Art Blakey is a musician who featured a lot of the younger artists as they were coming up. He caught the talent early,  put it up front, and gave it a good chance to develop.

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is all but defined hard bop. Powered by Art Blakey’s compulsive, polyrhythmic drumming which transformed jazz drumming in the 50s and 60s, a succession of brilliant players who would do so much to shape jazz in the coming decades took their place at the forefront of his music – Horace Silver, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Curtis Fuller.

And following the difficult period in the ‘seventies when mainstream jazz could not find an audience, in the ‘eighties a new generation of Jazz Messengers were inducted and educated in Art Blakey’s band – developing the careers of Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Rooney, Terence Blanchard and Mulgrew Miller.

The two greatest line-ups featured Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter (1960 –1961) and then Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller (1961 – 1964). The first line up produced the great albums “A Night In Tunisia”, “Roots and Herbs”, “The Freedom Rider” and “The Witch Doctor”; the second line up produced the even better albums “Mosaic”, “Buhaina’s Delight” and “Free For All”.

“Indestructible!” is a further hybrid when Lee Morgan then rejoined for one album, replacing Freddie Hubbard but keeping the sextet format in place.

The addition of Curtis Fuller on trombone allowed a fuller, more complex harmonic approach to be taken and, if anything to then allow the hard rhythmic underpinnings of the music to become the more intense (listen to, for example, “Hammerhead” or “Free For All” on the “Free For All” album where the music becomes as heavy as any jazz played anywhere)

Art Blakey had learned piano in his home town of Pittsburgh and had his own big band by the age of fifteen. He switched to drums when Erroll Garner took over the piano slot and the rest, as they say, is history. By 1939 he was touring with the Fletcher Henderson band before joining Billy Eckstein three years later in New York. Gigging brought him sessions with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

By 1948, he had visited Africa to learn polyrhythmic drumming and also took up Islam, adopting the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, and being referred to as “Bu” by friends and colleagues. 1955 was the year of the partnership with Horace Silver that led to the first Jazz Messengers band. When Horace Silver left, the name remained with Art Blakey and became a premier rallying point for the new jazz talent over the next thirty five years.

Blakey became known for his frenetic snare drum patterns, fiery cymbals and eccentric rhythms in a band that has many credit with reshaping the face of modern jazz.Over the years, Blakey’s Messengers came to include trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was only 18 when he joined Blakey in 1981.

Older Marsalis brother Branford, a saxophonist, was already a member. Others were trumpeters Mangione, Hubbard and Clifford Brown, saxophonists Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter and Johnny Griffin, and pianists Keith Jarrett, Walter Davis and JoAnne Brackeen, the first woman Messenger.

In the late 1970s, Blakey’s ear for talent brought Valery Ponomarev, a Kiev-born trumpeter only months out of the Soviet Union, into the Messengers. But Blakey denied being a teacher, saying that as a self-taught musician, “I don’t know anything myself.”

Yet at another time he said, “When I take these 18-year-old kids out on tour, it makes most of the pros feel like cutting their wrists. . . . They’re going to take the music farther than it has been.” In a television film about Blakey’s career, Messengers alumnus Davis said: “I think no one in jazz has brought more great musicians to music than Art Blakey.”

The 1981 Newport Jazz Festival gave over an evening to “The Blakey Legacy,” in which the drummer was joined by the players who had been with his band during the previous quarter century.

When the Marsalis brothers opted for individual fame, Blakey quickly replaced them with two other promising youths–trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison. (Recently Blanchard and Branford Marsalis teamed on the title duet of the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s film “Mo’ Better Blues.”)

There was more than just a musical side to Blakey. He was a fierce defender of racial justice, in the process incurring the displeasure of some blacks.

Blakey had been living in Manhattan when he died of lung cancer, aged 71, at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center. His New York Times obituary notes that he was survived by four daughters (Gwendolyn, Evelyn, Jackie, and Sakeena), and four sons (Takashi, Kenji, Gamal, and Akira)

Max Roach described him thus:

“Although Blakey discourages comparison of his own music with African drumming, he adopted several African methods after his visit in 1948-9, including rapping on the side of the drum and using his elbow on the tom-tom to alter the pitch.

Later he organized recording sessions with multiple drummers, including some African musicians. His much-imitated trademark, the forceful closing of the hi-hat on every second and fourth beat, has been part of his style since 1950–51. … A loud and domineering drummer, Blakey also listens and responds to his soloists.”

Let’s have a look now at the top six albums of Art Blakey, the great jazz messenger:

6. Mosaic

“Mosaic” finds the band in 1961 with the partnership between Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Wayne Shorter in full bloom. The album conveys a maturity and an elegance that sets it above the thrash jazz of “A Night In Tunisia” or ‘Free For All” and yet the music stays true to the spirit of hard bop – challenging, demanding, uplifting, pointing to the possibility of transformation. Beauty in the face of the corruption of the world.

A hard beauty that is indestructible. In that sense this is the music which is heir to the legacy of the blues.

5. Free for All

This album is super deep. I went down to the flea market just about every weekend to look for records. This record was recorded on the same day the House of Representatives introduced the civil rights bill (shortly after JFK’s assassination).

So the title track and Freddie’s tune ‘The Core’ which was written for a political group much like the NAACP make sense. The playing on this sounds like both a celebration of their resilience and an acknowledgement of their need to be resilient.

4. Theory of Art

This CD contains two unique sessions in the history of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Five numbers feature a sextet that includes both altoist Jackie McLean, who had recently left the band, and his replacement, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin along with trumpeter Bill Hardman; “A Night in Tunisia” best shows off this short-lived group.

The remaining two numbers were unissued until this CD came out and feature Blakey heading a nonet that included future Messenger Lee Morgan, trombonist Melba Liston and Griffin. The music is consistently excellent and also succeeds as a historical curiosity that should greatly interest Blakey collectors.

3. The Best of Art Blakey

The Best of Art Blakey is a fine sampler that boasts good performances of such songs as “Moanin’,” “A Night in Tunisia,” and “Blues March.” While this is certainly far from a definitive portrait of Blakey and holds no interest for collectors and purists, it’s not a bad introduction for neophytes.

The 1989 CD edition adds the bonus tracks of “Mosaic” and “Free for All” for a total of seven tracks and overall running time that exceeds an hour.

2. Moanin’

Gospel, blues, hard bop, and swing congeal in this masterpiece of an album, and at its core is the relentless propulsion machine that is Blakey’s drumming. Endlessly swinging and churning along with Blakey’s inimitable shuffle, this album is a testament to Art’s oft-quoted line, “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.”

1. Mirage

The 1957 edition of The Jazz Messengers heard throughout this enjoyable LP features altoist Jackie McLean, trumpeter Bill Hardman, pianist Sam Dockery, bassist Spanky DeBrest and leader/drummer Art Blakey.

Already at this early stage, the band was the epitome of hard bop and just beginning to become an influential force. Although none of these six selections (three by tuba player Ray Draper) would become standards, the music is outstanding and typically hard swinging.

Thank you for reading this article. We hope that you will also read the next article, which will be about the best albums of Horace Silver, the great jazz pianist.

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