Art Blakey Was Behind It All

Feb 11, 2015

Art Blakey was to the small band what Duke Ellington was to the big band, meaning that over the years Blakey’s small groups—like Ellington’s big bands—produced a great number of jazz artists, many of whom became jazz legends.

On the flip side is the fact that many of Ellington’s sidemen remained in his band for decades. Blakey, however, was like a mother bird in that when he thought a band member had been around long enough, he would let them know it was time to leave the nest and fly on their own. He remarked to an audience one night long ago, “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters, but when these get too old, I’ll get some other ones…”

Running down the list of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers alums is an eye-popper. Even those who believe they’re aware of the stream of Blakey sidemen admit, when taking a second look, they’d forgotten to include more than a few of the jazz greats and near-greats who helped shape the band and make it one of the best in the annals of modern jazz.

"The talent belongs to the people, and if you don't play, and just go for the money, you're going to lose your talent."--Art Blakey

Blakey was behind it all, literally. It was he who propelled the band by operating with great power and authority from his perch behind the drum kit. Saxophonist Benny Golson, who wrote several jazz standards while with the Messengers, mentioned to me that Blakey warned him that on up-tempo material, to get out of the way when he finished a sax solo, because he’d be right behind him with a strong statement on the drums—a suggestion Golson said he soon came to obey, after being figuratively run over time and again by Blakey’s muscular drum signatures.

When in action, Blakey was one of the most photogenic of all jazz artists, pictured almost always with mouth agape, revealing his signature overbite which came to be as strongly related to his identity as the upturned trumpet was to Dizzy Gillespie, and the pork-pie hat to Lester Young.

Moanin', with Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor saxophone), Bobby Timmons (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass), Art Blakey (drums):

Art Blakey was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began piano lessons at an early age; by his mid-teens he was leading a band from the piano. While playing a long engagement at a club in his native city, which was run by a pretty tough man who packed a gun, Blakey was ordered to stop playing piano because there was a new kid the owner wanted to try out. The new kid was Errol Garner. The man told Blakey to switch to the drums—and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Following stints in the bands of Mary Lou Williams, Fletcher Henderson, and Billy Eckstine, Blakey went on to a stellar career as a drummer/bandleader and discoverer and nurturer of talent. As leader of the Jazz Messengers, his Philadelphia hires alone were astounding: Pianists Sam Dockery and Bobby Timmons; bassists Spanky De Brest, Charles Fambrough, Reggie Workman, Wilber Ware, and Jymie Merritt; horn men Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and Robin Eubanks. Blakey also acquired the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Clifford Brown and, over time, a corps of other youngsters—some of them becoming more renowned than their boss.

The Blakey philosophy was “Music is a talent, but it’s a loan, just for a little while in life. Nature takes its course and the talent will be removed from you and handed over to someone else. The talent belongs to the people, and if you don’t play, and just go for the money, you’re going to lose your talent.”

Blakey led the Jazz Messengers from the mid-1950s until his death in 1990 at age 71. Before departing, he presided over one of the finest, busiest, and most popular small groups in the history of modern jazz; his evolving small bands produced a huge discography. One of my Jazz Messenger CD favorites is Moanin’, borrowed from the title of the Bobby Timmons jazz standard. The selection is included in the disc and at the piano is its author.

Jazz host Bob Perkins, or "BP with the GM," brings WRTI listeners the "good music" every Monday through Thursday, 6 to 9 pm, and Sunday 9 am to 1 pm.

This article is from the February 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment.