American jazz percussionist Art Blakey (1919–1990) helped to forge the characteristic sound of hard bop, perhaps the dominant style of modern jazz. His own powerful playing was instantly recognizable among jazz fans, but equally important was his influence—the long list of players who passed through Blakey's band, the Jazz Messengers, formed the nucleus of the jazz scene in the last decades of the twentieth century and into the new millennium.
"Icall ours the music of survival," Blakey was quoted as saying by Steve Voce of the London Independent . "I'm a Depression baby. I was orphaned in Pittsburgh—I didn't know my dad and my mother died when I was six months old, so I played jazz on account of survival because I didn't like to work in the mines. They had child labour then and I worked in coal mines and steel works." Arthur Blakey, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 11, 1919, was raised by a woman named Marie Roddericker who was a friend or relative of his mother. He started out musically on piano, playing by ear, and by the time he was a teenager he had skills enough to be able to organize a big band (with as many as 18 musicians) that played in Pittsburgh clubs. He had other bands depending on his income. "When I should have been an adolescent, I was a man," Voce quoted him as saying. "At the age of 14 I had a family and at 15 I was a father. I never had a childhood." Blakey would marry four times and have a reported 12 children, five of them adopted.
His switch to drums came about at the instructions of a gun-toting gangster who owned a nightclub and was present when jazz pianist Erroll Garner happened to sit in as Blakey's group was rehearsing. The owner, impressed by Garner's talent, told Blakey to move over to the drum set. "The pistol gave me no choice," Blakey observed dryly
Blakey's first break came in 1942, when the always experiment-minded jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, during a stretch of time she spent in Pittsburgh, asked him to join her band. Blakey moved to New York and used that experience as his calling card to gain percussion jobs with a series of big bands, including those of Fletcher Henderson, Lucky Millinder, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Tours of the South for black musicians at the time could be dangerous. "We [the Henderson band] drove to Albany, Georgia, and I had some problems down there with the police and got beat up. They put a plate in my head," he recalled to Paul Rubin in a Jazz Spoken Here interview reprinted in Reading Jazz . Sometimes Blakey turned to drugs to escape hard times early in his career, but in that he had plenty of company among jazz musicians. He fell into an addiction that he conquered only in 1963.
In 1944 Blakey joined a band led by vocalist Billy Eckstine, later renowned as a romantic singer but at this point presiding over one of the most remarkable assemblies of jazz talent in the history of the genre. Blakey spent three years with Eckstine, during which he and his bandmates—saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and vocalist Sarah Vaughan, among others—elaborated a revolutionary, hard-driving, harmonically ambitious new style of jazz known as bebop. Blakey regarded this period as the central experience of his musical education, and according to the testimony of Gillespie and others, he made immediate contributions to the complex rhythmic vocabulary of bebop. He took away not only musical lessons, but also the realization that the lifeblood of jazz depended on a process in which older musicians participated in shaping the talents of younger ones coming along.
By 1947 Blakey was ready to become a leader himself. He formed an octet called the Jazz Messengers, making the first of a long series of recordings for the Blue Note label. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Blakey performed, as leader and sideman, with various groups, expanding the role of percussion in jazz. He experimented with the Messengers' name, heading a large group called the 17 Messengers. With his drug problems worsening, Blakey went to Africa in search of spiritual renewal. He adopted the Islamic faith while he was there, taking the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. The "message" referred to in Blakey's group names seemed to allude to drums and their capacity for communication. "[Y]ou can tell a story on the drums," Blakey pointed out (as quoted by the Boston Globe 's Derrick Z. Jackson). One Blakey band featured ten percussionists out of 13 players in total.
In 1954 Blakey began performing at the prestigious Birdland club in New York with a quintet that included pianist Horace Silver, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and bassist Curly Russell. Blakey and Silver broke off to form their own quintet the following year, reviving the Jazz Messengers name. Blakey kept the name when Silver in turn departed to form a group of his own, and he remained the leader of the Jazz Messengers for the rest of his career. It was in these groups that a refinement of bebop known as hard bop took shape, featuring interactions among intense drumming that could build to peaks of thunderous power, a furiously blowing saxophone, and a pianist adding a field of dense harmonic colors to the music.
As he became a recognized bandleader, Blakey began to apply the other lesson he had learned as a member of Billy Eckstine's band in the 1940s: He surrounded himself with younger musicians and nurtured their careers. "I'm gonna stay with the youngsters," he told an interviewer in 1954 (as quoted by Richard Harrington of the Washington Post ). "When these get too old, I'm gonna get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active." Blakey, in his mid-30s at the time, stuck to that philosophy all the way up to senior citizen age. The Jazz Messengers had a rotating membership, and a band member might be dismissed with a firm "Hey man, I think it's time for you to go," but at any time from the mid-1950s until Blakey's death, an observer hoping to identify the stars of the next generation of jazz needed only to take a look at the current Jazz Messengers roster. Blakey was eclectic in his choice of players, taking some criticism from black nationalist adherents of jazz as a result; the Jazz Messengers included white and Asian players, and even a Russian trumpeter, Valery Ponomarev.
The incarnations of the Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, by which time the group often performed as a sextet, were perhaps the band's best known. Hard bop was hitting its peak among jazz audiences, and Blakey at the time could draw on the talents of two superb saxophonists who were also innovative composers, Benny Golson (who wrote the Jazz Messengers standards "Along Came Betty" and "Blues March") and Wayne Shorter (who composed "Ping Pong"). Blakey argued that jazz was a characteristic product of American culture. "I hear we're sending ballet over to Russia," he said in the 1950s, in reference to U.S. State Department cultural-exchange programs. "They're the masters of ballet, and we're sending them ballet. They don't have jazz. We have jazz. They would go for that." The Jazz Messengers became the first American jazz band to tour Japan and play for Japanese audiences in 1960. Tours of Europe followed later, and Blakey developed a strong base of listeners there.
In the early 1970s, younger jazz players such as Herbie Hancock began to gravitate toward the new "fusion" style, which incorporated electronics and influences from rock music. Blakey rejected suggestions that he modernize his music. "Jazz is an art form, and you have to choose," he was quoted as saying by Jackson. "The record company executives with an eye on trends said to me, 'Well Blakey, if you update your music and change it, put a little rock in there, you'll come along.' I will not prostitute my art for that. It's not worth it. Gain the world and lose your soul? It's no good." Blakey's old associate Miles Davis, who helped create fusion jazz and became its foremost exponent, defended Blakey against the charge that his music was out-of-date. "If Art Blakey is old-fashioned, then I'm white," the African-American trumpeter remarked (according to Jackson).
Blakey's recording pace slackened somewhat during the 1970s, but he continued to bring new talent along in the Jazz Messengers. When the pendulum swung back toward less fusion-oriented jazz in the 1980s, Blakey was ready with the next generation of stars. Chief among these was New Orleans-born trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who joined the Jazz Messengers as a 17-year-old in 1979 or 1980 as Ponomarev's replacement. Other Jazz Messengers, including Marsalis's brother Branford on saxophone, pianist Mulgrew Miller, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, became stalwarts of the jazz bandstand on their own from the 1980s onward. No player, no matter how talented, stayed with Blakey for long. "If they get comfortable and stay around too long we kick 'em out," Blakey explained (according to the Toronto Star ). "It is not like the post office." The Jazz Messengers also functioned as a unit, with no one player standing out; Blakey discouraged long, heroic solos, and he was fond of introducing a selection with the quip that the piece would feature no one in particular.
Another player who apprenticed with Blakey was drummer Cindy Blackman, who told Peter Watrous of the New York Times that "[h]e adopted me like his daughter. He taught me a lot of things about drummers and music. But as important, he helped me when I was just starting out and not working too often. He'd ask me to sit in when he was playing, he helped me if I needed money. His influence on all us young musicians is incalculable." Saxophonist Jackie McLean echoed Blackman, telling Watrous that Blakey taught him "[n]ot just how to be a musician, but about being a man and keeping a sense of responsibility." The vigorous renaissance that jazz experienced in the 1980s and 1990s seems at least partly attributable to Blakey's roles as teacher and mentor.
Blakey did not slow his performing schedule as he reached the ages of 60 and then 70, marking the latter milestone with a concert in Leverkusen, Germany, at which several generations of Jazz Messengers performed and honored the man who had been such a crucial developer and maintainer of the tradition in which they worked. Finally silenced by lung cancer, Blakey died in New York City on October 16, 1990. Trumpeter and former Jazz Messenger Freddie Hubbard, who had spoken to Blakey on the phone a few days earlier, told the Toronto Star about the drummer's words: "Don't be grieving when I die," Blakey said. "Think about the good moments, what we did together and what you can do later on."
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