Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Blackwell, Ed (Edward)

When saxophonist Ornette Coleman was once asked which drummer best fit his quartet, he replied: “Blackwell, who played the most truthful phrases.” What did he mean? Perhaps the wide range of styles - New Orleans jazz, rhythm and blues, swing, bop, Afro-Cuban and African polyrhythms - that Blackwell, like no other, effortlessly combined in his cerebral yet engaging improvisational style.

Blackwell was born in the Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana on October 10, 1929. This location obviously allowed him a rich musical canvas, and his career-long concentration on the snare drum almost certainly stems from the marches and second-line street beats he absorbed as a youngster. As untraditional and unrestrained as his drumming style would soon become, the rhythms of New Orleans surfaced in all Blackwell improvisations.

Blackwell’s early years as a professional were spent performing both rhythm-and-blues and jazz. He backed Plas Johnson, Ray Charles, and Art Neville in the rhythm and blues world and performed with New Orleans jazz musicians Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Harold Battiste, and William Davenport. All of these jazz musicians, with the exception of Davenport, performed and recorded together as “The Original American Quintet.”

Blackwell spent the first half of the 1950s in California, often performing with members of the American Quintet who traveled to the west coast at the same time. Blackwell concurrently met and became close friends with Ornette Coleman while in California. The two began playing together and even became roommates for a short time until Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1956.

In 1960, Blackwell moved to New York City. His old friend Ornette Coleman had also recently moved to New York with his piano-less quartet that featured trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden. Blackwell replaced Billy Higgins in Coleman’s group shortly after he arrived in New York. Blackwell and Haden also participated in a collaboration between John Coltrane and Don Cherry entitled The Avant-Garde,which was recorded in 1960 but not released until 1966.

While even the earliest Coleman recordings were stylistically innovative, the addition of Blackwell further developed the freedom that the Coleman group was experimenting with. Bassist Charlie Haden once compared Blackwell and Billy Higgins, who had previously studied with Blackwell and preceded him in the Ornette Coleman Quartet. “Billy and I would still signify the new sections, even if we weren't playing the changes. Then, in New York with Blackwell, there were no more changes, just free improvisation.”

This heightened focus on free, open interaction can be heard on the majority of Blackwell’s work with Ornette Coleman throughout the early 1960s, including Beauty is a Rare Thing, The Art of the Improvisers, Twins, This is Our Music, which features “Embraceable You,” To Whom Who Keeps a Record, Free Jazz, which features “First Take,” and Ornette on Tenor.

Blackwell’s work with Coleman quickly earned him a reputation within free-jazz circles for his ability to experiment and play “out” while remaining melodic, tasteful, and musical. Throughout the second half of the 1960s, he performed with Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, who can be heard together on “Fire Waltz” , as well as Archie Shepp, and Coleman bandmate Don Cherry.

In 1967, Blackwell, pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Dexter Gordon toured and performed in Africa. A life changing and life-affirming trip, Blackwell told Down Beat magazine that, “the freedom I’ve always felt for drumming I really could hear in the drummers of Africa.”

Following this trip, and a second to Morocco with Weston and bassist Bill Wood, Blackwell immersed himself in continual study of African culture once back in the United States.

In late 1960s and early 1970s, Ornette Coleman reassembled his group for the Broken Shadows, Science Fiction, and Skies of America sessions. In addition to Blackwell, Haden and Cherry, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman appears on all three recordings. Blackwell performed on many of Redman's subsequent recordings, including Tarik and The Struggle Continues, which featured the bluesy “Thren,” which captures Blackwell in particularly fine form.

Blackwell continued to record in the seventies with Don Cherry on sessions such as the Relativity Suite, with Anthony Braxton on Six Compositions, , and he created Old and New Dreams, a recurring group which reunited him with fellow Coleman bandmates Redman, Cherry, and Haden. In 1975, Blackwell began a secondary career as an educator, accepting a position as an “Artist in Residence” at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Heading into the 1980s, Blackwell’s recurring health problems stemming from his battle with uremia and kidney dialysis, forced him to cut back live performances. He continued to record prolifically as a sideman on Jane Ira Bloom’s Mighty Lights in 1982, David Murray’s Morning Song in 1983, as well as a collection of live material from the Village Vanguard with Mal Waldron, Charlie Rouse, Woody Shaw and Reggie Workman, released as The Git-Go and Seagulls of Kristiansundi in 1986.

He did perform in a trio performance with Charlie Haden and Don Cherry at the 1989 Montreal Jazz Festival, released as The Montreal Tapes in 1989, and recorded with Joe Lovano on Sound of Joy and From the Soul in 1991, and Steve Coleman’s Rhythm in Mind in 1991.

In his last years, Ed Blackwell recorded some of his only sessions as a leader. Walls-Bridges, a 1992 trio date, features Dewey Redman and Cameron Brown. The Ed Blackwell Project, a group consisting of Graham Haynes, Carlos Ward, and Marc Helias, recorded a self-titled session in 1992. Two live recordings, entitled What It Is? and What It Be Like?, documented Blackwell’s final live performances at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California. Trumpeter Don Cherry joined the quartet as a special guest on What It Be Like?

Ed Blackwell died of kidney failure after a long battle with uremia on October 7, 1992. He was survived by his wife, Frances Blackwell of Hartford, and three children – Joseph, Henry and Nearin.

While Ed Blackwell's name may not be widely recognized, he ranks among the most significant of all post-bop drummers. Seemingly out of nowhere, he stepped into Ornette Coleman's group, and, according to his band members, was largely responsible for the development and achievement of their desired sound.

A melodic, delicate player who stripped away traditional swing and bop phrases in order to create instinctive, interactive choices, Ed Blackwell was a major factor in creating the free-jazz drumming vocabulary. Blackwell was posthumously inducted into Down Beat Magazine's Hall of Fame in 1993.


As a Leader:

Boogie Live… 1958 (1958), Walls-Bridges (1992), What It Is? (1992), What It Is –Vol. 1 (1993), What It Be Like? (1994)

Additional Recordings (Selected):

Art of the Improvisers (Ornette Coleman, 1959), Twins (Ornette Coleman, 1959), Avant-Garde (John Coltrane and Don Cherry, 1960), Dash One (Eric Dolphy, 1960), Free Jazz – A Collective Improvisation (Ornette Coleman, 1960), Here and There (Eric Dolphy (1960), This is Our Music (Ornette Coleman, 1960), Eric Dolphy Live at the Five Spot – Volumes 1 & 2 (Eric Dolphy Quintet with Booker Little, 1961), Ornette on Tenor (Ornette Coleman, 1961), Ornette! (Ornette Coleman, 1961), Complete Communion (Don Cherry, 1965), On This Night (Archie Shepp, 1965), Symphony for Improvisers (Don Cherry, 1966), Where is Brooklyn? (Don Cherry, 1966), Magic of Ju-Ju (Archie Shepp, 1967), Languages (Ornette Coleman, 1968), Broken Shadows (Ornette Coleman, 1969), In the World (Clifford Jordan, 1969), Kawaida (Albert Heath, 1969), Mu First Part, Mu Second Part (Don Cherry, 1969), Tarik (Dewey Redman, 1969), Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street (Ornette Coleman, 1970), Tune In (Karl Berger, 1970), Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (Yoko Ono, 1970), Science Fiction (Ornette Coleman, 1971), Relativity Suite (Don Cherry, 1973), Regeneration (Stanley Cowell, 1974), To Whom Who Keeps a Record (Ornette Coleman, 1975), Old and New Dreams (Old and New Dreams, 1979), In Willisau (Dewey Redman with Ed Blackwell, 1980), Six Compositions: Quartet (Anthony Braxton, 1981), El Corazon (Don Cherry with Ed Blackwell, 1982), Struggle Continues (Dewey Redman, 1982), Breaking New Ground (Mal Waldron, 1983), Morning Song (David Murray, 1983), Cross Currents (Hilton Ruiz, 1984), Tamma with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell (Tamma, 1985), Eric Dolphy and Booker Little Remembered Live at Sweet Basil (Terence Blanchard, 1986), Goin’ Home (Bob Stewart, 1988), Montreal Tapes, Volume 1 (Charlie Haden, 1989), From the Soul (Joe Lovano, 1991), Montreal Tapes, Volume 2 (Charlie Haden, 1994), Death of a Sideman (David Murray, 2000), Baltimore ’68 (Lee Morgan with the Clifford Jordan Quintet (2003), The New Traditionalists (Art Ensemble of Chicago and Don Cherry, 2004)

Contributor: Eric Novod