Art Blakey – A leading drummer of the bop: Video

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11.10. – Happy Birthday !!! A leading drummer of the post-World War II bop style epitomized by Charlie Parker, Blakey was better known for his leadership of his Jazz Messengers, one of the longest-running and consistently-excellent groups in jazz. 

The road to legendary status was winding, however. Eschewing the avant-garde, Blakey was ignored by jazz critics in the experimental 1960s and shunned by American audiences in the 1970s, when rock exerted its hegemonic control over the business of pop music. Unable to land a U.S. recording contract, he released numerous albums for European labels in the 1980s and won belated attention from American critics for his brief association with trumpet prodigy Wynton Marsalis. Ten years ago, Marsalis burst onto the jazz scene as a mature leader of his own tasteful group, and he credited a stint with Blakey’s Messengers for his own poise and artistic direction. By the time of Blakey’s death in 1990, a tour with the peripatetic Messengers was viewed as a sort of pre-requisite for up-and-coming jazz musicians. A quick way to be taken seriously by critics, record producers and audiences was to pass through Blakey’s free-form university. Blakey’s influence on young musicians was always hard to guage. He seemed to imbue in his acolytes an attitude of exuberant professionalism and fidelity to jazz acoustics rather than any particular compositional style.

While a passionate drummer, Blakey almost never composed a song, relying instead on his sidemen for songs. Though his vintage-1950s groups produced solid recordings, filled with impressive solos, they suffered from a shortage of original material. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Blakey remedied this situation by assembling a series of small groups that rank with the best-ever in jazz. With Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Blakey’s Jazz Messengers had a Hall-of-Fame front-line whose compositional savvy was outstripped only by their extraordinary skills and emotional fire. Wedded to “hard” bop, Blakey’s drumming was predictably swinging and his solos were astonishing for their power, wit and poly-rhythms. Yet he relied heavily on his sidemen to provide an aesthetic for his group; he was an unusually generous leader when it came to passing out assignments (which may well explain the longevity of the Jazz Messengers). Hubbard, Fuller and especially Shorter embraced new jazz idioms even as the rock-steady Blakey clung to more catholic tastes.

Blakey wasn’t standing still, however. In the 1970s, he showed ample signs of absorbing the language of both the so-called “free” jazz and rock-tinged fusion. Blakey’s flirtation with fresh styles would not last long, however. By the end of the decade, he had returned to his roots and essentially spent his remaining years re-creating the hard bop sound, relying on a new generation of musicians who revered him and were obsessed with turning post-War jazz into a kind of American classical music.

In this regard, Wynton Marsalis became Blakey’s most important disciple, a testament to the fiery drummer’s seminal influence. The easy romanticizing of hard bop, and its surprising prominence in the 1990s, elevated in importance the Jazz Messengers’s first early recordings. The emphasis by critics on purity and swing lent a new luster to these tired 1950s records and brought belated-acclaim for Blakey’s stunning early 1960 releases (especially the adroit “Free For All” and the haunting “Freedom Rider” in which Blakey’s extended solo is the paragon of jazz modernism). In this fresh critical light, Blakey’s recordings from the 1980s and early 1990s were viewed as a welcome revival.

His younger-generation Messengers performed jazz standards with verve and, at times, brilliance but contributed few original tunes worth remembering. Still, Blakey was a magnet for young talent, and he showcased such top young players such as Mulgrew Miller, Javon Jackson, Bobby Watson and Donald Harrison. The nostalgia for Blakey’s most fertile period and the renewed appreciation for straight-ahead jazz has meant that music from the 1970s – Blakey’s “down” period in terms of popularity – has been unfairly neglected.

During the decade of the 1970s, American audiences abandoned acoustic jazz, and Blakey struggled to retain first-class musicians and the support of record labels and club owners in the U.S. Setting aside his neo-bop classicism, which he pioneered, Blakey took in band members whose tastes were decidedly more pop than jazz. Chuck Mangione’s little-known stay in the Messengers’s trumpet chair was perhaps the ultimate reflection of the breakdown in the cultural concensus about the elements of authentic jazz. Yet for Blakey afficianados, the 1970s have much to offer, as a new re-issue from Fantasy Records demonstrates. Mission Eternal contains two full albums recorded by a superb Blakey band in March 1973 and originally released by the Prestige label under the titles of “Buhaina” and “Athenagin.” A cut below Blakey’s best recordings of the 1960s, these albums nevertheless show an awareness of the avant-garde, a taste for Latin beats and inspired performances by strong sidemen. Cedar Walton anchors the group on piano and contributes some strong compositions, notably Mission Eternal. Carter Jefferson, an inventive saxophonist who deserves wider appreciation, strikes a good balance between fidelity to standards and the inevitable search for new sounds. His solo on “Gertrude’s Bounce” is brutish yet melodic. Vocalist Jon Hendricks, who joins the group on two cuts, is mesmerizing on the jazz standard “Moanin'” and ghostly on “Along Came Betty,” an original by Benny Golson that Hendricks put lyrics to. And conga player Tony Waters is steady throughout, no small achievement given Blakey’s commanding presence on drums…

I come to you today on the birthday anniversary of the great drummer and bandleader Art Blakey (born Oct. 11, 1919) to speak of another kind of president: the “class presidents” from Blakey’s long-running Jazz Messengers. The hard-bop ensemble Blakey ran functioned as a veritable school of jazz musicianship from 1954 to 1990.

More than 150 musicians served as Messengers, honing their chops, attitude and professional work ethic under the watchful eyes and ears of their mentor. The list of alumni includes trumpeters Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis; saxophonists Hank Mobley, Branford Marsalis and Javon Jackson; pianists Cedar Walton, Bobby Timmons, Benny Green and Geoffrey Keezer; bassists Doug Watkins, Jymie Merritt and Lonnie Plaxico; and trombonists Curtis Fuller and Robin Eubanks. (Alan Goldsher’s book Hard Bop Academy is an invaluable and comprehensive guide to the history of the sidemen who graced the band throughout its duration.)

Many other musicians have cultivated younger talent in their ensembles, but nobody nurtured it to the extent that Blakey did. (Blakey eventually pushed his fledglings out into a post-Messengers world, both for their own good and to make way for new players, saying, “This isn’t the post office, you know.” ) After Blakey died in 1990, saxophonist and former Messenger Jackie McLean said, “The school is closed.” Its lessons have endured, as have many of its pupils.

Here are five Messenger “class presidents” who helped shape or sustain the sound of the Jazz Messengers over the course of the group’s 36-year history. Happy birthday, Bu!

The drummer and band leader Art Blakey, one of the most influential figures in jazz for the last 40 years, died yesterday at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center. He was 71 years old and lived in Manhattan.

He died of lung cancer, said a hospital spokeswoman, Barbara Cron.

Mr. Blakey, who was also known as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina and was until recently leading his band, the Jazz Messengers, played with a mixture of powerful abandon and precise control. An extraordinary drummer, he would turn each piece into an epic voyage, starting out calmly, slowly packing the tune with texture after texture, always controlling the dynamics until a thunderous barrage released the tension. Mr. Blakey shaped each performance by manipulating the texture for his soloists as well; a result was a set of performances that always mixed the excitement of improvisation with a real understanding of the personalities and capabilities of the musicians involved.

”Art was an original,” said the drummer Max Roach. ”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. And he was a great man, which influenced everybody around him.”

A One-Man University

While Mr. Blakey was a gifted and important drummer, his contributions to American music as a band leader and talent scout are equally important. Mr. Blakey, like no other band leader for the last 40 years, had acted as a one-man university for young musicians. A partial list of the musicians he hired resembles a history of jazz from the 1950’s to the present. They included the trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, Bill Hardman, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Roney and Terence Blanchard; the saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz, Bobby Watson, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett and Javon Jackson, and the pianists Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, John Hicks, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Bennie Green.

”It’s like the door is closed on a generation of musicians that were developed through Art’s band,” said Mr. McLean, who first played with Mr. Blakey in the early 1950’s. ”Even when I was with Miles Davis, Art was the strength of the band. That was the first band I was in, and ever since them I’ve been trying to lead my band the way he has his.”

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who joined the band as a 17-year-old in 1979, said: ”Art was important to me because he always displayed the maximum belief in integrity and quality. Even more important, he represents the most mature man our society can develop because he was making life easier for everyone else. He provided the context for musicians to play and develop. And since we weren’t on his level, he’d subject himself to us so we’d learn. First he just let the musicians play, but then he’d offer subtle advice, but he’d never discourage you: it was always positive reinforcement. He knew that there’s a price to be paid to develop in this music, and he did his best to help us.”

Leaving His Stamp

As a band leader, Mr. Blakey had a powerful influence on the way modern jazz is played, codifiying the innovations of the be-bop movement and integrating the drums into small-group arrangements that became the leading examples of what was called hard bop. Relying on some of the best arrangers and composers of his time, Mr. Blakey managed to stamp his own identity on his work from his first notable band in 1955 to his last. Tough and based in blues, his bands’ arrangments were full of dynamic change and always swung hard. As a result, Mr. Blakey’s bands were always popular, and from the 50’s on Mr. Blakey was one of jazz’s most important figures commercially.

”He came up with new way to interpret the blues and another way of building the ensemble, where the drums were more orchestrated,” Mr. Marsalis said. ”That sound is the sound you hear today, particularly with many of the younger musicians. And he had his own particular brand of swing, which makes him important by itself.”

Art Blakey was born in Pittsburgh. By the seventh grade he was playing music regularly, and he quickly realized that drumming was a way out of the grinding industrial work prevalent in the area. He joined Mary Lou Williams’s band in New York in 1942 and then played the next two years with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. In 1944, on the urging of Dizzy Gillespie, he joined the singer Billy Eckstine’s band, which was a haven for be-bop modernists.

”The first time I heard Art, I said, ‘Oh, man, let’s get that guy,’ ” Mr. Gillespie recalled. ”He had the knack of knowing when to play loud or soft, and when he played the whole band would lift right off the bandstand. He’d shout like somebody in a sanctified church. He was truly one of our greats.” In the late 1940’s, Mr. Blakey brought together a 17-piece band called the Jazz Messengers – a name he would keep for his band throughout his career – and traveled to Africa. When he returned, he continued a series of recordings and performances with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis that again helped to define modern jazz. In 1955, Mr. Blakey joined forces with Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham under the name Jazz Messengers, and he performed and recorded with that group until the late 1980’s.

An important element in Mr. Blakey’s success was the relationship he had with the Blue Note record label; between 1955 and 1961 he recorded a series of brilliant records that document the succession of his bands. Starting with ”The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia,” recorded in 1955 with Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley, the label released about 30 albums, including some made by his most famous band, featuring Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Cedar Walton on piano and Jymie Merritt on bass.

A Renaissance in the 80’s

In the 1980’s, Mr. Blakey underwent a renaissance. His bands constantly turned out some of the best young musicians working. Not only did Mr. Marsalis and his brother, Branford, herald a new age of jazz, but Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Harrison went on to form their own bands; the trumpeter Wallace Roney spent several years with Mr. Blakey, as did the pianists Mulgrew Miller, Bennie Green and Jeff Keezer. For many young musicians, Mr. Blakey’s band was a lifeline back to an era of jazz verities. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was one of the few places a young musician could apprentice with a veteran. ”When jazz was in danger of dying out, there was still a scene,” said the young drummer Cindy Blackman. ”Art kept it going.”

Mr. Mclean said: ”I loved him dearly as a man. Of all the bands I played with – and I got great deal from Charles Mingus and Miles Davis – he taught me the most. Not just how to be a musician, but about being a man and keeping a sense of responsibility.”

Ms. Blackman added: ”He 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.”

Mr. Blakey is survived by four sons, Takashi Buhaina and Kenji Buhaina, both of Manhattan, Gamal Buhaina of Waitsfield, Vt., and Akira Buhaina of Quebec, and four daughters, Gwendolyn Blakey and Evelyn Blakey, both of Manhattan, Jackie Blakey of Florida, and Sakeena Buhaina of San Jose, Calif.

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