From the Latin rhythms of jazz drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez to the uniquely African-infused sounds of jazz composer and pianist Randy Weston, jazz is having a global moment. To kick off this year’s Jazz Appreciation Month, the American History Museum began with a festive donation ceremony as the two living legends offered pieces from their illustrious careers, including a purple drumset and a black tunic and cap from a special international appearance.
Weston had in fact been to the museum 15 years earlier when he came to take in its collection of Duke Ellington materials, an archive which confers a sort of mecca status onto the Institution. In the intervening years, Weston was honored with the nation’s highest achievement for a jazz musician, earning the status of a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2001.
Born in 1926 in Brooklyn, Weston says his life was always full of learning and music. His parents surrounded him with books about great African leaders and civilizations and sent him to piano lessons from an early age. Tall even then, Weston says, “In those days, I thought I was going to the circus,” but he stuck with piano. He still relishes memories of playing records with the window open as the sounds drifted to the city streets. “The whole community was music,” he says. Eventually, Weston was able to travel abroad to Africa and learn more about the cultures he had studied from afar. “By traveling and studying, I realized music was created in Africa in the first place,” particularly the blues and jazz, which he says he heard elements of everywhere. His musical career has worked to highlight and expand upon these musical and cultural intersections, earning him no end of honors. In 2011, the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, held a ceremony to celebrate Weston’s role in bringing the country’s Gnaoua music traditions to the West. Standing alongside the outfit he wore then and which is now a part of the museum’s collections, Weston says, “I’m still studying and learning.”
From Cuba by way of Italy, Hernandez not only brings a fresh perspective on Afro-Cuban music but his percussive skill alone is a bit of a musical revolution. Curator Marvette Pérez told him, “I just don’t know anyone who can do with the drumset what you do.” His musicality, she says, turns the drums into something more akin to a piano. Before playing one last set on the kit, Hernandez told the crowd he was honored to have a piece of his music forever surrounded by “memories of people that I always dreamed to be with since the day I was born.”
Head here for more information about Jazz Appreciation Month and this year’s calendar of performances.