Art Blakey

Wee-DotA Night At Birdland Vol.2
Hankerin'Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers
Rhythm-A-NingArt Blakey's Jazz Messengers
with Thelonious Monk
Come Rain Or Come ShineMoanin'
A Night In TunisiaA Night In Tunisia
So TiredA Night In Tunisia
Bu's DelightBuhaina's Delight
One By OneUgetsu
Free For AllFree For All
I Can't Get StartedChild's Dance
Fuller LoveKeystone 3




Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

For many years I’ve considered myself a jazz guy. And as those years roll by I’ve come to realize that I listen to jazz with a different sort of standard than I do other kinds of music and I certainly hold jazz musicians to a higher standard than I do rock, folk or blues musicians. Really all other musicians with the exception of classical or featured orchestra musicians. I expect them to be better players. You can have a a sloppily played rock n roll tune sound fantastic, but it’s hard to have a sloppily played jazz tune sound anything but sloppy. I also have always expected for the jazz musicians I follow to be composers of a fair amount of their own songbook. In previous Toppermost entries I spoke a lot about Monk, Max Roach and Charles Mingus as composers as much as I did of them as musicians.

Art Blakey was different for me though. Art was a band leader. Art was a facilitator of talent. He rarely if ever wrote his band’s songs. No, they were often written by his many protégés. But you knew Blakey and his Jazz Messengers by their sound. He might not have written the songs, but they were obviously his.

Bebop changed the lineup of bands a bit in the world of jazz. In the swing era it wasn’t that big of a deal for jazz bands to be led by a drummer. Some like Chick Webb and Gene Krupa’s bands were at the forefront of swing. But bebop changed that a bit. More often than not, the primary melodic improviser was the leader in bebop. Blakey and Roach stood out in that sense. They were decidedly different though, as Roach liked partnerships and Blakey was without a doubt the leader of the Jazz Messengers. Even though the Messengers were loaded with players who made it to the forefront of jazz in a way Roach’s, or honestly any band leaders, band mates did.

In the 1940s and into the early 1950s Blakey played in the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams and Billy Eckstine. Which meant he performed on stage with Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughan and countless others. He worked with Monk, Miles and Bird as well, before finally going out on his own. He cut a couple of albums before forming the Jazz Messengers in the mid 1950s and releasing the first Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers album in 1955. Although oddly enough it was the second Jazz Messengers album as Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers that made it to market a few months earlier. The first version of the band to be recorded was Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver and Doug Watkins. Every member of that band would release an album as the leader within the next year. That’s how good the first band was, and the standard of achievement the Jazz Messengers set from the very start.

Being a Jazz Messenger was a stamp of approval for up and coming musicians. Thought of as more of an education that any group that came before and after it, the Messengers was akin to going to school. Blakey and the Messengers were at the forefront of developing and putting a stamp on the hard bop movement. If any artist and band was the face of hard bop it was them.

As a drummer Blakey was unique. That hi-hat foot of his was certainly a signature and led into those strong and deep cymbals. Fills that could only be called thunderous with snare drum rolls which also were certainly a Blakey trademark. He also clearly enjoyed introducing African rhythms into his music. His playing was certainly recognizable. As was the playing of many of his band mates. The Jazz Messengers played hard from 1955 to 1990. These, at least today, are my ten favorite cuts.

Well, kind of. I’m going to cheat a little here by calling out Wee-Dot from the 1954 session, A Night at Birdland with Art Blakey, Volume 2. How is this cheating? Well, it’s one of the handful of albums Blakey released in the early 1950s before the Jazz Messengers became his official band. Written by J.J. Johnson and Leo Parker, and with a band of Clifford Brown on trumpet, Horace Silver on piano, Curley Russell on bass and Lou Donladson on alto sax. This group signaled that Blakey was going to make hard bop his own; Brownie was already the master of improvisation and was simply on fire on this cut. Donaldson was doing what Donaldson did, which was sounding a whole lot like Charlie Parker without suffering from all that creative ability baggage. And Silver and Blakey were just on a simple, yet extremely intense, groove. There is a general feeling that, in the early 1950s, there wasn’t any band as good or as fast as the Dizzy, Roach and Bird group. But the one group that could at least swing harder was the Blakey, Brownie and Silver group. This is my favorite cut from that band.

A year later things were different. There was a band called the Jazz Messengers, although as I said, that first album was Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers. Seven of the eight songs were written by Silver, and somehow then it makes sense that the song I’m choosing from the album is Hank Mobley’s Hankerin’. The sound was now certainly a little less of bebop played hard and a bit more what would be known as hard bop; in this case with a gospel and blues influence. In fact, producer Alfred Lion argued against some of Silver and Blakey’s choices for the initial album because there were too “old-timey”. He was wrong. Hankerin’ is a signpost for the band as you can hear their sound forming as Dorham and Mobley just played at a ridiculous pace as well as a fantastic solo from Mobley – after all, he did write the song. And of course Blakey was driving the ship with the hi-hat foot of his from beginning to end.

A couple years later in 1957, and with a completely different lineup, the Jazz Messengers released With Thelonious Monk. Now, quite honestly the Johnny Griffin/Bill Hardman/Spanky DeBrest line up is my least favorite until you get into the mid 1970s. And Blakey and Monk don’t seem to be artists that would mesh well together. I hesitated a bit about including Rhythm-A-Ning as the first part of the song sounds a lot more like a Monk piece, and he did write it, than a Messengers piece. Sure Blakey’s hi-hat is there, but lighter than usual. But as the songs moves on, and some of the other guys start the solo, Blakey clearly ratchets up the intensity of his players and his band follows along. And then it becomes a Messengers song. It’s a unique cut and dance between two artists that shouldn’t work well together, but did.

Moanin’ is one of the non-negotiable, simply essential albums anybody who seriously considers themselves a jazz, or just a music, fan must own. Every song is brilliant on an album that saw a band take it to a different level in terms of innovation. Three longtime Messengers in trumpet master Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and perfectly respectable bassist Jymie Merritt made their debuts, as did the much shorter tenured Benny Golson. Golson’s sax put a stamp on the Messengers in just three albums and set a benchmark of sizzling horn work. I probably could have talked myself into including three other cuts on the album (Moanin’, Drum Thunder Suite and Blues March) but I settled on the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer classic Come Rain Or Come Shine. It’s so very up tempo for this standard, and the very underrated Timmons does an amazing structured piano solo along side Golson’s fiery sax. It’s much rarer than people think for someone, or a group of someones, to actually redefine a standard in a way that makes the song their own. The Jazz Messengers did it here, and as you’ll see it wasn’t going to be the only time.

A Night In Tunisia is another out and out classic. This version of the band included Wayne Shorter and was sort of a bridge from the early “classic” lineup to the mid 60s “classic” lineup. Their version of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night In Tunisia once again takes a classic and makes it a different, but still a classic. It’s absurdly up tempo as a rendering of this song goes; if anything it’s eleven minutes of a band just going nuts during a song. Blakey’s drumming is as powerful as it has ever been and the pace is so insane it often seems like Shorter and Morgan are hanging on for dear life and doing everything they can to keep up. Sheer power mixed with virtuoso playing.

So Tired from the same album actually has a Latin feel to it which the Timmons/Jymie Merritt/Blakey rhythm section just made work. And while Shorter and Timmons both have some really nice moments as soloists on the tune, it’s Lee Morgan’s breathtaking solo that explodes with innovation so much that it seems he barely finishes off one idea before he comes up with another. Full of energy without that signature hard bop sound, it’s great piece.

1961 saw the formation of, for my money, the best version of the Jazz Messengers. Blakey, Shorter and Merritt were joined by Curtis Fuller on trombone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Cedar Walton on piano. The band stayed together from 1961 to 1964 ’til Reggie Workman replaced Merritt for another two years. I should also point out that Art Blakey would occasionally release a non Jazz Messengers album during his career, but they usually were because he wanted to explore a different sort of sound than the band’s signature hard bop, or he wanted to work with some other musicians that would really be joining the Messengers; such as 1964’s A Jazz Message, which was an excuse to jam with Coltrane band mates McCoy Tyner and Art Davis along with Sonny Stitt. Rarely though, did he ever record anything I’ve enjoyed as much as he did with the Jazz Messengers.

Bu’s Delight from Buhaina’s Delight is a standout as a young Freddie Hubbard makes one heck of a statement that he is not now and never will be the guy who followed Lee Morgan. Which, in 1961, is what most people felt. His solo is big and robust in a way that Morgan’s never were. Although they were certainly not as fiery. Blakey steps out of his usual format and gets a bit looser as well. It’s a new band on their second album announcing they’re just as good as that last group, and hinting at the absurd notion they were going to be considerably better. Plus, it was written by one of the new guys, Curtis Fuller.

Shorter pens the next song, One By One from Ugetsu. Merritt was a good bass player, but for my money those couple years of the Blakey/Shorter/Fuller/Walton/Hubbard and the final piece, Reggie Workman, is by far the best version of the band. I didn’t include many live cuts here but this piece just works for me on every level. Many years later, and now many years ago, the band Hüsker Dü used the phrase You Will Believe A Band Can Fly; yeah I did, but they took flight in the early 1960s. This was a classic band at the very pinnacle of their performing chops.

Free For All from Free For All is a title that probably works on a couple different levels. It’s the same amazing group from the previous cut on yet another Wayne Shorter composition. But it has the band playing around with the free or avante-garde jazz movement of the 1960s while still somehow remaining the quintessential hard bop group. It’s eleven minutes of frenzy and madness with the six of them pushing themselves far beyond what should have been available within the composition.

I’m not going to pretend the 1970s and 1980s were as fruitful as the 1950s and 1960s. But they were still damn good. Art Blakey had settled into the teacher and leader role, and while he never had quite the bands from his golden era he had some good ones.

1972’s I Can’t Get Started from Child’s Dance is the best song out of the short-lived trumpeter Woody Shaw and bassist Stanley Clarke era. The Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin song was the only one on the album not written by Clarke, and probably because of this was a clear deviation from the hard bop sound of the group. Clarke is on acoustic bass and Shaw’s playing is much smoother than I usually think of when Woody comes to mind. Blakey seems to be playing at a different tempo than usual and, dare I say it, experimenting a little with fusion, although at the end he gives way to the signature Blakey sound. It’s an unusual piece for only the second album by the band in six years, but certainly worthwhile and unfortunately a little forgotten.

I’ve never really been a Marsalis family fan. I’m just not, for reasons not all that important here. But the early 1980s Jazz Messengers lineup with Wynton and Bradford is probably his last great band. The second live cut on my list, Fuller Love from Keystone 3, is a great tribute to Curtis Fuller. You would have thought Blakey’s playing would be slowing down at this point, just eight years before his death, but it isn’t. He is still the teacher and the leader pushing his young soloists to some amazing places. If modal jazz can be on fire, it is here. It’s some very good, late in career, work.

Art Blakey was a teacher and a leader who graduated more great musicians than any other band leader in jazz history, and one of the all time jazz greats. Even if he didn’t write many songs himself. It was a great, or perhaps five or six great, band(s).


The official Art Blakey website

Art Blakey biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #333


  1. David Lewis
    Aug 8, 2014

    The Marsalis family divide… I suspect Ilkka and I would broadly agree on our take on them…

  2. Ilkka Jauramo
    Aug 15, 2014

    Calvin wrote: “Art Blakey was a teacher and a leader who graduated more great musicians than any other band leader in jazz history”. Let’s change Art Blakey to John Mayall and jazz to British blues. This is what we’ll get: “John Mayall was a teacher and a leader who graduated more great musicians than any other band leader in British blues history”. Band leaders who are educating whole generations of musicians is an interesting issue. – In Finland (with a population only for 5 millions) we had small circles and a band with a simple name: The Boys. Majority of our pop/rock/blues/jazz /prog musicians played in this particular band back then

    • David Lewis
      Aug 19, 2014

      We could change the sentence again to ‘Ronnie Hawkins’… or, to a lesser extent ‘Bill Monroe’ or ‘Frank Zappa’. Blakey was one of the greats.

  3. John Chamberlain
    Aug 17, 2014

    Most enjoyable read. On the subject of Night in Tunisia I have just “discovered” an 18 minute version recorded in Tokyo in 1979.(courtesy of Gilles Peterson’s excellent show): David Schnitter tenor, Robert Watson alto, Valery Ponomarev trumpet, James Williams piano, Dennis Irwin bass. Much recommended. Phillips 800-064-2

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