Best Jazz Albums: Art Blakey

By: Scott Yanow

“And I know many bands have gotten together with some of the finest musicians in the world, they got together and they play, but they can’t come across the floodlights. You’ve got to come past the floodlights to the people. Because that’s the main thing about playing jazz, is the contact with your audience.

You know, it’s one of the most wonderful things in the world because the musicians don’t know what they’re going to play. It’s from the Creator to the artist to the audience. And then from the audience back to the artist and so on. ” – Art Blakey

The Jazz Message (Columbia)
Hard Bop (Mosaic)
Second Edition (Bluebird)
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk (Atlantic)

The Jazz Message has four selections from the last sessions of the Silver-Blakey Jazz Messengers (including “Ecaroh” and “Hank’s Symphony”), a song from a transitional group from June 25, 1956 (“The New Message” with Donald Byrd, Ira Sullivan on tenor, pianist Kenny Drew, and bassist Wilbur Ware), and three numbers from what is considered the second version of the Jazz Messengers: trumpeter Bill Hardman, altoist Jackie McLean, pianist Sam Dockery, and bassist Spanky De Brest along with Blakey.

Although it was a major blow when Horace Silver broke up the original Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey soon regrouped and reinforced his original goals, except this time he would be the group’s sole leader. While he was famous in the jazz world, keeping the Jazz Messengers together during 1956-58 was a struggle at times since the group was not established. However Blakey and his sidemen were able to record and perform consistently rewarding music that helped to define hard bop.

While the Jazz Messengers’ earliest sessions were on Blue Note, Blakey would not become a fixture at that label for a few years. Hard Bop from Dec. 1956 has the second Jazz Messengers performing two standards and three originals including “Cranky Spanky” and McLean’s ”Little Melonae.” Originally released by Columbia, Mosaic reissued the music on a single CD along with four other selections from the same sessions.

The same band is featured on Once Upon A Groove (Blue Note) and Mirage (Savoy) from early 1957. Most unusual is that, rather than play songs written by his musicians, Blakey used tunes by Mal Waldron and Gigi Gryce to keep the band’s repertoire fresh on the former album while Mirage has originals by Waldron and Ray Draper. Since Hardman, Dockery and DeBrest were not significant songwriters and McLean was still early in his career, perhaps Art Blakey did not have that much confidence in their ability to compose material for the group.

An LP titled Play Lerner & Loewe has Blakey avoiding that problem by performing a full set of music by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe: two songs apiece from My Fair Lady, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon including three that became standards. Johnny Griffin had succeeded McLean in the group, adding a great deal of energy and uplifting each performance. Originally made for the Vik label, this album has been reissued along with five additional selections by Bluebird as Second Edition.

Other worthy Messengers recordings from the era include Theory Of Art (Bluebird) which reissues the album A Night In Tunisia by the short-lived sextet version of the Jazz Messengers (with both McLean and Griffin) plus two songs featuring the Messengers as a nonet (with the young Lee Morgan as second trumpeter with Hardman), and Hard Drive (Bethlehem) from Oct. 1957 with Junior Mance filling in for Sam Dockery.

Art Blakey also recorded other special projects during this period including Drum Suite (Columbia/Legacy), Orgy In Rhythm (Blue Note), and Art Blakey Big Band (Bethlehem). The first two have Blakey at the head of large percussion ensembles while the latter finds the drummer leading a 15-piece big band that includes John Coltrane, one of the relatively few times after his Eckstine years that Blakey recorded with a big band.

But of these unique albums, the most essential is Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk. Blakey and Monk had enjoyed working together on some of the pianist’s recordings, so it was time for Monk to return the favor. He joined the Jazz Messengers for this one album, performing five of his songs (including “Evidence,” “In Walked Bud,” and “Rhythm-A-Ning”) plus Johnny Griffin’s “Purple Shades,” fitting right into the group. The Rhino CD reissue of the Atlantic album adds three alternate takes to the original program. Monk so enjoyed playing with these musicians that Griffin would become a member of his quartet the following year.

Mosaic (Blue Note)
Buhaina’s Delight (Blue Note)
Three Blind Mice Vols. 1 & 2 (Blue Note)

1961 brought changes to the Jazz Messengers, but not in their quality. Two weeks after they recorded Freedom Rider, the group became a sextet with the addition of trombonist Curtis Fuller. The 1960 quintet plus Fuller recorded one album, Jazz Messengers!!! for the Impulse label. In July Lee Morgan left the group and was succeeded by the perfect replacement, Freddie Hubbard. Bobby Timmons also departed with the piano spot being taken by Cedar Walton. Three of the six Messengers of July 1961 might have been brand new but this new edition was on the same level as its predecessor.

For proof of that, the four Blue Note albums in this section serve as perfect evidence. Mosaic contains five new songs by four of the Messengers including Fuller’s “Arabia,” Hubbard’s “Crisis” and Walton’s “Mosaic.” Other than “Moon River,” all of the music on Buhaina’s Delight was also of recent vintage, mostly by Shorter including “Contemplation” and ‘Backstage Sally.” 

The two CD volumes of Three Blind Mice include a fair number of standards (including “Blue Moon,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low”) played the Jazz Messengers way but also such future standards as Walton’s “The Promised Land,” Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” and remakes of “Mosaic” and “Ping Pong.”

With the strong material, brilliant soloists (Hubbard was on his way to the top) and the always enthusiastic Blakey, the Jazz Messengers continued to rank with the very best jazz groups.

Caravan (Riverside)
Ugetsu (Riverside)
Free For All (Blue Note)
Indestructible (Blue Note)
‘S Make It (Limelight)

In 1962 the Jazz Messengers became even stronger when Reggie Workman succeeded Jymie Merritt on bass. Otherwise the personnel stayed the same into mid-1964.The group with Workman recorded two very good albums for the Riverside label during 1962-63 with Caravan including a classic version of the title cut, a fine Hubbard feature on “Skylark,” and the introduction of the trumpeter’s “Thermo.” Shorter stole the show on Ugetsu by contributing “One By One” and being featured on “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” 

Free For All from Feb. 1964 was the final recording of this sextet, an excellent all-round set. Freddie Hubbard soon went out on his own and, to the surprise of many, his replacement was the returning Lee Morgan. Recovered from a drug habit that had hindered his career during the previous two years, Morgan used the Jazz Messengers as a safe haven, a way of re-entering the jazz major leagues. He had just had a surprise hit with “The Sidewinder” but was not quite ready to lead his own group.

Indestructible has him playing with the same musicians (other than Workman) who were on the Messengers’ Impulse album three years earlier. While none of the five songs (written by Morgan, Fuller, and Shorter) became standards, the playing is quite superior. This would be the only recording by this particular group although an augmented band (with both Morgan and Hubbard on trumpets plus French horn, tuba, alto and baritone) recorded a so-so album, Golden Boy (tunes from the show), the following month.

‘S Make It from Nov. 1964 has Morgan, Fuller and Blakey joined by tenor-saxophonist John Gilmore (during his year-long vacation from Sun Ra), pianist John Hicks, and bassist Victor Sproles. While Morgan and Gilmore would stay with Blakey for a few more months, this underrated album, which includes songs by Morgan, Fuller and Hicks, can be thought of as the trumpeter’s swan-song with Blakey and the close of a classic era.

Buttercorn Lady (Limelight)
Live! (Trip)
Jazz Messengers ’70 (JVC/Catalyst)
Child’s Dance Vol. 1 (Prestige)
Mission Eternal Vol. 2 (Prestige)
Gypsy Folk Tales (Roulette)

During the 1965-78 period, Art Blakey persevered with the Jazz Messengers although there was much more turnover than in the previous decade, and there were stretches when the group did not record. While the earlier editions could be difficult to compete with, not to mention the rise of rock, fusion, and the avant-garde, Blakey stuck to his musical message of hard-swinging music. And he also continued proving that he was quite a talent scout.

Consider Buttercorn Lady, the better of the only two albums that Blakey led during 1966-67. In addition to tenor-saxophonist Frank Mitchell and bassist Reggie Johnson, the group had two future stars in trumpeter Chuck Mangione (who was always a fine bebop player) and pianist Keith Jarrett (before he joined the Charles Lloyd Quartet). 

In 1968, Blakey’s band was open to the adventure of the avant-garde thanks to the playing of tenor-saxophonist Billy Harper. The group with Bill Hardman (who was a Jazz Messenger during at least four periods), trombonist Julian Priester, pianist Ronnie Mathews, and bassist Lawrence Evans, was barely documented but their live album gives one a good idea of how they sounded.

There was only one Art Blakey recording during 1969-71, a period when many American record labels had lost interest in acoustic jazz. Fortunately the Japanese JVC label recorded the band in 1970 (it was later issued domestically by Catalyst) for it features Hardman, tenor-saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianist Joanne Brackeen (the Messengers’ only female member), and bassist Jan Arnet mostly visiting the band’s greatest hits including “Moanin’,” “Blues March” and “A Night In Tunisia.” Brackeen’s brilliant playing and Garnett’s intense solos make this set a standout.

Blakey recorded three albums for the Prestige label during 1972-73 and all of the music has been reissued on a pair of CDs. Child’s Dance has the drummer leading a larger-than-usual ensemble with the core group with trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor-saxophonist Carter Jefferson, Cedar Walton, and bassist Mickey Bass joined by extra horns, percussion, keyboards, and the 20-year electric bassist Stanley Clarke. Shaw’s playing on “I Can’t Get Started” is a highlight. Mission Eternal focuses more on the quintet plus a few guests: Tony Waters on congas, Jon Hendricks singing “Along Came Betty” and “Moanin’,” trombonist Steve Turre, and guitarist Michael Howell.

The Jazz Messengers was off records again during 1974-75 (a version of the group with trumpeter Olu Dara was briefly filmed but never recorded) although the 1977-79 edition with Valery Ponomarev, tenor-saxophonist David Schnitter, altoist Bobby Watson, pianist Walter Davis (succeeded by James Williams), and bassist Dennis Irwin had much better luck. Gypsy Folk Tales from 1977 featured all new material from Davis, Schnitter, and Watson (Davis’ Jodi” is best known) plus two songs co-written by Blakey and Bob Mintzer. In My Prime Vol. 1 (Timeless), In This Korner (Concord), and Reflections In Blue (Timeless) are also excellent recordings of this particular group.

But that version of the Jazz Messengers would soon be completely overshadowed by the next one.

Live At Montreux and Northsea (Timeless)
Album Of The Year (Timeless)
Straight Ahead (Concord)
Keystone 3 (Concord)
Live At Kimball’s (Concord)

In 1980, Art Blakey put together a Jazz Messengers Big Band for some special concerts in Europe. He wanted to show off some of the top young talents along with a few of his band members. The remarkable lineup consisted of Valery Ponomarev and 19-year old Wynton Marsalis on trumpets, trombonist Robin Eubanks, altoist Bobby Watson, tenor-saxophonist Billy Pierce, altoist Branford Marsalis, pianist James Williams, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, bassist Charles Fambrough, and percussionist John Ramsey. They made one recording, Live At Montreux and Northsea.

Shortly after, a new version of the Jazz Messengers was formed that consisted of Wynton Marsalis, Watson, Pierce, Williams, Fambrough and Blakey. The band introduced Marsalis to the jazz world and, while he sounded a lot like Freddie Hubbard at first, he would develop quite a bit during his two years with Blakey.

Album Of The Year from 1981 includes the Charlie Parker blues “Cheryl,” Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt,” and James Williams’ “Soulful Mister Timmons.” The same lineup of musicians is featured on Straight ahead for such numbers as “Falling In Love With Love,” “Webb City,” and “How Deep Is The Ocean.” By the time of the final Marsalis recording with Blakey, 1982’s Keystone 3, Branford Marsalis (who would soon switch to tenor) succeeded Bobby Watson on alto. “In Walked Bud,” Wynton’s “Waterfalls” and “In A Sentimental Mood” are highlights.

When Wynton Marsalis left the Jazz Messengers in 1982, there were well publicized tryouts for his spot. Terence Blanchard was picked as his successor, Donald Harrison took over for Branford Marsalis and, while Pierce and Fambrough temporarily remained, Johnny O’Neal was the Messenger’s new pianist. The Blanchard-Harrison frontline remained intact until they left to form their own band in 1985. By that time, tenor-saxophonist Jean Toussaint, pianist Mulgrew Miller, and bassist Lonnie Plaxico were Jazz Messengers. Among this group’s best recordings are Oh, By The Way (Timeless), New York Scene (Concord) and especially 1985’s Live At Kimball’s.

Not Yet (Soul Note)
I Get A Kick Out Of Bu (Soul Note)
Chippin’ In (Timeless)
One For All (A&M)

The 1980s were much different for Art Blakey than the 1970s. The Jazz Messengers worked and recorded prolifically and every two years or so the personnel was often completely different. Every young modern jazz artist wanted to have the experience of playing with the inspiring drummer, and quite a few were granted that privilege. While Blakey had occasional tours (some of which were recorded) with his alumni, he tended to call them old men (even though they were younger than him), preferring to play with the youngsters.

During 1986-90 Blakey’s sidemen at various times included trumpeters Wallace Roney, Philip Harper, and Brian Lynch, trombonists Tim Williams, Robin Eubanks, Frank Lacy, and Steve Davis, tenor-saxophonists Javon Jackson and Dale Barlow, altoist Kenny Garrett, pianists Donald Brown, Benny Green, and Geoff Keezer, and bassists Peter Washington, Leon Dorsey, and Essiet Essiet. All have had major careers since then. 

Not Yet (with Harper, Eubanks, Jackson, Green and Washington), I Get A Kick Out Of Bu (the same group with Dorsey on bass), Chippin’ In and One For All (the latter two with the final version of the Jazz Messengers in 1990 featuring Lynch, Lacy or Davis, Jackson, Barlow, Keezer and Essiet) feature Art Blakey continuing his original musical principles of 35 years before. 

By sticking to his musical guns, Art Blakey not only changed history but has continued to influence jazz long after his Oct. 16, 1990 passing at the age of 71.

Art Blakey

Artist Page

Art Blakey’s 1960 Jazz Messengers

(Set is out-of-print)

Art Blakey Quintet

A Night At Birdland