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Randy Weston Archive Provides Glimpse Into the History of Jazz in America and Africa

Harvard Library, in collaboration with the Jazz Research Initiative, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has acquired a personal archive documenting over 50 years of jazz history.


Harvard Library has acquired pianist and composer Randy Weston's personal archive of musical scores, recordings, correspondence, posters, and other materials that offer a rare glimpse into the world of an artist, an ambassador, and a businessman.

The project, the first major collaboration between Harvard Library and the Jazz Research Initiative at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, will make available Weston’s archive of recordings and documents for scholars and the public to experience free of charge. The archive will be of interest to scholars of music, of African American culture, and of the history of the relationship between Americans and Africans for many generations. Researchers and scholars will be able to use the collection once it is fully processed in the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, where the collection will be housed.

As one of the first African American musicians to deeply engage with his musical roots in Africa, Randy Weston occupies a pivotal place in American music. A pianist of powerful intensity and originality, Weston emerged from a thriving musical scene in 1950s Brooklyn, which included Max Roach, George Russell, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and Miles Davis. His most enduring musical influence is Thelonious Monk, who nurtured his talent. He went on to tour five continents and collaborate with luminaries such as Langston Hughes.

The Randy Weston Archive includes documentation from all periods of Weston’s prolific career, including original compositions and arrangements by his collaborators, such as trombonist Melba Liston; along with musical recordings from festivals, club and concert hall performances, and informal occasions such as rent parties and rehearsals. Printed ephemera include original flyers, handbills, posters and programs, all providing a visually evocative portrait of the jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s. The archive also contains materials from Weston's activities in Africa, such as correspondence, photographs, business records, and recordings.

Randy Weston's first recordings as a band leader began in the mid-1950s, and he has released more than 40 recordings over the course of 50-plus years. Compositions such as "Hi-Fly" and "Little Niles" have become jazz standards and have been recorded and performed by numerous artists. Duke Ellington, who befriended the younger pianist, was so taken with his compositions that he invited Weston to publish his music under Ellington's own Tempo Music imprint.

Weston was also deeply engaged in the independence struggle of African nations in the 1960s and its relation to the domestic civil rights movement. His active participation in the United Nations Jazz Society and subsequent touring of the African continent aimed to bring traditional African music to the consciousness of its Western descendants, as well as to bring the best of American jazz music back to the African continent.

“Randy Weston’s collection provides an electrifying window into the world of jazz from the 1950s to the present,” said Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music. “It makes possible the teaching of hands-on archival courses in jazz and African diasporic history, the writing of new scholarly histories, the opportunity to hear live performances, and an appreciation of the discipline, artistry, and vision of one of the most intriguing figures in the history of the music.”  

Sarah J. Adams, Richard F. French Librarian at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, said: “We are delighted to have as the library’s first major archival jazz acquisition the collection of an artist of such international prominence and influence as Randy Weston. His personal archive is impressive in its depth and richness and will be the centerpiece of our growing jazz collections.”

The Harvard Jazz Research Initiative, led by Professor Ingrid Monson, is developing a series of projects designed to document and interpret jazz history and practice through multimedia, oral history, and musical analysis. The Jazz Research Initiative plans to develop digital projects and exhibitions to make these archival materials available through Harvard Library for research, teaching, and learning. 

Article by Harvard Library Communications.

Article published on August 3, 2016.