The independent news organization of Duke University

Monk music

There is no piano player in jazz who isn't indelibly marked by Thelonious Monk, but Randy Weston wears the mark more proudly than most. A native of Monk's adopted hometown, New York City, Weston plays with a hearty, rich sound inflected by the same blues and gospel influences of his mentor. Although Monk is a quintessentially American musician, Weston took his fascination with African music to the source, moving to Morocco in the 1960s and interpolating African modes, rhythms and melodies into his own work. He spoke with recess' David Graham in anticipation of a rare twinbill with his trio and another led by fellow piano master Kenny Barron this Saturday in Page Auditorium.

What was your first experience with Monk?

My first experience was when he played with Coleman Hawkins. The first time was an amazing experience. It was instant love. That was the late '40s, so I was in my early 20s. I was a big fan of Coleman Hawkins-I mean, "Body and Soul" was one of the best examples of music I'd heard, even up to today, so by way of "Body and Soul" I discovered Monk.

Some people seem to get Monk immediately, while for others it takes a lot more time. Which was it for you?

It was kind of an inner thing. At the time, we had Dizzy [Gillespie], we had Charlie Parker, so I wanted to be up to date. It was something that attracted me, although I didn't know what it was. It was a period of all those giants coming together. But again, Coleman Hawkins was the clue. I said, "Hawk gets this, I got to figure this out."

You've got a quote, "He played like they must have played in Egypt 5000 years ago." Can you explain a little more what you mean by that?

I hear African music when I hear Monk play. I hear the magic, I heard the piano played as an African instrument. It was also the way he moved. It was like he did a ballet when he played, an African ballet, and his fingering, the way he played.

Your name tends to be linked to Monk in the same way that, say, Roy Eldridge is to Louis Armstrong-you're both considered top-flight artists in your own right, but you're also closely linked to an iconic figure. How do you feel about that?

I feel great about it. See, when I heard him, I heard him and I introduced myself to him, I went by his house and we became very close. We would exchange musicians, too. He just made this music that excited me a great deal.

When did you start hanging out with him?

The late '40s, I never did try to pin down a year. Yeah, we had instant communication. I loved his piano and he was very warm. He didn't say much, but he didn't have to say much. He'd come to my apartment on 13th Street or I'd go to his place and he'd play piano. One time we stayed up three days and three nights playing and ringing peoples bells. He captured the spirit of the original music, which was swing, and then he created his harmonies and his space and his rhythmic concepts. The most important part of this music is you could dance to it. For me, all music is built on feeling, but if you don't feel anything, then it doesn't matter if you have all the notes in the world. And he had the background in the black church.

You've recently returned to the trio format after a hiatus. How does it feel? Why did you go back?

Well, I have to play more piano. I used to do my own compositions all the time and people used to criticize me. I would let cats play lots of solos, because hey, they're my tunes.... The musicians I work with have been together a long time and they give me tremendous support and feeling. I'm lucky to have a great rhythm section.

After living in Africa for a long time, you moved back to the United States in the 1980s. Why did you come back?

I gave a big festival and ran out of money (laughs). I had a great time in music because I traveled to 18 countries and everywhere I would go I would listen to traditional music. I still go back-I played this year in South Africa, I played Morocco and I played Senegal.

How do people react to jazz in Africa?

I told them, I say, "It's your music. You may not recognize it. We've made some changes, but the essence of it is the same. You may not recognize it because it came in contact with different cultures." The people, they hear everything. I did a solo concert in Senegal, and I usually play with drums and bass, but a lot of young people, they heard everything I did.

Can you talk about your current and future projects?

We're setting up a foundation for the children of Rwanda because I played in Rwanda last year and we went there to play because of the people there. The whole idea is to get the music back to where it used to be. The musicians served the communities-they not only played, they would play benefits, they would play at hospitals-but it went away. Music used to serve the community-not just the African community, but the world community. In the 1950s and 1960s, jazz was part of the music scene, and now it's nothing but pop music out there. But this is the classical music of the United States and it needs to be seen.

The Randy Weston Trio and the Kenny Barron Trio play Saturday at 8 p.m. in Page Auditorium. Tickets are $5 for students, $22-$38 for the general public.


Share and discuss “Monk music” on social media.