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Linking 'African Rhythms' To American Jazz

Pianist Randy Weston grew up surrounded by some of the greatest musicians in jazz. But it was his deep connection to Africa that inspired his personal style of music.

Weston recently sat down with NPR's Neal Conan to discuss the link between West African music and American jazz in his autobiography, African Rhythms. Traditional histories trace the history of American jazz to New Orleans, but not Weston.

"African people were taken from Africa, and taken to the States, and they came in contact with European culture and instruments," he says. Then, they "created a different kind of music" -- jazz and blues.

Weston says he gives credit to his father for connecting him with music and the continent of Africa.

"He told me you have to study African civilization -- when Africa was great," Weston says.

His dad also made him take piano lessons as a child.

"So we grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., [where] we had all kinds of music, but it goes back to the continent of Africa, where music came from in the first place."

Weston says he's visited 18 African countries since 1961, when he first went to Nigeria. And all the music he's heard on his travels speaks to him.

"I search for the traditional music wherever I go. I try to find the oldest musicians I can find," he says. "And I hear the foundation of what we do in the Western Hemisphere is coming from African civilization."

Weston says he's heard the blues, for example, all over Africa, but "you hear it with the traditional instruments and the traditional languages." Weston says he tries to spend nearly as much time listening as he does performing.

"I want to hear the oldest music I could possibly hear," he says. "The music of Africa is music that is totally in tune with the universe and the earth and the sky. Traditional people, their music is very difficult to imitate, because it's the story of their lives."

Weston says he's devoted his compositions to that spirit of storytelling.

"I'm not a jazz musician," he has written. "I'm really a storyteller through music."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.