Art Blakey

"A powerful drummer with a trademark drum roll that could scare off all but the bravest jazz musicians, Art Blakey was one of the giants of his instrument." - Scott Yanow

© Mosaic Images; photograph by Francis Wolff

Art Blakey

By Bob Blumenthal

During the half-century that Art Blakey spent on the national and international jazz scene, he accomplished just about everything a creative musician could hope to achieve. 

He apprenticed with several commanding figures, was present at the creation of a revolutionary new style, became an influence on his chosen instrument, innovated yet again once he began working as a bandleader, then introduced and nurtured several generations of younger stars while serving as a personable and enthusiastic musical ambassador.  Players and listeners alike responded to Blakey’s drumming, his dedication, and his unquenchable spirit.

The odyssey of his combo, the Jazz Messengers, which began in earnest during the middle of the 1950s and continued with only minor interruption (most notably Blakey’s tour with the Giants of Jazz in the early ’70s) until the drummer’s death on October 16, 1990, is if anything even more astounding.  For the better part of four decades, jazz’s most promising new voices were seasoned and tested in Blakey’s band, challenged in equal measure by the freedom to find their own identities as improvisers and composers and the constant instrumental (and often verbal) goading of their volatile leader. 

The Jazz Messengers had a clear identity, extroverted and muscular as Art Blakey’s drumming, and the reliability of this ensemble personality was a key to the group’s ongoing commercial success; but within this profile, there was enormous room for creative exploration. 

Maintaining a balance between the risky and the tried-and-true was no mean feat – in many ways it may have been Blakey’s greatest achievement.  Whenever it appeared that a key sideman was departing, there was Art Blakey, ensuring that the Jazz Messenger standard would be upheld while guaranteeing the necessary room in which the next layer of group personality might emerge.

Art Blakey & Blue Note: 1947

At the end of 1947, Blakey began his critical and longstanding relationship with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records.  His extraordinary presence on the first sessions under Thelonious Monk’s leadership that fall led to his own octet date on December 27, a scaled-down version of his big band of the time, the 17 Messengers (so named because many of the members were Muslims). 

While several years would pass before Blakey’s career as a bandleader took off, he remained on call for several key Blue Note sessions.  Blakey also worked during these years in New York with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and the veteran bandleader Lucky Millinder.  He was part of a pickup rhythm section behind Buddy DeFranco at Birdland in 1952 that also included pianist Kenny Drew.  The clarinetist hired the band for an extended road engagement that once again raised Blakey’s profile in clubs across the country.

 When Blakey returned to New York at the end of 1953, he was finally coming into his own, a “new star” on drums according to the down beat Critics’ Poll of that year and a thoroughly schooled veteran who had just turned 34.  The time to assert his leadership was upon him, and Blakey quickly realized that a key to his future would be the nurturing of less experienced talent.  As he told the audience at Birdland during the famous February 1954 session where he fronted a quintet featuring Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson and Horace Silver, “Yes sir, 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.”

Horace Silver & The Jazz Messengers
Doodlin’ 1954

Hank Mobley

Kenny Dorham

Horace Silver

Doug Watkins

© Mosaic Images; photographs by Francis Wolff

Not just any youngsters would do, however.  Blakey needed confident solo voices, players who could stand up to the increasingly aggressive accompaniment he generated from his drum set; and, since he was not a composer, he also needed players who could contribute appropriate original material.  He found the ideal partners in trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Silver and bassist Doug Watkins, and with them he formed a cooperative quintet that began working around New York in 1954.

While all of the featured soloists could write, the key member from a commercial perspective was Silver, whose catchy originals were drenched in a timeless aura of funky blues that mitigated some of the more abstact aspects of jazz modernism.  As a pianist, Silver was stark, like Monk, but more overtly soulful, and his blunt, but thematically coherent comping also fit perfectly with the increasing activity of Blakey’s concept.

Silver and Blakey had worked to great advantage on the pianist’s previous trio dates for Blue Note, and when the Jazz Messengers recorded Doodlin’, The Preacher and six other titles under Silver’s leadership in late 1954 and early ’55, the more blues-based and percussively active “hard bop” style that had been taking shape in New York burst into full flower. It was Silver, who’d remembered coming to New York to see Blakey’s 17 Messengers, who came up with the title Jazz Messengers for this new co-operative.

It did not take long for the Messengers to catch on.  Charlie Parker had died in March 1955, and listeners were on the lookout for something new.  Many were also hungry for an alternative to the often-exceedingly restrained brand of “cool” jazz that was becoming identified with the West Coast.

Hard bop, as played by the Messengers, the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, the Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones, and the brilliant young tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (who would shortly join Brown/Roach) satisfied listener demands, just at the moment when the expanded playing time of 12-inch LPs appeared to accommodate the lengthier solos.

By the middle of 1956, though, Silver had left to form his own quintet, taking Mobley, Watkins and trumpeter Donald Byrd (who replaced Dorham at the end of ’55) with him.  “Co-ops are a hard thing,” Silver explained to Michael Cuscuna a quarter-century later; “People tend to want to do things in their own way.”

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Moanin’ –

Benny Golson

Lee Morgan

Bobby Timmons

James “Jymie” Merritt

© Mosaic Images; photographs by Francis Wolff

In the summer of 1958, Art Blakey recruited tenor saxophonist Benny Golson to serve as musical director and assemble a new band.  The trumpet chair was filled by Lee Morgan, a young firebrand who had just turned 20 and already had two years of experience on the national jazz scene.  Another hometown buddy was pianist Bobby Timmons, who was born in 1935 and gained some of his first experience on local jobs with Morgan.  Bassist James “Jymie” Merritt was older (born 1926) and, like Golson, schooled in the more rough-and-tumble world of rhythm and blues, where he worked at length on electric bass with Bull Moose Jackson, BB King and others.

Blakey returned to Blue Note to record these reconstituted Messengers in October 1958, and the resulting session produced not one but two hits, Timmons’ sanctified Moanin’ and Golson’s hard-shuffling Blues March.  The Messengers were on top once again, although questions were quickly raised; British critic Max Harrison’s charge that “the success of these pieces was bought at the cost of a drastic simplification of the Messengers’ usual polyphonic approach” is indicative of one response, although Blakey was unphased.

“The average man doesn’t want to have to use his brain when he listens to music,” he would later tell Art Taylor, in what could serve as his answer to Harrison.  “Music should wash away the dust of his everyday life…Music is entertainment.”

Horace Silver & Jazz Messengers

A Night At Birdland

Art Blakey

By Bob Blumenthal

Art Blakey, who was also frequently referred to by his Muslim name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 11, 1919. “I started playing music to get out of the coal mine and the steel mill,” he told Taylor, and his first jobs were as a pianist and bandleader in local clubs, where he would work from 11 PM until 6 AM after putting in a full day shift.  Blakey was fond of telling the story of how he became a drummer after Erroll Garner walked into a club where he was working, and the club owner persuaded him (with the help of a 38-caliber revolver) to cede his piano chair to Garner and start playing the drums.  He evidently took to his new instrument quickly, inspired by such assertive percussive heroes of the ’30s as Chick Webb and Sid Catlett.

Art Blakey recalled leaving Pittsburgh initially with his own band in 1937 or ’38 but returning after being stranded on the road.  He left for New York in 1939 with another Pittsburgh native, Mary Lou Williams, and spent much of the next two years alternating between jobs with Williams and Fletcher Henderson.  

It was during a Southern tour with Henderson that Blakey was beaten by a police officer, an episode that earned him a steel plate in his head (and, shortly thereafter, a draft deferment).  Unwilling to subject himself further to the racism of the road, Blakey left Henderson in Boston and fronted a band for a couple of years at the Tic Toc Club.

In 1944, another Pittsburgher, Billy Eckstine, sent for Blakey to join his big band in St. Louis.  The Eckstine unit was a direct outgrowth of the Earl Hines orchestra, where Eckstine had been the featured vocalist and where the twin modernist terrors, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, had begun to spread their new ideas.  Eckstine built his band around Gillespie and Parker, adding such other young players as Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham, trumpets; Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Leo Parker and Lucky Thompson, saxophones; Tommy Potter, bass; Sarah Vaughan, vocals; and Tadd Dameron, arranger. 

Blakey stayed on until Eckstine disbanded in 1947, a period in which the Eckstine band helped usher in the modern era despite leaving a recorded legacy that, in Blakey’s words, was “sadder than McKinley’s funeral.”  Record producers of the period were more interested in cutting pop vocals than in the instrumental excellence of this truly all-star ensemble, although the value of the experience was not lost on Blakey.  “It was like a school for me,” he told Art Taylor, “and that’s when I realized that we had to have bands for young black musicians – big bands, little bands, a whole lot of bands – because this music is an experience.  It’s a school, and they can train to become musicians and learn how to act like musicians.”

After Eckstine disbanded, Blakey embarked on a journey that had a major impact on his conception.  As he described it in a spoken passage on the album Ritual, “In 1947, after the Eckstine band broke up, we took a trip to Africa.  I was supposed to stay there three months and I stayed there two years, because I wanted to live among the people and find out how they lived, and about the drums especially.  We were in the interior of Nigeria…The drum is the most important instrument there.  Anything that happens that day that is good, they play about it that night.  This particular thing caught my ear…”

The influence of this trip cannot be overestimated. His personalized use of the hi-hat cymbal for a steady beat, the volcanic press roll, and the chattering rim shots, plus his wide and powerful dynamic range in accompaniment quickly made him one of the most distinctive and visionary drummers in New York.

liner note excerpt Mosaic Records: The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Art Blakey’s 1960 Jazz Messengers