As any well-read jazz fan will know, Art Blakey was so much more than a powerhouse drummer armed with a swashbuckling, polyrhythmic style. He was also a charismatic bandleader who co-founded The Jazz Messengers and led the legendary group from 1956 until his death in 1990. During that time, the band – which became known as “The Hard Bop Academy” – saw 167 young musicians come through its ranks, many of whom would later rise to become stars in their own right.
Like Miles Davis, Art Blakey found inspiration and a revitalising new energy from working with musicians much younger than himself. When he was introducing his band onstage at New York’s Birdland venue in 1954, he uttered these famous words: “Yes, sir, I’m going to stay with the youngsters – when these get too old, I’m going to get some younger ones. It keeps the mind active.” As every jazz fan knows, Blakey stayed true to those words throughout his long career.
A born leader
Arthur William Blakey was born on 11 October 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but never knew his parents. According to the drummer, who grew up in the Hill District of the city, as a child he was raised by a series of stepmothers – including his maternal grandmother – following the death of his own mother when he was 21 months old. By the time his mother died, his father had already left the scene.
Life was tough for young Art Blakey. As a teenager, he was expelled from school and began working in a steel mill but aspired to become a piano player. Self-taught, Blakey wasn’t, by all accounts, a very good pianist (he played by ear and could only play in one key). Legend has it that he was forced to switch from piano to drums after a gangster in a club where Blakey was playing threatened to shoot him if he didn’t get behind a drum kit. From that point onwards, Art Blakey devoted himself to being a drummer.
Blakey was a born leader and started fronting his own groups as early as 1933, when he was 14. On his musical travels he encountered noted drummers Chick Webb and “Big” Sid Catlett, who gave him invaluable advice about playing his instrument. By 1944, Blakey’s stature in the jazz world had grown considerably, so much so that the popular singer Billy Eckstine asked him to join his proto-bebop band, which at that time included Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. When Eckstine broke up the group, Blakey began freelancing in New York and played on Thelonious Monk sessions for Blue Note Records in 1947 (later the same year, he would release his first recordings for the label in the shape of two 78s attributed to Art Blakey’s Messengers).
Birth of The Jazz Messengers
After a trip to Africa in 1948, where he converted to Islam (and took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina), Blakey put together a short-lived big band called The Seventeen Messengers. Five years later, in 1953, the drummer joined forces with pianist Horace Silver to form a quintet that pioneered a new kind of energised, bebop-based small-group jazz that drew inspiration from gospel music and blues. Its practitioners called it “hard bop” and, on a live 1954 album recorded for Blue Note called A Night At Birdland, Blakey and Silver’s quintet established the blueprint for that particular new sound and style. Soon afterwards, they adopted the name The Jazz Messengers, though Silver departed in 1956, leaving Blakey at the helm. For the next 34 years, Blakey would guide the group, which stayed true to its hard bop roots despite its ever-changing personnel.
A prolific recording act, The Jazz Messengers released a multitude of albums for myriad record labels, ranging from majors such as Columbia and Impulse! to jazz indies Bethlehem and Riverside. They are chiefly remembered, though, for their productive association with Alfred Lion’s Blue Note label, where they enjoyed two separate stints between 1958-61 and 1964-65. Arguably the peak of their work for Blue Note is the album Moanin’, recorded in 1958, when Blakey was 39, and featuring the classic title tune that epitomised The Jazz Messengers’ hard bop aesthetic.
The 50s and early 60s was a particularly fertile time for The Jazz Messengers. Those that graduated from the band during that period included trumpeters Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard; saxophonists Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McLean, Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter; and pianists Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton.
Later years and death
As the 60s progressed, hard bop fell out of favour and was deemed passé in comparison with free jazz, a more revolutionary approach to the music as favoured by the likes of trailblazers Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler. Even so, Blakey persisted with hard bop and, as ever, brought fresh blood into his band as the decade progressed; among the new recruits were Keith Jarrett and horn players such as Garry Bartz and Chuck Mangione.
The late 60s witnessed a three-year period where Blakey was without a record deal, but in the following decade there was something of a Jazz Messengers renaissance, with Blakey putting together several new incarnations of the band and recording for a number of different labels. The musicians that appeared with the group during this time included trumpeter Woody Shaw, pianist Joanne Brackeen (the first female member of the band) and bassist Stanley Clarke.
In 1981, the Jazz Messengers boasted an exciting young horn god in its ranks, the rising New Orleans trumpet star Wynton Marsalis, who would go on to carve out a stellar solo career for himself. By 1990, Blakey’s long-running band were back with a major label, A&M, and released an album called One For All. It turned out to be the Messengers’ swansong, as Blakey succumbed to lung cancer five days after his 71st birthday, on 16 October of that year.
Art Blakey’s legacy
Art Blakey was a lot of things during his 71 years: ladies’ man, gourmet, philosopher, teacher, mentor, bigamist, drug addict and a father of ten children. But, above all else, he was a consummate musician whose raison d’être was spreading the jazz gospel. He played the drums with verve and a propulsive sense of swing combined with unremitting power, and led his band with an avuncular authority, inspiring those playing with him to up their game and play harder, louder and with more creative fire. Besides his many recordings with The Jazz Messengers, Blakey left behind many fine solo albums.
His, then, is a rich and storied musical legacy that continues to inspire new generations of listeners and musicians. For the road-hardened Blakey, jazz was more than just music, it was a way of life. And it possessed the power to cleanse, heal and uplift. Or, as he once famously said: “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.”
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