Randy Weston was an impressively proportioned man. In his autobiography, he recalled that as a child he would rather have been out playing ball with friends rather than doing piano lessons with Mrs. Chapman, a real old-school teacher attuned to what he called “the European music she was trying to indoctrinate me in.” He also thought for sure he would grow up to be a ballplayer, due to his already impressive size.
In the end, his experience of living life as a 6’7″ tall man would inspire one of his most well-known compositions, “Hi-Fly.” He debuted the song at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with his trio. It came at an early peak in his career; Weston had been active since the late ’40s, first as a member of a number of R&B and jazz bands, and later playing alongside such luminaries as Kenny Dorham and Cecil Payne. He formed his trio and quartet, and released his debut recording as leader in 1954; a year later, he was voted New Star Pianist in Down Beat Magazine‘s International Critics’ Poll.
Like many others, Weston was greatly influenced by Thelonious Monk and the influence of his music can be heard on “Hi-Fly.” Michael Ullman defined the composition as “an eccentric and good-natured piece, playfully based on a leap of a fifth. It sounds like someone skipping, or maybe a hiccup, and might have been based on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Misterioso.'”
Weston’s performance of “Hi-Fly” at Newport was recorded and released in a split live album release that same year, titled New Faces at Newport. It quickly garnered attention and many jazz greats of the time – including Mel Tormé, Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley – would make it a part of their repertoire. Jon Hendricks first recorded the song with his vocalese group, Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross (with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross) in 1959 for the album on which they boldly declared themselves The Hottest New Group in Jazz.
Hendricks made a significant contribution to Weston’s piece by adding lyrics to it. Drawing inspiration from the title, he wrote words that depicted and criticized a superficial modern lifestyle where people with their foreign cars are unable to look past their noses and see the way real life ought to be: “Old ways seem to have passed us by / These days, life is in hi-fly.”
Weston himself would revisit “Hi-Fly” many times throughout his career; it appears on many of his albums, from 1959’s Live at the Five Spot (in a sextet) to 2009’s The Storyteller (with his African Rhythms Sextet). The song also provided the title for a number of albums by other artists, including Jack Byard’s in 1959, Archie Schepp with Karin Krogg’s in 1976 and Horace Parlan’s in 1978.
Feature photo: Chuck Stewart/Mosaic Records