Blakey, Art 1919–1990
Art Blakey 1919–1990
Legendary bebop jazz drummer Art Blakey was known for his “frenetic snare drum patterns, fiery cymbals, and eccentric rhythms in a band that many credit with reshaping the face of modern jazz,” according to the Los Angeles Times. He played on over 470 recordings by such jazz greats as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Bebop great Dizzy Gillespie called him “the volcano” of bebop drummers, according to the Washington Post. As the leader of his ever–changing group, the Jazz Messengers, Blakey nurtured the talents and careers of numerous jazz musicians, including some stars and a few legends. Trumpeters Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Chuck Mangione, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, and Wynton Marsalis, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McClean, Hank Mob–ley, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and pianists Horace Silver and JoAnne Brackeen are among the many musicians who were schooled and launched from Blakey’s group. The Washington Post called Blakey’s Messengers “the most valued and valuable apprenticeship in jazz.” His pioneering style on the drums rivaled his accomplishments as a mentor. “He was undoubtedly one of the most original drummers of all time…,” percussionist Max Roach told Billboard. “He heralded a new day for the instrument. His was an unmistakable sound.”
Blakey was born October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Marie Roddicker, who died when Blakey was just six months old. His father left before Blakey was born, and Blakey has said that his father’s light–skinned, mulatto family shunned Roddicker for her dark complexion. A friend of his mother’s, a woman he came to call his mother, raised Blakey with his two brothers. Blakey’s formal education was troubled and erratic; he was constantly in conflict with school authorities and teachers. Pennsylvania had an integrated school system at the time, “but in our schools, especially in the junior high school, most of the teachers were white, and most of them were bigots, and I couldn’t learn anything,” Blakey said in an interview reprinted in Reading Jazz. He took some piano lessons in school, but was mainly self–taught on the piano in the house he grew up in. He formed a band in school, but Blakey’s schooling soon took a back seat to a more grown–up life; he had a girlfriend, was bringing home a paycheck from his steel–mill job, and was playing piano in clubs at night by age 13. He married his girlfriend at age 14, and was leading his own professional dance band and had become a father by age 15.
Born Arthur Blakey on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, PA, (later chose the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina); died of lung cancer, October 16, 1990, in New York City; married four times; 12 children (five adopted), including Art Blakey, Jr. (deceased).
Career: Jazz drummer. Worked in steel mills and played piano in nightclubs; switched to drums; became full–time bandleader, c. 1934; member of Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1939; joined Mary Lou Willtams’s band, 1942; member of Henderson Orchestra, 1943–44; led band in Boston; member of Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra, 1944–47; recorded with pianist Thelonious Monk, 1947; performed with saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, and pianist Horace Silver, early 1950s; Blakey and Silver formed Jazz Messengers with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley, and bassist Doug Watkins, 1955; leader of Jazz Messengers, 1956–90; toured world with Giants of Jazz, 1971–72.
Awards: Down Beat New Star Award, 1953; Grammy Award (with Jazz Messengers) for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance (Group), 1984, for New York Scene, honorary doctorate, Berklee College of Music, 1987; Northsea Festival Charlie Parker Award, 1989.
Blakey’s band played for two years at a Pittsburgh club called the Ritz before Blakey replaced himself on piano with Erroll Garner and took a seat at the drums. He played with numerous local bands before landing in pianist Mary Lou Williams’s band at the club Kelly’s Stable in New York City in 1942. He began playing in Fletcher Henderson’s band the next year. He toured the South, where he found himself in trouble with the police and was severely beaten. “At that time the South was very rough,” he is quoted as saying in Reading Jazz. He recovered in Boston, and was leading his own group there, when he met singer Billy Eckstine. In 1944, in St. Louis, he joined Eckstine’s pioneering new bebop band, where he found the freedom to develop his own style. In bands like Duke Ellington’s or Count Basie’s, Blakey recalled in Reading Jazz, the drummer is “the timekeeper.… it’s like 15 musicians and a drummer. In Billy Eckstine’s band, there were 16 musicians, and everybody got to play, and that made a difference.… I knew I had to identify myself, and I had to play different.” Blakey’s band mates in the Eckstine group included saxophonists Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet player Miles Davis, singer Sarah Vaughn, and pianist Thelonious Monk.
Blakey cited drummers Chick Webb, Kenny Clarke, Ray Bauduc, Gene Krupa, and Big Sid Catlett among his influences. Webb took a young Blakey under his wing, and forced him to perform hours of “rolling” drills on a snare drum, building his talents. Drummers Clarke and Max Roach are featured predominantly on the bebop recordings of the era, but Blakey “soon became the pre–eminent leader of the hard–bop movement,” which “combined bebop’s instrumental freedoms with a surging gospel backbeat,” according to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
Blakey stayed with Eckstine until the band’s demise in 1947, then led his own group for a short time. The 17 Messengers, as his group was called, recorded for the Blue Note record label in 1947. Blue Note Records owner Alfred Lion first saw Blakey play with Eckstine, and made him the label’s house drummer. The 17 Messengers—which included saxophonist Sonny Rollins and pianist Bud Powell—played around New York for a while, but didn’t earn enough money and soon disbanded. Blakey escaped to Africa to study the culture and Islamic religion from 1948 to 1949. “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums … I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do,” Blakey said in a 1979 interview reprinted in Down Beat. “I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on the boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy.” For a while after his conversion to Islam, Blakey was known as Abdullah ibn Buhaina, which earned him the nickname “Bu.”
Blakey worked with Lucky Millender’s band upon his return to the States in 1949, and recorded and performed with various artists, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, and Buddy DeFranco. A couple of years after his 17 Messengers dissolved, Blakey recorded an impromptu live record at New York’s Birdland jazz club with Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Curley Russell, and Lou Donaldson. A Night of Birdland was released on Blue Note. But Blakey wanted a more permanent group. “We were tired of the jam–session thing,” he told Down Beat, “where you’d get some guys together, go out, and trust to luck.” After a 1954 recording session with Silver, the two formed a quintet and dubbed themselves the Jazz Messengers. The group included Blakey, Silver, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley, and bassist Doug Watkins.
Silver passed sole leadership to Blakey when he left the group in 1956. “He’s one of the greatest drummers of our time,” Silver is quoted as saying in USA Today. “He was a definite stylist. Nobody could out–swing Art Blakey.” The group’s signature became its everchanging lineup, while the name remained the same. When one musician would set off on his own, he usually would help Blakey find a replacement, an unproven newcomer. When someone would leave the group, “Then the kids bring in another musician, and if he works out spiritually with the cats, then straight ahead he gets the music going,” Blakey told Down Beat. That ever–changing lineup defined the band’s personality, but not its sound. “Every band that he grabbed, even though it had a different set of musicians, always sounded like Art Blakey,” former Messenger Javon Jackson told Down Beat writer Robin Tolleson.
Blakey “forced his musicians to dig into themselves and play to their capacity, play hard and smart, make their notes and ideas count,” wrote Harrington in the Washington Post. Often times, he would pull a musician aside and tell him it was time for him to move on. “When you got to a certain point, he kicked you out, he knew you were ready,” former Messengers saxophonist and musical director Bobby Watson told Robin Tolleson in Down Beat “He used to say: ‘You’ve been around the world with me, made records, seen what I do. Now it’s time for you to go out and give it a try.’” Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard agreed. “Everybody that comes out of his group is a leader,” he was quoted as saying in USA Today. “You had to be a leader. There was nowhere else to go when you got through with the messengers.” Though he always denied the role of teacher, Blakey “understood the responsibilities that come with mature artistry, chief of which is the development of an informed progeny,” Wynton Marsalis told Billboard. “His life was given to educating younger musicians and entertaining his adoring public. He himself was a messenger of the highest human ideologies, of love, and of joy, and he brought an accurate musical portrait of America to the world.”
“A Jazz Messenger performance was never a jam session, but a succession of succinct solos,” Richard Harrington wrote in a Washington Post obituary. Blakey encouraged all members to write music, which the group would play, but the spotlight shone on no one member. “On this tune we feature … no one in particular!” was a favorite stage line of Blakey’s. “I’ve got no room for no stars,” he said in the Down Beat interview. “The Jazz Messengers is the star—all of us together. The leader of the band is Art Blakey, and the star is the group. We do it together. I don’t believe in throwing a soloist out there; you are not supposed to be in competition with him.… By making him sound better, I help myself sound better.”
After forming the Jazz Messengers, Blakey continued to record on his own with such artists as Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Cannonball Adderley, and Hank Mobley. He also worked with Thelonious Monk’s historic 1957 group, which included Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, but rarely performed live without the Jazz Messengers. He recorded Something in Blue and The Man I Love, with Monk’s trio in London in 1971. Those recordings are “perhaps his most impressive achievements as a player,” according to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Blakey temporarily left the Messengers in 1971 and 1972 to play on the Giants of Jazz tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others.
Blakey faced the resentment of some blacks for welcoming whites and Asians into the Messengers. A fierce defender of racial equality, Blakey knew “a lot of blacks … would talk about it behind my back,” according to the Los Angeles Times. His audience was more white than black, and for this Blakey blamed black radio stations for not playing jazz. Though he toured extensively throughout the world, he preferred Brazil, Germany, and Japan for “the way you are treated as a human being,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Blakey has played at special Messengers reunions, most notably at the 1981 Kool Festival, in Japan in 1983, and at the 1985 Blue Note relaunch concert. One night of the 1981 Newport Jazz Festival was dedicated to “The Blakey Legacy,” and Messengers from the previous 25 years joined the drummer onstage. Tolleson wrote that discussing the many lineups of the Jazz Messengers “is like comparing different classic New York Yankee teams.” The original quintet became more frequently a sextet in 1961, and played on a 1980 tour as a ten–piece.
Blakey remained a champion of acoustic jazz through the synthesized–jazz trends of the 1970s. “Jazz is an art form, and you have to choose,” Blakey once said, according to the Boston Globe. “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.” Former Jazz Messengers Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard led the hard–bop movement of the 1980s. Blakey’s influence spread to England, and the emergence of such hard–bop Britains as Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson.
To Blakey, jazz was not a complicated science. “You know what’s happening when we are on the bandstand?” he said in Down Beat. “We are having fun…. just enjoy yourself. Who knows, maybe the next set you won’t be here.” Anyone who saw him play saw him with his mouth and eyes wide open in a combination of excitement and concentration, his feet pumping and his arms flailing. He was “perhaps the most emotionally unbridled drummer in jazz, and there are times when his backgrounds resemble a brush fire,” critic Nat Hentoff once said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Blakey kept up his performance schedule with the Messengers literally until he was hospitalized for lung cancer. He returned from one of many tours of Japan with what he thought was pneumonia. He died five days after his 71st birthday, on May 16, 1990, at St. Vincent’s hospital in New York.
A Night at Birdland, Vols. 1-3 (live), Blue Note, 1954.
Blakey with the Jazz Messengers, EmArcy, 1954.
At the Cafe Bohemia, Vols. 1-3 (live), Blue Note, 1955.
The Jazz Messengers, Columbia/Legacy, 1956.
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Columbia, 1956.
Orgy in Rhythm, Vols. 1-2, Blue Note, 1957.
Holiday for Skins, Vols. 1-2, Blue Note, 1958.
Des Femmes Disparaissent, Fontana, 1958.
The Freedom Rider, Blue Note, 1961.
Free for All, Blue Note, 1964.
Buttercorn Lady, Limelight, 1966.
Moanin’ (live), LaserLight, 1968.
Anthenagin, Prestige, 1973.
A Night in Tunisia, Polygram, 1979.
Live at Montreux and Northsea, Timeless, 1980.
Album of the Year, Timeless, 1981.
Straight Ahead, Concord Jazz, 1981.
Keystone 3, Concord Jazz, 1982.
Art Blakey & The All Star Messengers, RCA, 1982.
New York Scene, Concord Jazz, 1984.
Dr. Jeckyl: Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (live), Evidence, 1985.
Cafe Bohemia, Vols. 1-2: 1955 (live), Giants of Jazz, 1999.
Southern Devils: Paris Jazz Concert —May … (live), Malaco, 2000.
Live in Europe: 1959, Tokuma Japan, 2000.
Live at Ronnie Scott’s, BBC Legends, 2000
Night in Tunisia, RCA/Bluebird, 2002.
Carr, Ian, Fairweather, Digby, Priestley, Brian, Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 1987.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz, Da Capo, 1985.
Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, Prentice–Hall, 1982.
Gottlieb, Robert, editor, Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reporting, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, Pantheon Books, 1996.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, Ltd., 1998.
Billboard, October 27, 1990, p. 6.
Boston Globe, October 21, 1990, p. A22.
Down Beat, June 1994, p. 34; July 1999, p. 56.
Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1990, p. A20.
USA Today, October 17, 1990, p. 4D.
Washington Post, October 17, 1990, p. D8; October 21, 1990, p. Gl.
All Music Guide Online, http://www.allmusic.com (August 20, 2002).
Art Blakey’s death in 1990 brought to a close a remarkable and multifaceted career; not only was he one of the most influential jazz drummers of his day, but he was also something of a father figure to dozens of aspiring jazz musicians. His group the Jazz Messengers, which he led for nearly 35 years, served as an incubator for talents as diverse as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Keith Jarrett. The vast catalog of recordings he left behind documents the development of his trendsetting drumming style, and perhaps more significantly, the evolving sound of his ensemble, which, though its membership was continually in flux, always maintained Blakey’s mandate to create first-rate jazz that would, as he remarked in an interview in The Black Perspective in Music, “wash away the dust of everyday life.”
Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, a city that has produced many other jazz notables, including pianists Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and Errol Garner. As a youngster, Blakey worked in the steel mills dotting the outskirts of Pittsburgh; in the evenings he played piano at local clubs. After hearing the immensely gifted Garner play at one such venue, Blakey decided his talents would best be served on the drums. By the time he was 15 he was leading his own band and listening closely to the work of many of the great swingera drummers, including Chick Webb, Kaiser Marshall, and Sid Catlett.
Blakey played briefly with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1939, then joined Mary Lou Williams’s group at Kelly’s Stable, a club in New York City. After rejoining Henderson for a year and leading his own band in Boston, Blakey was hired by singer Billy Eckstine to play in his orchestra, a group that included several bebop luminaries—trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Fats Navarro and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker.
In 1947 Blakey participated in several recordings with pianist Thelonious Monk; the sessions produced timeless early versions of some of Monk’s tunes, including “’Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Ruby, My Dear.” Monk had taken Blakey under his wing when the drummer first arrived in New York from Pittsburgh and had introduced him to the competitive club scene there. As Blakey told Down Beat’s Zan Stewart of Monk, “He was my best friend.... If it hadn’t been for him, I’m not so sure I would have been me. I learned so much playing with him, being with him.” The many recordings the two musicians made together are, in fact, testaments to the musical and personal empathy between them.
In 1948 Blakey traveled to West Africa to pursue a longstanding interest in world religions. For a year he studied
Worked in steel mills and played piano in nightclubs; switched to drums; became full-time bandleader, c. 1934; member of Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1939; joined Mary Lou Williams’s band, 1942; member of Henderson Orchestra, 1943-44; led band in Boston; member of Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra, 1944-47; recorded with pianist Thelonious Monk, 1947; lived in West Africa, exploring African religion; performed and did radio broadcasts with saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, and pianist Horace Silver, early 1950s; Blakey and Silver formed Jazz Messengers with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley, and bassist Doug Watkins, 1955; leader of Jazz Messengers, 1956-90; toured world with Giants of Jazz, 1971-72.
Selected awards: Down Beat New Star Award, 1953; (with Jazz Messengers) Grammy Award for best jazz instrumental performance—group, 1984, for New York Scene; honorary doctorate, Berklee College of Music, 1987; Northsea Festival Charlie Parker Award, 1989.
Islamic religion and culture, eventually taking the Islamic name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina—from which comes his nickname, “Bu.” Although Blakey denied that this trip influenced his music, he did adopt several African drumming techniques after his sojourn, including rapping on the side of the drum and changing drum pitch with his elbow.
After his return to the U.S., in 1949, Blakey continued his association with many of the great early bebop musicians, occasionally performing and doing radio broadcasts with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Then, in 1955, Blakey and pianist Horace Silver formed the first incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, with Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, and Doug Watkins on bass. Blakey would lead this group, with varying personnel, for the rest of his life. The diverse Messengers groups recorded prolifically and toured widely, visiting Japan alone at least 47 times.
From 1971 to 1972 Blakey toured the world with a group called the Giants of Jazz, which included Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, trombonist Kai Winding, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and bassist Al McKibbon. In 1984, one of the latter-day Messengers groups recorded New York Scene, which won a Grammy Award. During his later years, Blakey was almost completely deaf and played drums by feeling vibrations. Nonetheless, he continued to perform until he was incapacitated by illness during the summer of 1990. Blakey died of cancer in October of that year.
As a drummer, Blakey helped elevate his instrument from the mainly accompanimental role it had occupied in the swing bands of the 1930s and ’40s. He sustained such a continuous interaction with the other soloing instruments that, as Mark Gridley commented in his book Jazz Styles, “for him to solo was almost anticlimactic.” Blakey’s distinctive use of the high-hat cymbal and the press roll (a brief and tightly controlled roll on the snare drum) were two influential and instantly recognizable elements of a style notable for both its complexity and direct appeal. As Herb Nolan described it in Down Beat, “Blakey developed a driving, emotional style filled with so many levels of sound [that] there is the illusion of great rhythmic waves washing over and through the music. He offers strength, delicacy and soul all mixed into a style that is impossible to mistake for any other drummer.”
As a bandleader and discoverer of new talent, Blakey continued a jazz tradition begun by his early employer Fletcher Henderson, who in the 1920s helped launch the careers of musicians such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Rex Stewart. The list of musicians who played in the various Jazz Messengers ensembles reads like a Who’s Who of Jazz: trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard, saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie McLean, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and pianists Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton are just a few alumni of the group.
Blakey maintained a “revolving door” policy with the Messengers; whenever he felt a member of his group was ready to make it on his own, he would encourage him to do so. As he told Down Beat’s Stewart, “I look for the new guys, and I just give them a place to hone their art and they grow. They do it themselves. I just give them a chance. All they need is a little guidance, a little direction, and they’re gone. When they get big enough I let them go and get their own thing.”
Blakey may not have believed in hoarding talent to make himself look good, but he still benefitted from his “paternal” role. He freely admitted to David H. Rosenthal of The Black Perspective in Music, “My imagination is much better by my being around young people.” Indeed, the presence of young talent in his group not only provided jazz listeners with an ongoing series of new stars; it also continually revitalized Blakey’s own playing.
Art Blakey Quartet: A Night in Birdland, Blue Note, 1954.
Art Blakey: Orgy in Rhythm, Blue Note, 1957.
Art Blakey and the Afro-Drum Ensemble: The African Beat, Blue Note, 1962.
Dr. Jeckyle, Evidence, 1991.
Hard Champion, Evidence, 1992.
New Year’s Eve at Sweet Basil, Evidence, 1992.
Jazz Message, Impulse.
With the Jazz Messengers
At the Cafe Bohemia, Vols. 1 and 2, Blue Note, 1955.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk, Atlantic, 1957.
Midnight Session (recorded c. 1957), Savoy.
Moanin’, Blue Note, 1958, reissued, LRC, 1992.
A Night in Tunisia, Blue Note, 1960.
Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World, Vols. 1 and 2, 1960.
The Big Beat, Blue Note, 1960.
Buhaina’s Delight, Blue Note, 1961, reissued, 1992.
Mosaic, Blue Note, 1961, reissued, 1987.
The Freedom Rider, Blue Note, 1961.
Witch Doctor, Blue Note, 1961.
Caravan, Riverside, 1962.
Free for All, Blue Note, 1964.
Anthenagin, Prestige, 1973.
Straight Ahead, Concord Jazz, 1981.
New York Scene, Concord Jazz, 1984.
One for All, A&M, 1990.
Reflections in Blue, Gowi (Netherlands), 1992.
The History of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, reissued, Blue Note, 1992.
The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Art Blakey’s 1960 Jazz Messengers, Mosaic, 1992.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Paris 1958, Bluebird, 1992.
In Sweden, Evidence, 1993.
Contributor to numerous albums, including Together!—The Legendary Big Band, Spotlite, 1945; Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Blue Note, 1947-52; Miles Davis All-Stars, Vols. 1 and 2, Blue Note, 1953; Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, Blue Note, 1954-55; Herbie Nichols: The Third World, Blue Note, 1955; Leeway, Blue Note, 1960; The Giants of Jazz, Atlantic, 1971; and All Star Bags, Blue Note.
Goldberg, Joe, Jazz Masters of the ’50s, Da Capo, 1965.
Gridley, Mark C., Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, Prentice Hall, 1988.
Black Perspective in Music, Fall 1986.
Cadence, July 1981; September 1981.
Down Beat, March 25, 1976; November 1979; July 1985; December 1988; August 1990; January 1991; December 1992.
Jazz Journal International, December 1990.
Musician, February 1991; November 1992.
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.
Grew Up in Foster Care
"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 (according to Voce). Blakey made the best of his new assignment, studying the big percussion sounds of swing drummers like Sid Catlett and Chick Webb, and realizing that the drums could be a lead instrument in jazz in addition to serving as its rhythmic foundation.
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.
Recorded for Blue Note
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."
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 27, Gale Group, 2003.
Gottlieb, Robert, ed., Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism form 1919 to Now, Pantheon, 1996.
Boston Globe, October 21, 1990.
Independent (London, England), October 18, 1990.
New York Times, October 17, 1990.
Observer (London, England), October 21, 1990.
Toronto Star, October 17, 1990.
Washington Post, October 21, 1990.
"Art Blakey," Jazz Review, http://www.jazzreview.com (September 24, 2006).
"Art Blakey Biography," http://www.artblakey.com (September 24, 2006).