPs, talked to the head guy, and said, “You’ve got to take Randy Weston.  He must go.”  So that’s how it happened.

FJO:  And it changed your life.

RW:  Yes it did.

FJO:  You had all of these ideas about Africa, but as you’ve also said, there’s a difference between music that’s about Africa and music that is Africa.  When you visited Africa, you finally saw the multiplicity of what those cultures represent.  It’s not monolithic, even within each nation state.

RW: You could spend years in Morocco.

FJO:  Or in Senegal or Ghana.

RW:  Or in Nigeria.

FJO:  All of these places.

RW:  There are something like 2,000 languages.

FJO:  And all of these different cultures co-exist together.

RW:  And that explains us.  We had a mix, and those rhythms all come together.  It’s tragic what happened to us, but look at the beauty we’ve given to Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Mississippi with this music.  So it was almost like it was meant to be.  Terrible, but it seemed like it was just meant to be.

FJO:  That’s quite a perspective to have on all of this history.  And it calls to mind a work of yours from just a few years ago that is perhaps your magnum opus, the African Nubian Suite. Your Uhuru Afrika, which you created more than fifty years earlier, foreshadows it in some ways, but I think that it was only possible for you to create something as expansive and all-encompassing as the African Nubian Suite after having traveled all over Africa and having completely absorbed what you experienced there and realizing that  Africa spirals beyond Africa.  It even includes China, so you include Chinese musical elements in it.  You included the whole world.

“We all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth.”

RW:  You know, we all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth.  And when you tell that story, that’s what Duke was doing.  My god, Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige!  And he also wrote music for the Queen of England, but you could hear the blues underneath.  And people like Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, and all those early people, that’s what they were doing.  They were telling the story of the beauty of Africa.  But then what happened was integration. It did several things, which are very good.  We could go places we couldn’t go before.  But at the same time, our culture disappeared.  It’s not like it was before.

FJO:  In the last half-century, music has changed to the point that there no longer are any clear demarcations. It’s great that there are no longer these demarcations, but there is also no longer a universally acknowledged popular music in this country or perhaps anywhere in the world.  In the 1950s, Broadway shows were the incubator of mainstream popular music, which is why United Artists wanted you to record the score of a Broadway show. I doubt a record label would ask you to do an album of a Broadway show now.  These days there are pockets of fans that like a certain thing, or like something else.  For better or worse, there is no mainstream.  In a way, we’ve all come closer together, which is good, but we’ve also kind of broken further apart, which is not good.  So what can we do?

RW:  Do what we do.  Realize there’s a higher power.  Study the history of this planet.  Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts.  They say, “You’re taking us back home.”  I say, “We all are from there.”  We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae!  These are creations of African people. Where did Art Tatum come from?  I’m more amazed with Monk and Coleman Hawkins today than I was yesterday.  How could they take these European instruments, and do what they did and get their own sound?

So I think that Africa will survive.  African spirituality will survive, despite the fact we don’t exist on television anymore.  I’ve never seen it so bad in my life.  During segregation, you could go to the movies and see a Bessie Smith short.  You could see a short on Cab Calloway.  You could see something on Billie Holiday.  Now today, it’s tragic because this music is the classical music of the United States of America.  I don’t use the term jazz; I use the term African-American classical music.  There is classical music in all societies. I don’t care how many Beatles you’ve got or how many how many Rolling Stones you’ve got, you’re going to have opera and you’re going to have Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  That has to exist, because that is the song and the spirit of people of Europe.  It’s very important, and there they always make that balance.  But us here, we’ve become so sophisticated.  We’ve got to do the latest thing.  We’ve got to do the fastest thing.  So what happened before us is no, no, no.  My father said to me, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”  Despite all the corruption and all the stuff that’s going on and whatnot, to me that spirituality and consciousness may help save this world.  I feel that.  And there’s no better example than the music.  So you call it calypso, jazz, or whatever you call this music. When you hear this music, it makes you feel, and when it’s right, it makes you feel good.  It makes you feel happy.  It makes you feel good to be a human being.

So when I’m on the stage and I play, I look at that audience and I see all the colors of the rainbow.  And when they’re all clapping the same rhythm, when they‘re happy, I say, “Wow, music is powerful.”  Because when we play this music, when it goes out, we don’t know what happens.  Each person in that audience takes their own trip.  So when you go up on that stage and get everybody to come together like that, sitting next to each other—if they knew who you were, they wouldn’t sit next to you, but music has that power.  And I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.

“I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.”

It’s so sad that America cannot recognize its own classical music.  Every child should have Louis Armstrong in the elementary school books.  Every child should know about Duke Ellington, America’s greatest composer.  Everybody should know about Charlie Parker, and Dizzy, and Nat Cole—all these people!  The African people of this country influenced the entire world.  On my first trip to Japan, when I get to Japan, here’s Max Roach on a throne.  The way they love Max Roach, man, I was so proud.  But that’s why they say we are the ambassadors; it’s true.  But the recognition is very difficult, to recognize Africa’s contribution to the Western hemisphere.

FJO:  You’re actually flying out on Sunday to play in Europe.  Do you feel that you have more recognition there than you do here?

RW:  Not necessarily.  But the difference is Europeans made the instruments.  They made the saxophone, the trumpet, and trombone, so they know what we do with them is completely original.

FJO:  Or maybe, it’s because as you were saying before, you can’t learn about this music here if you just watch television and that’s where you get your information. The internet has all this stuff, but you have to know it exists first before you can find out more about it.

RW:  Go back to books.  Every day I read.  The truth is in the books—the right books.  When I go to students, I give them books.  I say, “You will know the history of Africa.  You will know the history of music.” The books are here.  We have the technology.  Everything is here.  You’ll see that Western society came out of nowhere.  Western society came out of Africa and came out of Asia.  It became corrupt in the process, because they don’t give the recognition to the people who created this art.

One of Randy Weston's bookshelves

I’m so happy because they used my music for a DVD about this great Senegalese master Chiekh Anta Diop. He proved scientifically that ancient Egyptians had to be a jet black people, because Mother Nature is a true artist.  If there was serious hot weather, you needed black skin.  For cold weather, you need white skin.  She was the artist, just like she paints her fish and the insects. But we got away from that.  So the message of this thing is so beautiful because he’s explaining it for us to stop and think about the origin of this planet and the origin of Western civilization.  Western civilization corrupted the civilization of the older people.  Everything in Africa is based upon spirituality.  They’re in touch with the universe.  They know the original music comes from the planets and the stars.  They know the original music comes from Mother Nature.  That’s why African music is so powerful, because the continent itself was swinging before man ever arrived. Everything: elephants, the snakes, all of Mother Nature in Africa, they all swing.  Whether it’s a camel, whether it’s an ostrich, whether it’s a bird, they all swing because Mother Nature requires that.  And the same is true with the musicians.  So whether I’m in Morocco, whether I’m in South Africa, whether I’m in Senegal, all the music, all the dance, it’s gotta have that pulse.  I don’t care what the rhythms are, you’ve got to have that.

FJO: So what happens when you create music that gets away from it?

RW:  People get lost.  They don’t know value.  They don’t understand.  If everybody knew the power of jazz, what they call jazz music, or spiritual music, the ways it impacts this planet, coming from people who were taken here in slavery, African people would be honored.  I respect it and am thankful for the contributions.  I never met my grandfather or my grandmother, but I read about their generation and what they had to go through.  They couldn’t stay in hotels.  They couldn’t ride on buses.  Their color was no good.  How did they survive that?  With humor.  With music.  With love.  It’s incredible.

I’m so fortunate now because wherever we go now, the musicians with whom I work, I feel that we give the spirit of Africa in our music.  I describe it as spirit—living with the people, loving the people, reading about the people, eating the foods and drink. What I’m doing now is because of years of love.  Love of my parents.  Love of my people.  Love of life.  Love of humanity.  And love of this beautiful planet.

Randy Weston sitting on his couch om front of many framed posters from performances, awards, etc.