Jazz legend and New School artist-in-residence Randy Weston. Photo by Carol Friedman.

Randy Weston, ‘Jazz Griot,’ Among Illustrious Artists-in-Residence

Randy Weston is one of the greatest living jazz musicians, an innovator and visionary who has performed on five continents, formed partnerships with the likes of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and forged a unique sound that has brought African rhythms to the foreground of contemporary jazz.

Titles such as “innovator” and “visionary” inevitably pop up in discussions of the 89-year-old Brooklyn-born pianist and composer. But there is another descriptor that is equally fitting of Weston: griot. Griots are a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who provide an oral history of West Africa.

In Weston’s case, he’s a griot of jazz and its African roots.

“It’s so important to teach the history of our music and the origins of our music, which comes directly from the African continent,” Weston says. “It’s so important to reach our young people. Musicians have to be historians, too.”

Weston will share that history, as well as his wisdom and expertise, with students when he joins the School of Jazz as its artist-in-residence this semester. During his residency, the jazz guru will participate in a lecture series exploring his music and the development of American jazz and its roots in Africa, lead an improvisation ensemble program, mentor students, and perform live. Throughout these activities, Weston will be a conduit to the past, channeling the golden era of jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the genre’s African origins.

“In many cases, students aren’t taught the history of Africa or African music,” says Weston, a lifelong student of the continent’s culture and history. “I always say, if you want to learn the language, you have to learn the alphabet.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, Weston’s interest in African culture and spirituality took hold at an early age, thanks in large part to his father. In his 50-year career, Weston has traveled to 18 African countries, producing the continent’s first major jazz festival and living for many years in Morocco, where he opened a popular jazz club. At the same time, he formed deep connections with a number of America’s jazz masters, including Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ellington and Monk.

“Randy is a griot, a living link with early days of the music,” says Philip Ballman, coordinator of special programs at the School of Jazz. “To have one of the foremost jazz practitioners speak about his experiences is invaluable for young musicians finding their way. Randy is a treasure, and we’re so lucky to have him.”

Come next semester, Weston will take on the role of teacher. But despite his new title of artist-in-residence, he’ll always think himself as a student.

“I’m always learning,” he says. “Whether it’s visiting Africa or coming to The New School, it’s all related to the fantastic experience of music and what it means to us. It’s the one language we should all understand.”

Weston is one of the many accomplished musicians, artists, playwrights, and choreographers who will share their wisdom and expertise with students as artists-in-residence at The New School, offering students the chance to learn from and in some cases work directly with masters of their fields.

The list of illustrious professional artists includes

  • Naila Al Atrash, a Syrian-born stage director and actor known for her challenging plays, which explore society, economics, and politics. She will guest-direct a play in the Eugene Lang College Theater Program.
  • Imani Winds, a genre-defying Grammy-nominated wind quintet entering the second year of its residency at The New School. The group will conduct master classes, perform concerts, serve as guest lecturers in classrooms, and teach entrepreneurship in the performing arts.
  • Nami Yamamoto, a renowned Japanese dancer and choreographer. She will create a new work for Eugene Lang College dance students, to be performed in their end-of-semester Fall Dance Performances.
  • The Orion Quartet, a critically acclaimed string quartet that has been an artist-in-residence at The New School for the last decade. The group will lead master classes, perform concerts and offer private one-on-one instruction to students.
  • Andrew Balio, principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. During a daylong residency in October, he will conduct a master class, participate in a panel discussion on the future of classical music and of orchestral music, and perform a recital.