Randy Weston, an esteemed pianist whose music and scholarship advanced the argument – now broadly accepted – that jazz is, at its core, an African music, died on Sept. 1 at his home in New York. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by his lawyer, Gail Boyd, who said the cause was still being determined.
On his earliest recordings in the mid-1950s, Mr. Weston recorded jazz standards and galloping original tunes in a typical, small-group format. But his sharply cut harmonies and intense, gnarled rhythms conveyed a manifestly Afrocentric sensibility, one that was slightly more barbed and rugged than the popular hard-bop sound of the day.
Early on, he exhibited a distinctive voice as a composer. Hi-Fly, which he first released in 1958 on the LP New Faces at Newport, became a standard. And he eventually distinguished himself as a solo pianist, reflecting the influence of his main idol, Thelonious Monk. But more than Mr. Monk, Mr. Weston liked to constantly reshape his cadences, rarely lingering on a steady pulse.
Even before making his first album, Mr. Weston was giving concerts and teaching seminars that emphasized the African roots of jazz. This flew in the face of the prevailing narrative at the time, which cast jazz as a broadly American music, and a kind of equal-opportunity soundtrack to racial integration.
“Wherever I go, I try to explain that if you love music, you have to know where it came from,” Mr. Weston told the website All About Jazz in 2003. “Whether you say jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba, salsa – all these names are all Africa’s contributions to the Western hemisphere. If you take out the African elements of our music, you would have nothing.”
Mr. Weston drew particular inspiration from musicians of the Gnawa tradition, whose music centred on complex, commingled rhythms and low drones. Starting in 1968, when he moved to Morocco, he established a rigorous international touring regimen and played often in Europe.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Mr. Weston released a series of high-profile recordings for the label Verve, all to critical acclaim. Those included tributes to his two greatest American influences – Duke Ellington and Mr. Monk – as well as a record dedicated to his own compositions, Self Portraits, from 1989.
Mr. Weston earned a Grammy nod in 1973 for his album Tanjah (nominated for best jazz performance by a big band), and in 1995 for The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco (in the best world music album category), a recording he produced and released under his name, but on which he left most of the playing to 11 Moroccan musicians.
In 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed Mr. Weston with its Jazz Masters award, the highest accolade available to a jazz artist in the United States. He was voted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame in 2016.
In addition to his wife, Fatoumata Mbengue, Mr. Weston leaves three daughters, Cheryl, Pamela and Kim; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild. Mr. Weston’s first marriage ended in divorce. A son, Azzedin, is deceased.
Randolph Edward Weston was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 6, 1926. His father, Frank Weston, was a barber and restaurateur who had emigrated from Panama, and who studied his African heritage with pride. Randy’s mother, the former Vivian Moore, was a domestic worker who had grown up in Virginia.
Though his parents split when he was 3, they stayed on good terms and lived near each other in Brooklyn. Randy spent time with both throughout his childhood, receiving his father’s teachings about the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean while absorbing the music of the African-American church from his mother, who made sure that Randy and his half sister, Gladys, attended every Sunday.
In his memoir, African Rhythms, written with Willard Jenkins, Mr. Weston remembered that his father – a staunch supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association – hung “maps and portraits of African kings on the walls, and was forever talking to me about Africa.”
Mr. Weston wrote of his father, “He was planting the seeds for what I would become as far as developing my consciousness of the plight of Africans all over the world.”
As a child, Mr. Weston took classical piano lessons, but did not fall in love with the instrument until he started studying with a teacher who encouraged his fondness for Mr. Ellington, Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins.
Mr. Weston was drafted into the Army in 1944, serving three years and rising to the rank of staff sergeant. While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he was in charge of managing supplies, and frequently tried to share leftover materials and food with local residents, many of whom had lost their homes in the Second World War.
Upon returning to Brooklyn, he took over managing his father’s restaurant, Trios, which became a hub of intellectuals and artists. Mr. Weston began playing jazz and R&B gigs in the borough, seeking wisdom from older musicians. He became particularly close to Mr. Monk.
“When I heard Monk play, his sound, his direction, I just fell in love with it,”Mr. Weston told All About Jazz in 2003. “I would pick him up in the car and bring him to Brooklyn and he was a great master because, for me, he put the magic back into the music.”
Heroin use was rampant on the jazz scene then, and Mr. Weston developed a habit. In 1951 he left New York to get clean, moving to Lenox, Mass. He made frequent trips to the Music Inn, a venue in nearby Stockbridge, and while working there met Marshall Stearns, a leading jazz scholar with strong beliefs about jazz’s West African roots, who was giving lectures and leading workshops at the venue.
In 2016, he released his 50th and final album as a band leader, the two-disc African Nubian Suite, which featured an orchestra-sized iteration of African Rhythms. Through music and spoken word, the suite traces humanity’s origins back to the Nile River delta.
Mr. Weston’s last public concert was in July at the Nice Jazz Festival in France, with his African Rhythms Quintet.