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In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pianist Randy Weston and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik celebrated with song the revolutions spreading across Africa. In Ghana and South Africa, drummer Guy Warren and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin fused local musical forms with the dizzying innovations of modern jazz. These four were among hundreds of musicians in the 1950s and ’60s who forged connections between jazz and Africa that definitively reshaped both their music and the world.
Each artist identified in particular ways with Africa’s struggle for liberation and made music dedicated to, or inspired by, demands for independence and self-determination. That music was the wild, boundary-breaking exultation of modern jazz. The result was an abundance of conversation, collaboration, and tension between African and African American musicians during the era of decolonization. This collective biography demonstrates how modern Africa reshaped jazz, how modern jazz helped form a new African identity, and how musical convergences and crossings altered politics and culture on both continents.
In a crucial moment when freedom electrified the African diaspora, these black artists sought one another out to create new modes of expression. Documenting individuals and places, from Lagos to Chicago, from New York to Cape Town, Robin Kelley gives us a meditation on modernity: we see innovation not as an imposition from the West but rather as indigenous, multilingual, and messy, the result of innumerable exchanges across a breadth of cultures.
— Peter Monaghan
From Chapter Two: The Sojourns of Randy Weston
Like so many other black people around the globe, Randy Weston was moved by the seemingly rapid and occasionally bloody birth of independent African nations. With the black freedom movement heating up on American soil, these anticolonial victories seemed particularly poignant. So in 1958, Weston began composing a serious musical work as “a symbolic gesture . . . to show our pride that some of the countries in Africa were getting their freedom.” He ambitiously set out to pay homage to the continent’s past and future by creating “a large-scale suite to illustrate that the African people are a global people and that what we do and who we are comes from our collective experience, from our African cultural memory . . . I wanted this suite to be performed by African people not only from different parts of the world but also from different areas of music. This idea had been in my head for years, and finally in the late ’50s it started coming together.”
Indeed, in just the two years between Weston’s initial sketches of the suite and its historic recording, many things “started coming together” that profoundly shaped the final product and deepened his political and cultural ties to Africa. First, he met his muse and future collaborator—trombonist, arranger, and composer Melba Liston. She was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, which had just completed a State Department–sponsored tour of South America, when Weston spied her on the bandstand at Birdland. Born in Kansas City and raised in Los Angeles, Liston cut her teeth on West Coast swing and bebop bands but had been largely overlooked and underappreciated because of her gender. In Liston, Weston found not only a brilliant arranger who understood his vision of combining jazz, blues, and folk idioms, but one who shared his passion for music of Africa and the diaspora. Weston recalled how they would get together and listen to tapes of Congolese traditional music that, to their ears, sounded like “hillbilly music, the blues, modern music” combined. They first collaborated on Weston’s LP Little Niles, recorded in October 1958 and released on the United Artists label the following year. It was an important recording for several reasons. For one thing, it was Weston’s first LP composed entirely of his own compositions, and Liston had arranged each one (and played trombone).
Second, Weston’s budding friendship with Langston Hughes became a fruitful collaboration. Hughes wrote the liner notes for Little Niles, and in 1959 he began reading poetry with Weston’s trio in clubs and galleries throughout New York. From the moment he conceived of the suite, Weston wanted Langston Hughes to write an invocation— a “freedom poem” proclaiming a new era of African independence. Hughes delivered:
Africa, where the great Congo flows!
Africa, where the whole jungle knows
A new dawning breaks, Africa!
A young nation awakes! Africa!
The Freedom wind blows
Out of yesterday’s night
Weston was pleased, to say the least: “Langston’s poem set an absolutely wonderful tone for that recording session. Remember, the whole point of [the suite] was to talk about the freedom of a continent; a continent that has been invaded and had its children taken away, the continent of the creation of humanity. And Langston felt that, he knew it deep down in his soul.”