Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Blakey, Art (Arthur)

Art Blakey's unbridled drumming brought freshness and vitality to the influential recordings he made with Thelonious Monk and other bebop pioneers. Yet he always gave support to soloists, and as the leader of The Jazz Messengers, he passed his legacy on to several generations of jazz musicians.

      Art Blakey, artwork by Michael Symonds

Arthur Blakey was born on October 11, 1919 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a youth, he worked at a steel mill on the outside of town. Like many jazz musicians, Art began his musical education by performing during church services. He was the foster son of a devoutly religious family, and he studied religion at home as well as the piano.

By the seventh grade, Art was leading his own band and performing every night. Art spent his evenings at local clubs, performing and listening to the city’s roster of musical talent. On one occasion, Art heard pianist Erroll Garner and was blown away. Art decided his talents, and job prospects, would fare better as a drummer. Early on, Art saw music as his ticket out of Pittsburgh's industrial economy.

Blakey quickly began to make a name for himself on the Pittsburgh jazz scene. By the age of fifteen, he was leading his own band, and studying the work of the era's most successful big band drummers such as Sid Catlett, Kaiser Marshall and Chick Webb. Art worked for a time as a valet for Webb, who was an important early mentor.

In 1939, Blakey made a major step up when he began to perform with bandleader Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra. In the autumn of 1942, Art joined pianist Mary Lou Williams’ group for an engagement at Kelly’s Stable in New York City. Shortly after, Art was leading his own group at the Tic Toc club in Boston.

After a year in Boston, Blakey was hired by singer Billy Eckstine to perform in his group, which at the time was a kind of incubator for the top talent of the bebop movement. After Eckstine decided to disband the group in 1947, Blakey formed the Seventeen Messengers, a rehearsal band.

The same year, Blakey performed on several sessions with pianist Thelonious Monk. The music recorded during these sessions yielded early versions of some of Monk’s most famous compositions, including “'Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Ruby, My Dear.”

The following year, Blakey said he took a trip to West Africa to satisfy his curiosity about world religions. While some have questioned whetther he actually made the trip, he did study Islamic religion and culture, joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and took an Islamic name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. His new name led to a new nickname, “Bu.”

In 1949, Blakey resumed his involvement in the bebop scene, performing with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. On July 23, 1951, Art recorded the song “Straight, No Chaser” with Monk. Art begins the song with strong rim shots that act as a forceful rhythmic counterpoint to the steady beat he keeps on the ride cymbal. Art’s selections of accents are slight, deciding instead to remain firmly in the pulse of the song.

In 1954, Blakey led a quintet with pianist Horace Silver, bassist Curly Russell, trumpeter Clifford Brown and saxophonist Lou Donaldson. On February 21 1954, the quintet recorded their performance of theirs at Birdland in New York, which resulted on the two-LP set A Night at Birdland With the Art Blakey Quintet. The album has since become a hard bop classic.

The same year, Blakey appeared on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s album Somethin’ Else along with Miles Davis, pianist Hank Jones, and bassist Sam Jones. The album was met with acclaim and is Adderley’s best known record.

At the end of 1954, Blakey and Silver formed an early incarnation of the Jazz Messengers with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins. The following year, the Jazz Messengers released Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers. After performing prolifically, the group decided to disband in 1956.

Blakey revived the group as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which he led for the next thirty-five years. The group embodied the sounds of hard bop, and nurtured the best young talent on the scene. Over the years, the group included trumpeters Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis, as well as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianists Keith Jarrett and Joanne Brackeen.

In 1958, Blakey and the Jazz Messengers released Moanin’. The album featured Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt. The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.

On “The Drum Thunder Suite,” Blakey sets up the arrangement with an ominous atmosphere, enhanced by the faint sounds of Morgan and Golson. Art shows his stamina by keeping a solid beat and adding subtle tones throughout the song. What is most striking is how melodic of a player he is. Each drum has its own sound resulting in an instrument that sounds like its own, separate ensemble.

Also in 1958, Blakey appeared on Kenny Dorham’s album Afro-Cuban with Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, bassists Percy Heath and Oscar Pettiford, trombonist J.J Johnson and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne.

Two years later, Blakey and the Jazz Messengers released A Night In Tunisia. On the title track, Golson delivers a brilliantly executed tenor saxophone solo that contrasts well with Morgan’s trumpet work. All of the soloists use Blakey as an impetus for the characteristics of their solos, with Blakey supporting every degree of their performances by playing off their rhythmic choices. Blakey’s sheer strength behind the ensemble enhances the power of this already dynamic group.

The same year, Blakey appeared on saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s album Second Genesis with bassist Bob Cranshaw and pianist Cedar Walton. In 1964, Art and drummers Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich participated in a live drum battle during the Newport Jazz Festival. Throughout the late 1960s, Art maintained an active performing and recording schedule, releasing albums for Blue Note, Impulse!, Riverside and others.

Beginning in 1971, Blakey toured with an ensemble called the Giants of Jazz, which included Gillespie, Monk, trombonist Kai Winding, saxophonist Sonny Stitt and bassist Al McKibbon. In 1976, Art was inducted into the Newport Jazz Festival Hall of Fame.

The 1980s saw Blakey receiving recognition for his contributions to jazz. In 1981, Art was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and the following year he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1984, the Jazz Messengers recorded the album New York Scene, which garnered them the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group Grammy Award. Three years later, Art was given an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.

Art’s committed work in jazz gave him the opportunity to benefit from the music’s rebirth in the early 1980s. His resurgence in popularity occurred partially because of the young talent he had in his band, including trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and saxophonists Donald Harrison and Kenny Garrett.

In his later years, Blakey suffered from irreversible hearing loss from his many years of performing. During this time, Art would play the drums by feeling vibrations; with the rhythms he felt dictating the song that was playing at the time. He continued to perform into the last months before his death.

Blakey died on October 6, 1990 at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in Manhattan at the age of seventy-one, after a long battle with lung cancer. Fifteen years after his death, Art was posthumously given the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for his contributions to jazz.

Blakey is survived by his four sons, Takashi, Kenji, Gamal and Akira and his four daughters, Gwendolyn, Evelyn, Jackie and Sakeena.

Select Discography

As a leader

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers (1953)

A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 (1954)

Moanin’ (1958)

A Night in Tunisia (1960)

Free For All (1964)

For Minors Only (1971)

One by One (1979)

New York Scene (1984)

Not Yet (1988)

One For All (1990)

With Cannonball Adderley

Somethin’ Else (1958)

With Kenny Dorham

Afro-Cuban (1954)

With Thelonious Monk

Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1 (1947)

Genius of Modern Music: Volume 2 (1952)

The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956)

With Wayne Shorter

Second Genesis (1960)

Contributor: Eric Wendell

Related Links: The Dozens: Essential Art Blakey by Eric Novod