Art Blakey - Biography

The volcanic drummer Art Blakey, an innovator in the bebop era and a dominant presence in the hard bop movement of the Fifties, was also an extraordinary bandleader. Even a partial list of graduates from his university of jazz serves notice that his Jazz Messengers was one of the most formidable institutions of its day. On trumpet alone, there was Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Chuck Mangione, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Wallace Roney, Brian Lynch, and others! A roster of the saxophonists, trombonists, pianists and bassists who passed through the group is overwhelming, so let’s just note that with so many important musicians as alumni, the impact of the Messengers’ style and the lessons of Blakey’s own style as a drummer and a bandleader will continue to have an impact on jazz for a long time to come.

Art Blakey was born in Pittsburgh, PA, on October 11, 1919. Economic circumstances forced him from school early, and he got a job in the Carnegie Steel Mills. He hated manual labor, and as he later told drummer Arthur Taylor in an interview, “I started playing music to get out of the coal mine and steel mill.” He started out on piano, leading a band at night after working a shift in the mill. In later years, Blakey liked to tell the story of how he became a drummer when a club owner, with the help of a pistol,  persuaded him to make way for Erroll Garner at the piano. Inspired by the swing master drummers Big Sid Catlett and Chick Webb, Blakey took to his instrument quickly.

Blakey got his first taste of the road in the late Thirties, but got stranded and returned to Pittsburgh. In 1939, he left for New York with pianist Mary Lou Williams. For a couple of years, Blakey kept himself working by alternating between bands led by Williams and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. It was while with Henderson on the road in the South, that Blakey received a beating from a police officer, serious enough to require a steel plate in his head (and an ensuing draft deferment). Not wanting to head South again, Blakey left the Henderson band in Boston, where he led a group at the Tic Toc Club for a couple of years.

In 1944, Blakey was asked to join the Billy Eckstine organization, then on the road in St. Louis. Eckstine, another Pittsburgh native, was leading a group of musical revolutionaries who’d split off from the Earl Hines band. Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie were there, along with such future stars as trumpeters Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, and arranger and composer Tadd Dameron. Although this legendary outfit did make a number of records for the DeLuxe and National labels (collected on The Legendary Big Band, 2002 Savoy), the emphasis on Eckstine’s smooth vocals and trombone playing made those recordings, in Blakey’s singular description, “sadder than McKinley’s funeral.”

When the Eckstine band broke up, Blakey took a trip to Africa that had a lasting influence on his conception of the role of the drum. In the interior of Nigeria, he learned that the drum was their most important instrument. “Anything that happens that day that is good, they play about it at night. This particular thing caught my ear....” By the middle of 1947, he was back in New York. A sextet date with Thelonious Monk in September introduced a new, distinctly powerful style, and also served as Blakey’s introduction to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records. The association would prove to be of lasting benefit to all concerned.

It was around this time that Blakey, like many of his fellow boppers, became interested in Islam, and took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. A group of spiritually like-minded players got together and selected Blakey to head the band they called the 17 Messengers. Blakey made his Blue Note debut as leader with a smaller version of the group just after Christmas, 1947, issued with early recordings by James Moody as New Sounds (1947 Blue Note).  Blakey played on one of the Moody dates as well, and he was soon working with just about every modern musician in New York. Recordings sessions with Monk, Gillespie, Gordon, Davis, Parker, Sonny Stitt, the Lucky Millender Orchestra, and Coleman Hawkins, and many more stars testify to his standing in the modern jazz scene of the late Forties and early Fifties. After Blakey was part of a pick-up group that backed bop clarinetist Buddy DeFranco for a Birdland engagement in 1952, DeFranco then hired him for a national tour, raising Blakey’s profile in clubs around the country.

Back in New York at the end of 1953, riding a wave of publicity from the Down Beat Critics’ Poll that named the 34-year-old a “new star” on drums, Blakey seized the opportunity to start his own band. From the very beginning, he had the concept that would stay with him for the rest of his career. As he told the audience during the recording of the critically acclaimed, A Night At Birdland (1954 Blue Note), “I’m going to stay with the youngsters; and when these get too old, I’m going to get some younger ones. It keeps the mind active.” And that’s exactly what he did.

Blakey, along with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist and composer Horace Silver, and bassist Doug Watkins, formed the cooperative quintet the Jazz Messengers in 1954. Another live recording, this one at the Café Bohemia, cemented the group’s growing reputation in New York and beyond. A co-op is difficult to maintain, though, as Silver later explained, saying that “People tend to want to do things their own way.” By the middle of 1956, Silver decided to form his own band, taking the rest of the Messengers with him. That left Blakey the name, and true to his evolving methods, he went out and found some youngbloods to play in the group. The next edition of the Messengers, with Bill Hardman on trumpet, Jackie McLean on alto and/or Johnny Griffin on tenor, Sam Dockery at the piano, and Spanky DeBrest on bass, made recordings for several labels, including a reunion with Monk. As successful as the group was, Blakey faced the never-ending dilemma of what to play. Not being a composer himself, he needed someone in the group who could supply material in the band’s earthy hard bop style. Silver had taken that role in the first group, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1958, when Blakey recruited tenor saxophonist Benny Golson to become his musical director and put together a new group, that he was on the way to solving the problem. It helped a lot that Golson had a large pool of talent to draw upon in his native Philadelphia. On October 30, 1958, the new Jazz Messengers, with Golson, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass convened at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack, NJ, living room studio to make a record for Blue Note that would firmly put the band at the top of the heap. The two big hits on the album were “Moanin’,” by Timmons, and “Blues March,” by Golson, and they continue to thrill today. Originally issued as simply Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, this utterly essential album came to be known as Moanin’ (1957 Blue Note).

Golson, preferring a more arranged approach to his music, left in 1959, replaced briefly by Hank Mobley, who was followed by Wayne Shorter. Except for a brief period in the early Seventies, when he worked in the Giants of Jazz ensemble with Gillespie, Monk, Stitt, trombonist Kai Winding, and bassist Al McKibbon, Blakey led the Jazz Messengers for the next 30 years. There was the occasional special project or reunion band along the way, as well as the especially intimate and surprising date he co-led with Dr. John and David “Fathead” Newman as Bluesiana Triangle (1990 Windham Hill Jazz), but the Messengers in all its versions was Blakey’s life work, and the bands always stayed true to his ethos of making firm contact with the audience and treating the bandstand as “hallowed ground.”

One can always debate the merits of one or another edition of the Jazz Messengers. The 1960 quintet with Morgan, Shorter, and Timmons? The 1962 sextet with Hubbard, Shorter, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and new musical director Cedar Walton at the piano? One of the Seventies bands, perhaps, with saxmen Billy Pierce and Bobby Watson, and Valery Ponomarev on trumpet? Or maybe the Wynton Marsalis edition of the early Eighties? Practically anywhere you turn, there’s high quality, timeless jazz fueled by the great drummer’s boundless energy and enthusiasm. The Jazz Messengers made hundreds of albums, recording for the last time in April 1990. Art Blakey left the planet on October 16, 1990.

In addition to his work with the Messengers, Blakey appeared on an astonishing number of important jazz records of the Fifties and Sixties, including Paul Bley’s first album (1953 Debut), Dorham’s Afro/Cuban (1955 Blue Note), Mobley’s Soul Station (1960 Blue Note) and Roll Call (1961 Blue Note), Griffin’s A Blowing Session (1957 Blue Note), Sonny Rollins’ Movin’ Out (1954 Prestige) and Volume Two (1957 Blue Note), A Date With Jimmy Smith (1957 Blue Note), pianist Sonny Clark’s My Conception (1959 Blue Note), Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson’s Things Are Getting Better (1958 Riverside) and all of Herbie Nichols’ trio sessions for Blue Note. Blakey was also a significant contributor to recordings by Monk, and many commentators over the years have expressed a distinct preference for Blakey as the perfect drummer for the iconoclastic pianist. There were dates for Prestige in 1952 and 1954 and a series of triumphs on Riverside including The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956), and Monk’s Music (1957) with a septet that featured Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. Also important to a full understanding of Blakey’s career is the series of African percussion records he made for Columbia and Blue Note in the Fifties, long before there was a “world music” section in any record store.       

Blakey often said that “the music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life.” In a 1985 interview with Ben Sidran, he added that the audience is “supposed to come in there and enjoy themselves.” But in his equally emphatic assertion of the sanctity of the bandstand, he also meant that the musicians should leave their problems behind them in order to achieve the “rapport between the audience and the music” that makes for real jazz. And he always knew when things were really happening, “because when we do get our message across, those heads and feet do move.” Art Blakey loved doing his job, and anyone fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to see him play could see that. Luckily there is still the recorded evidence to enjoy again and again.

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