Randy Weston, a jazz pianist and composer who was the first artist producer Orrin Keepnews signed to his new Riverside label in 1954 and who became one of the most ardent champions of Pan-Africanism in jazz, died on September 1. He was 92. [Photo of Randy Weston by Chester Higgins]
Randy was perhaps best known for his composition Hi-Fly, which he introduced on his New Faces at Newport album in 1958. The song's catchy melody and moody harmony helped the song become a heavily recorded jazz standard. Randy said the song was inspired by his 6-foot 8 frame and how the world appeared from his lofty vantage point. Jon Hendricks wrote lyrics for the song in 1959.
Influenced by Thelonious Monk's fractured keyboard attack, Randy was a percussive player who over the years became more comfortable with abstraction, especially as he was drawn increasingly to Africa and the continent's history and music.
When I interviewed Randy in 2011 for my book, Why Jazz Happened, we talked about his passion for Africa:
My big awakening to Africa came as a result of my mother and father. Our entire neighborhood in Brooklyn was Pan-African. Many of the people who were here never felt they had left Africa. I visited Africa for the first time in 1961, when I traveled to Nigeria. I instantly felt completely at home. I didn't speak the language, but the spirit of the continent was in the sky. I felt in my heart that I had never left. African-Americans have always been a freedom-loving people, and it goes back to the music. The music is a spiritual force and a healing force.
My father said to me, 'You have to go back to when Africa was great. You never hear anything about the African empire.' He told me to look for truth, which is what I've tried to do as a musician all my life. I wanted to find out why I played the way I played, so I went to Africa and discovered that I had never left the continent, spiritually. If I had been born in Canada I would still want to return to my ancestral home because my relatives were torn from there during slavery.
For me, Africa was about a spirit, like the music. Any people that has been oppressed feels this. When you feel oppressed because of the way you look, that's doubly upsetting. I consider myself an African born in America, but I'm a human being first. When I play music, I see all the colors of the rainbow.
JazzWax clips: Here's Randy Weston playing Hi-Fly live in 1959 with Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone...
Here's Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's rendition, with Jon Hendricks's lyrics...
And here's Randy Weston's African Sunrise, from 1992...
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