Pittsburgh Jazz Legends 3: Art Blakey

Friday, 27 April 2012 06:00 AM Written by 

A teenage piano player becomes a drummer--on the spot, at gunpoint, right here in town. Thus began the remarkable career of Art Blakey, master percussionist, pillar of the Hard Bop movement of the 1950's and leader of the Jazz Messengers, a veritable musical conservatory for some of the greatest players of the last 55 years. In many ways Blakey (whose Muslim name was Abdullah Ibn Buhaina), was the ultimate jazz mentor.

It began when Blakey, who'd had a band since age 15, was playing piano in a local band and, one night at a local place called the Democratic Club, where the owner, short a drummer, demanded he switch from keyboards to drums, despite the fact he'd never played drums.  Given that he was a contemporary of budding local keyboard wunderkinds Dodo Marmarosa and Erroll Garner (Earl Hines and Mary Lou Williams were long gone from here), it was just as well.

Blakey later toured with a singer playing piano and in 1942 later briefly worked with a combo led by fellow Pittsburgher Mary Lou Williams then joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra in 1943.  Henderson was one of the prime architects of swing whose influence was immense (on Benny Goodman in particular).

Even before World War II, however, a new jazz form was evolving from swing: bebop, which built on swing's foundation with new harmonic ideas.  Around mid-1944 Blakey jumped into bebop during a brief time in Boston and then with Pittsburgher Billy Eckstine's Orchestra (Billy is our next Pittsburgh Jazz Legend--tune in Monday).

Eckstine, who sang and played valve trombone, formerly worked with the orchestra of another 'Burgher: Earl Hines. The Eckstine band was the first bebop orchestra in jazz. The leader served as principal vocalist, though Sarah Vaughan spent time there as well as did Gene Ammons, Charlie Parker, Frank Wess and other future bop greats.

That unit band did a low-budget movie after World War II that included "I Love The Rhythm in A Riff."  The tenor soloist is Ammons and you get a good dose of Blakey at about 2:21.  Little wonder one of his contemporaries, drummer Max Roach, once said others referred to Blakey, even in the early days, as "Thunder."

After Eckstine broke up the band, Blakey took a trip to Africa that burned the polyrhythms of that continent's music into his brain and into his sound as well.

The Jazz Messengers (Blakey used the name "Seventeen Messengers" and "Jazz Messengers" for bands he led in the late 40's) as we know them came about in late 1954 as an extension of his work with pianist Horace Silver.  Silver, Mobley, Kenny Dorham and Doug Watkins were the first Jazz Messengers with Blakey as leader. Over the next 35 years, driven by his explosive, tornadic percussion, and wise counsel, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers became an American musical institution.

He always preferred working with young players and held to a standard that kept the sound consistent, and educated the musicians who came in and out of the group.

Nonetheless several lineups stood out, producing albums and individual that became jazz classics.  The 1958-61 edition, for example created many Blakey standards including this one, "Moanin," from a '58 Belgian concert. The lineup: Lee Morgan, trumpet; Jymie Merritt, bass; Benny Golson, tenor sax;  Bobby Timmons (the song's composer), piano.

From the same 1958 show: Benny Golson's "Whisper Not."

1959, same group except Wayne Shorter on tenor and Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, tackling  Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia", and check out everyone getting into the polyrhythms.

This is a Japanese concert from 1961. The song: Golson's "Blues March." Joined by the Sharps and Flats Big Band,  Timmons had returned to the band, replacing Bishop.


"Dat Dere" is from Japan in '61.  All stunning, but Shorter and Timmons are especially intense.

"Ginza" from London, 1966. Morgan, John Gilmore (known for his work with Sun Ra), tenor, Victor Sproles, bass; John Hicks, piano.

The Messengers' list of alumni is one master after another:  Horace Silver, Donald Byrd, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Clifford Brown (recruited for Blakey by none other than Charlie Parker!),  Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Hardman, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Chuck Mangione (no, I'm not being facetious), Bobby Watson, Wallace Roney, Mulgrew Miller, Walter Bishop Jr., Bennie Green, Johnny Griffin, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Garrett, Philip Harper and quite a few more.

Look at this lineup playing "Blues March" from a 1982 Japanese concert with Golson, Wynton Marsalis (who joined the in 1980 when he was just 17) and Terence Blanchard, trumpets;  Curtis Fuller, trombone; John O'Neil, piano; Lonnie Plaxico, bass.

Blakey persevered through the 1980s, and kept performing and recording until soon before he died in Manhattan of lung cancer on October 16, 1990. The life had ended. Nonetheless, the legacy that began in that Pittsburgh Democratic Club in the 30's endures in the recordings, videos like the ones above and in the Jazz Messengers alumni. All of them blended their innate virtuosity, creativity and the education they received with Blakey to make their own history and will for decades to come.

Why not let Art have the last word as he did it best?  With his sticks.


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