Monday, October 11, 2010

Art Blakey: 1919-1990, Jazz Dispatcher

For more than 35 years, from the mid-50s to his death in 1990, Art Blakey gathered around him the finest musicians in the post-Bebop era and crystallized a new sound, that of The Jazz Messengers. 

Art Blakey w/Messengers Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan and Jymie Merritt.
Zurich, 1958.  From Newstalgia.

There were previous incarnations of this idea, one of a rehearsal band called The Seventeen Messengers, the key term evocative of Blakey's conversion to Islam in the late '40s. The moving parade of stellar personnel over the years revealed Blakey to have been The Jazz Dispatcher.

Since to reproduce here the list of the messengers he dispatched to the four corners, and his discography, might shift focus away from him, I direct you to this page where Steve Schwartz and Michael Fitzgerald have laid it all out.  Wikipedia's shorter version is's Blakey page is also essential.  (My desert-island album picks? A Night in Tunisia, Mosaic, Free for All, and all three volumes of A Night at Birdland, which features the pantheon of Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, and Clifford Brown along with Curly Russell on bass.)

There was, of course, Blakey's drumming, which seemed to announce the opening of Heaven's Gate:

Jazz has been blessed with many great drummers.  Art Blakey, however, was unique: one cannot imagine the history of Jazz over the last sixty years without his eagle eye for talent; his ability to motivate them to reach their potential; leadership skills that turned a half a dozen of them at a time into musically cohesive working units (and entrepreneurial foresight to keep them working!); and "tough love" that made room for new blood when it was "time," often regardless of whether the musician on the receiving end of the news agreed with the timing.  The Jazz Messengers never were, thank God, a "nostalgia band."  They were more like an Academy of Hard Bop, of which Blakey was the Dean.

Having worked with many of the giants of Swing and Bebop, including Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker, Blakey was the conduit of that legacy to every young person who came under his wing, including Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, and Valery Ponomarev, all of whom create music to this day.  (Ponomarev cleverly pays tribute to his former boss by calling his big band "Our Father Who Art Blakey.")  Blakey personally represented to them living tradition while spearheading the movement that made Hard Bop, not an acquired taste as it is today, but one form of Black popular music. (David Rosenthal's Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965 tells the story.) 

One night in the mid-'70s I found myself standing in front of Art Blakey inside The Village Gate.  Having just finished a set, he was listening to two other musicians conversing off-stage where I happened to be.  He didn't speak while I was standing there, and as I had no particular reason to continue to do so, I moved on.  Once again, this was case of my not knowing then what I know now, and wishing I could have asked him something, anything.  In any case, I recall being struck by how short and stocky, relatively speaking, this man was.  (I'm taken aback when I realize that he was then as old as I am now.)  More pertinently, I had just been impressed by how thunderous was his playing, thinking for a moment that perhaps I could have saved a few bucks merely by standing outside the club and listening.  But that there was more to the experience than percussive power, this neophyte even then knew. 

In this rare color video from 1986, following (at around 3:00) former Messenger Bobby Watson's appreciation of the man, Blakey personifies not only the passion that must fuel commitment to Jazz as a way of life, but also the knowledge that music is a three-way encounter among the Creator, the musician, and the audience.  Finding this sermon -- there is no other word for it -- made my day.  I hope it will makes yours.

My favorite saying attributed to him is that "music washes away the dust of everyday life," for which dust the Shakespearean metaphor is "mortal coil."  [Note: I've just learned that this revises an aphorism of poet Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882): "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."--T.F. 2/8/11]  Art Blakey, born 91 years ago today, shuffled off his twenty years ago this Saturday.  I can only imagine that he is in heaven preparing to accompany The Second Coming.

No comments:

Post a Comment