Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers
Art Blakey (October 11, 1919 – October 16, 1990) was an American jazz drummer and bandleader. He was known as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina after he became a Muslim.
Blakey made a name for himself in the 1940s in the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine. He worked with bebop musicians Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In the mid-1950s Horace Silver and Blakey formed the Jazz Messengers, a group that the drummer was associated with for the next 35 years. The Jazz Messengers were formed as a collective of contemporaries, but over the years the band became known as an incubator for young talent, including Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and Wynton Marsalis. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz calls the Jazz Messengers "the archetypal hard bop group of the late 50s".
He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame (in 1981), the Grammy Hall of Fame (in 1998 and 2001), and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1991.
Childhood and early career
Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, probably to a single mother who died shortly after his birth, and her name is often cited as Marie Roddicker (or Roddericker) though Blakey's own 1937 marriage license shows her maiden name to have been Jackson. His biological father was Bertram Thomas Blakey, originally of Ozark, Alabama, whose family migrated northward to Pittsburgh sometime between 1900 and 1910. Blakey's uncle, Ruby, was a popular Pittsburgh vocalist and bandleader who attended Fisk University.
Blakey is described as having been "raised with his siblings by a family friend who became a surrogate mother"; he "received some piano lessons at school", and was able to spend some further time teaching himself. According to Leslie Gourse's biography, the surrogate mother figure was Annie Peron. The stories related by family and friends, and by Blakey himself, are contradictory as to how long he spent with the Peron family, but it is clear he spent some time with them growing up.:2–3
Equally clouded by contradiction are stories of Blakey's early music career. It is agreed by several sources that by the time he was in seventh grade, Blakey was playing music full-time and had begun to take on adult responsibilities, playing the piano to earn money and learning to be a band leader. He switched from piano to drums at an uncertain date in the early 1930s. An oft-quoted account of the event states that Blakey was forced at gunpoint to move from piano to drums by a club owner, to allow Erroll Garner to take over on piano.:6–8:1 The veracity of this story is called into question in the Gourse biography, as Blakey himself gives other accounts in addition to this one.:6–8 The style Blakey assumed was "the aggressive swing style of Chick Webb, Sid Catlett and Ray Bauduc".:8–10
From 1939–44, Blakey played with fellow Pittsburgh native Mary Lou Williams and toured with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. While sources differ on the timing, most agree that he traveled to New York with Williams in 1942 before joining Henderson a year later.:10 (Some accounts have him joining Henderson as early as 1939.) While playing in Henderson's band, Blakey got into a scuffle with Georgia police and suffered injures that got him declared unfit for service in WWII.:11 He then led his own band at the Tic Toc Club in Boston for a short time.:11–12
From 1944–47, Blakey worked with Billy Eckstine's big band. Through this band, Blakey became associated with the bebop movement, along with his fellow band members Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan among others.
After the Eckstine band broke up, Blakey states that he traveled to Africa for a time: "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 two years because I wanted to live among the people and find out just how they lived and—about the drums especially." Blakey is known to have recorded in 1947, 1948:, and 1949. He studied and converted to Islam during this period, taking the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, although he stopped being a practicing Muslim in the 1950s and continued to perform under the name "Art Blakey" throughout his career.
As the 1950s began, Blakey was backing musicians such as Davis, Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk; he is often considered to have been Monk's most empathetic drummer, and he played on both Monk's first recording session as a leader (for Blue Note Records in 1947) and his final one (in London in 1971), as well as many in between. Blakey toured with Buddy DeFranco from 1951 to 1953 in a band that also included Kenny Drew.:25
The Jazz Messengers
On December 17, 1947, Blakey led a group known as "Art Blakey's Messengers" in his first recording session as a leader, for Blue Note Records. The records were released as 78 rpm records at the time, and two of the songs were released on the "New Sounds" 10" LP compilation (BLP 5010). The octet included Kenny Dorham, Sahib Shihab, Musa Kaleem, and Walter Bishop, Jr.
Around the same time (1947), or 1949:20 he led a big band called Seventeen Messengers. The band proved to be financially unstable and broke up soon after.:20 The use of the Messengers tag finally stuck with the group co-led at first by both Blakey and pianist Horace Silver, though the name was not used on the earliest of their recordings.
The "Jazz Messengers" name was first used for this group on a 1954 recording nominally led by Silver, with Blakey, Mobley, Dorham and Doug Watkins—the same quintet recorded The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia the following year, still functioning as a collective. Donald Byrd replaced Dorham, and the group recorded an album called simply The Jazz Messengers for Columbia Records in 1956. Blakey took over the group name when Silver left after the band's first year (taking Mobley and Watkins with him to form a new quintet), and the band name evolved to include Blakey's name, eventually settling upon "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers". Blakey led the group for the rest of his life.
It was the archetypal hard bop group of the 1950s, playing a driving, aggressive extension of bop with pronounced blues roots. Towards the end of the 1950s, the saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Benny Golson were in turn briefly members of the group. Golson, as music director, wrote several jazz standards which began as part of the band book, such as "I Remember Clifford", and "Blues March", and were frequently revived by later editions of the group. "Along Came Betty" and "Are You Real" were other Golson compositions for Blakey.
From 1959–61, the group featured Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Lee Morgan on trumpet, pianist Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt on bass. From 1961–64, the band was a sextet that added trombonist Curtis Fuller and replaced Morgan and Timmons with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton, respectively. The group evolved into a proving ground for young jazz talent. While veterans occasionally reappeared in the group, by and large, each iteration of the Messengers included a lineup of new young players. Having the Messengers on one's resume was a rite of passage in the jazz world, and conveyed immediate bona fides.
Many Messenger alumni went on to become jazz stars in their own right, such as: Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Timmons, Curtis Fuller, Chuck Mangione, Keith Jarrett, Joanne Brackeen, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Mulgrew Miller. For a complete list of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger alumni, some of whom did not actually record with the band, see The Jazz Messengers.
Blakey went on to record dozens of albums with a constantly changing group of Jazz Messengers. He had a policy of encouraging young musicians: as he remarked on-mic during the live session which resulted in the A Night at Birdland albums in 1954: "I'm gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I'll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active." After weathering the fusion era in the 1970s with some difficulty (recordings from this period are less plentiful and include attempts to incorporate instruments like electric piano), Blakey's band was revitalized in the early 1980s with the advent of neotraditionalist jazz. Wynton Marsalis was for a time the band's trumpeter and musical director, and even after Marsalis' departure Blakey's band continued as a proving ground for Johnny O'Neal, Philip Harper, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Kenny Garrett, among others.
He continued performing and touring with the group through the end of the 1980s. Ralph Peterson, Jr. joined in 1983 as a second drummer due to Blakey's failing health. Ron Wynn notes that Blakey had "played with such force and fury that he eventually lost much of his hearing, and at the end of his life, often played strictly by instinct." He stubbornly refused to wear a hearing aid, arguing that it threw his timing off, so most of the time he played by sensing vibrations. Javon Jackson, who played in Blakey's final lineup, claimed that he exaggerated the extent of his hearing loss. "In my opinion, his deafness was a little exaggerated, and it was exaggerated by him. He didn't hear well out of one ear, but he could hear just fine out the other one. He could hear you just fine when you played something badly and he was quick to say 'Hey, you missed that there.' But anything like 'I don't think I'll be available for the next gig.', he'd say 'Huh? I can't hear you.'" Another bandmate, Geoffrey Keezer, claimed that 'He was selectively deaf. He'd go deaf when you asked him about money, but if it was real quiet and you talked to him one-on-one, then he could hear you just fine.'"
Blakey's final performances were in July 1990. He died on October 16 of lung cancer.
Blakey assumed an aggressive swing style of contemporaries Chick Webb, Sid Catlett and Ray Bauduc early in his career, and is known, alongside Kenny Clarke and Max Roach as one of the inventors of the modern bebop style of drumming. Max Roach described him thus:
"Art was an original… He's the only drummer whose time I recognize immediately. And his signature style was amazing; we used to call him 'Thunder.' When I first met him on 52d Street in 1944, he already had the polyrhythmic thing down. Art was the perhaps the best at maintaining independence with all four limbs. He was doing it before anybody was."
His drumming form made continuing use of the traditional grip, though in later appearances he is also seen using a matched grip. As the supporting materials for Ken Burns's series Jazz notes, "Blakey is a major figure in modern jazz and an important stylist in drums. From his earliest recording sessions with Eckstine, and particularly in his historic sessions with Monk in 1947, he exudes power and originality, creating a dark cymbal sound punctuated by frequent loud snare and bass drum accents in triplets or cross-rhythms." This source continues:
"Although Blakey discourages comparison of his own music with African drumming, he adopted several African devices after his visit in 1948–9, including rapping on the side of the drum and using his elbow on the tom-tom to alter the pitch. Later he organized recording sessions with multiple drummers, including some African musicians and pieces. His much-imitated trademark, the forceful closing of the hi-hat on every second and fourth beat, has been part of his style since 1950–51. … A loud and domineering drummer, Blakey also listens and responds to his soloists."
The legacy of Blakey and his bands is not only the music they produced, but also the opportunities they provided for several generations of jazz musicians. The Jazz Messengers nurtured and influenced many of the key figures of the hard bop movement of the late 1950s to early 1960s, and of the Neotraditionalist movement of the 1980s and 1990s, both of which had the Jazz Messengers in a stylistically seminal role. In the words of drummer Cindy Blackman shortly after Blakey's death, "When jazz was in danger of dying out [during the 1970s], there was still a scene. Art kept it going." Blakey was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame (in 1982), the Grammy Hall of Fame (in 2001), and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
In addition to his musical interests, Blakey was described by Jerry "Tiger" Pearson as a storyteller, as having a "big appetite for music [...] women [and] food", and an interest in boxing.
Blakey married four times, and had long-lasting and other relationships throughout his life. He married his first wife, Clarice Stewart, while yet a teen, then Diana Bates (1956), Atsuko Nakamura (1968), and Anne Arnold (1983). He had 10 children from these relationships — daughters Gwendolyn, Evelyn, Jackie, Kadijah, and Sakeena, and sons Art Jr., Takashi, Akira, Kenji and Gamal. Sandy Warren, another longtime companion of Blakey, published a book of reminiscences and favorite food recipes from the period of the late 1970s to early 1980s when Blakey lived in Northfield, New Jersey with Warren and son Takashi.
Blakey traveled for a year in West Africa (1948) to explore the culture and religion of Islam he would adopt alongside changing his name (see above); Art's conversion to "Bu" took place in the late 1940s at a time when other African-Americans were being influenced by the Ahmadi missionary Kahili Ahmed Nasir, according to the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, and at one time in that period, Blakey led a turbaned, Qur'an-reading jazz band called the 17 Messengers (perhaps all Muslim, reflecting notions of the Prophet's and music's roles as conduits of the divine message). A friend recollects that when "Art took up the religion [...] he did so on his own terms", saying that "Muslim imams would come over to his place, and they would pray and talk, then a few hours later [we] would go [...] to a restaurant [...and] have a drink and order some ribs", and suggests that reasons for the name change included the pragmatic: that "like many other black jazz musicians who adopted Muslim names", musicians did so to allow them to "check into hotels and enter 'white only places' under the assumption they were not African-American".
As John Cohassey reports, Blakey was a "jazz musician who lived most of his life on the road, [and] lived by the rules of the road." This lifestyle resulted in run-ins related to but predating the civil rights era (including a 1939 Fletcher Henderson band episode in Albany, Georgia, where an altercation and Blakey's treatment after arrest led to surgery in which a plate was inserted in his head). Drummer Keith Hollis, reflecting on Blakey's early life, states that his fellow drummer "wound up doing drugs to cope"; like many of the era, Blakey and his bands were known for their drug use (namely heroin) while traveling and performing (with varying accounts of Blakey's influence on others in this regard). Other specific recollections have Blakey forswearing serious drink while playing (after being disciplined by drummer Sid Catlett early in his career for drinking while performing), and suggest that the influence of "clean-living cat" Wynton Marsalis led to a period where he was less affected by drugs during performances. Blakey was a heavy smoker; he appears in a cloud of smoke on the Buhaina's Delight (1961) album cover, and in extended footage of a 1973 appearance with Ginger Baker, Blakey begins a long drummers' "duel" with cigarette alight.
Blakey had been living in Manhattan when he died of lung cancer, aged 71, at St. Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center. His New York Times obituary notes that he was survived by four daughters (Gwendolyn, Evelyn, Jackie, and Sakeena), and by four sons (Takashi, Kenji, Gamal, and Akira).
- Jazz Mobile Development and Preservation of Jazz (1970)
- Newport Jazz Festival Hall of Fame (1976)
- Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame Reader's Choice Award (1981)
- Smithsonian Performing Arts Certificate of Appreciation (1982)
- Lee Morgan Memorial Award (1982)
- Jazz Hall of Fame Induction (1982)
- Grammy Award Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group, for the album New York Scene (1984)
- Jazznote Award (1986)
- Doctorate of Music (1987; Berklee College of Music)
- Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award (1991)
- Grammy Hall of Fame Induction for the single "Moanin'" (1998)
- Grammy Hall of Fame Induction for the album Moanin' (2001)
- Pittsburgh Jazz Festival Award
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2005; awarded posthumously)
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- Art Blakey at Find a Grave