Arthur “Art” Blakey was one of the greatest drummers and band leaders in the history of jazz. A co-founder of the formidable Jazz Messengers with pianist Horace Silver in the mid-fifties, which became his primary focus for over 40 years, Blakey had made a name for himself as a member of the Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine big bands of the 1940s and through his associations with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and particularly with Thelonious Monk’s 1947 historic recordings, Genius of Modern Music – Volumes 1 & 2.
Blakey was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 11, 1919. He began playing the piano at a young age and in the early 1930s began playing drums after an incident in which he was forced off the piano and onto the drums by gun point during a gig at the Democratic Club in Pittsburgh. It was in the late 1940s with the Eckstine band that Blakey first became associated with be-bop along with Parker, Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis, all of whom he frequently backed in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
As a drummer Blakey studied under the tutelage of Chick Webb and was nothing short of an aggressive power house. His playing was very poly-rhythmic and he had a dark and heavy cymbal sound and is instantly identifiable by his two and four beat high hat. Blakey was also perhaps the first to truly incorporate African drumming into jazz.
The Jazz Messengers were instituted by name in 1954 and released their first album in 1956 featuring Donald Byrd on trumpet , Hank Mobley on saxophone, Horace Silver on piano and Doug Watkins on bass. Simply entitled The Jazz Messengers, the album was released by Columbia Records that same year. Silver departed the group approximately a year later and Blakey assumed the lone leader role, re-christening the group as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the group he led for the remainder of his life.
The 1950s renderings of the group resulted in solid album releases with impressive solos but lacked original material. This was corrected however in the early 1960s with the inclusion of either Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone, who’s compositional ability was only outweighed by their chops.
The musical direction of the Jazz Messengers remained consistent over it’s long history delivering hard bop to the masses, but varied with it’s membership considerably. Along with Morgan, Hubbard, Fuller and Shorter, the band’s alumni includes Benny Golson, Johnny Griffin, Cedar Walton, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, Keith Jarrett, both Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Woody Shaw, Mulgrew Miller and Terence Blanchard.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers encountered some difficulty delivering their message throughout the 1970s, given the advent and popularity of the fusion movement. Unable to sign with a major U.S. label, Blakey resorted to signing with European labels in order to continue to deliver the jazz message. The group however later gained a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s.
Art Blakey is one of the most important figures in the history of jazz because in the face of all the varying changes that the genre went through during his time, Blakey was steadfast as a jazz purist. His band became known as a breeding ground and launching pad for many musicians and their careers and a tour with the Jazz Messengers was seen as nothing short of a pre-requisite for young musicians. For that, I believe we are all eternally grateful.
Art Blakey was inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame in 1981 and posthumously with the Grammy Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.