OCTOBER 16, 1990 – Drummer/pianist ART BLAKEY (b. October 11, 1919 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as Arthur Blakey) died at St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in New York City of lung cancer five days before his 72nd birthday after a career that spanned six of the best decades of jazz music.
Blakey had been living in Manhattan when he died, and was survived by four daughters (Gwendolyn, Evelyn, Jackie, and Sakeena), and by four sons (Takashi, Kenji, Gamal, and Akira).Probably born to a single mother who died shortly after his birth (her name is often cited as Marie Roddicker or Roddericker although Blakey’s own 1937 marriage license shows her maiden name to have been Jackson), his biological father was Bertram Thomas Blakey, originally of Ozark, Alabama, whose family migrated northward to Pittsburgh sometime between 1900 and 1910.
Blakey’s uncle, Rubi Blakey, was a popular Pittsburgh singer, choral leader, and teacher who attended Fisk University.Blakey is described as having been “raised with his siblings by a family friend who became a surrogate mother” and that he “received some piano lessons at school,” and was able to spend some further time teaching himself. According to Leslie Gourse’s biography, the surrogate mother figure was Annie Peron. The stories related by family and friends, and by Blakey himself, are contradictory as to how long he spent with the Peron family, but it is clear he spent some time with them growing up.Equally clouded by contradiction are stories of Blakey’s early music career. It is agreed by several sources that by the time he was in seventh grade, Blakey was playing music full-time and had begun to take on adult responsibilities, playing the piano to earn money and learning to be a band leader, but Blakey began his musical career, as did many jazz musicians, in the church. The foster son of a devout Seventh Day Adventist Family, Art learned the piano as he learned the Bible, mastering both at an early age.
But as Art himself told it so many times, his career on the piano ended at the wrong end of a pistol when the owner of the Democratic Club, the Pittsburgh nightclub where he was gigging, ordered him off the piano and onto the drums. Art, then in his early teens and a budding pianist, was usurped by an equally young Erroll Garner who, as it turned out, was as skilled at the piano as Blakey later was at the drums. The upset turned into a blessing for Art, launching a long career that nurtured the careers of countless other jazz musicians.As a young drummer, Art came under the tutelage of legendary drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, serving as his valet. In 1937, Art returned to Pittsburgh, forming his own band, teaming up with Pianist Mary Lou Williams, under whose name the band performed. From his Pittsburgh gig, Art made his way through the Jazz world.From 1939 to 1944, Blakey played with fellow Pittsburgh native Mary Lou Williams and toured with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.
While sources differ on the timing, most agree that he traveled to New York with Williams in 1942 before joining Henderson a year later (some accounts have him joining Henderson as early as 1939). While playing in Henderson’s band, Blakey was involved in a scuffle with Georgia police and suffered injuries that caused him to be declared unfit for service in World War II. He led his own band at the Tic Toc Club in Boston for a short time.After a year in Boston with a steady gig at the Tic Toc club, he joined the great Billy Eckstine, gigging with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughn from 1944 to 1947. Through this band, Blakey became associated with the bebop movement, along with his fellow band members Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan among others.After the Eckstine band broke up, Blakey states that he traveled to Africa for a time: “In 1947, after the Eckstine band broke up, we—took a trip to Africa. I was supposed to stay there three months and I stayed two years because I wanted to live among the people and find out just how they lived and—about the drums especially.” Blakey is known to have recorded from 1947 to 1949.
In 1948, Art told reporters he had visited Africa, where he learned polyrhythmic drumming and was introduced to Islam. He studied and converted to Islam during this period, taking the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, although he stopped being a practicing Muslim in the 1950s and continued to perform under the name Art Blakey” throughout his career. It was in the late ’40s that Art formed his first Jazz Messengers band, a 17-piece big band. On December 17, 1947, Blakey led “Art Blakey’s Messengers” in his first recording session as a leader, for Blue Note Records. The records were released as 78 rpm records at the time, and two of the songs were released on the “New Sounds” 10″ LP compilation. The octet included Kenny Dorham, Sahib Shihab, Musa Kaleem, and Walter Bishop, Jr.Around the same time (1947 or 1949) he led a big band called Seventeen Messengers. The band proved to be financially unstable and broke up soon after.
The use of the Messengers tag finally stuck with the group co-led at first by both Blakey and pianist Horace Silver, though the name was not used on the earliest of their recordings. But as the 1950s began, Blakey was backing musicians such as Davis, Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk (he is often considered to have been Monk’s most empathetic drummer), and he played on both Monk’s first recording session as a leader (for Blue Note Records in 1947) and his final one (in London in 1971), as well as many in between. Blakey toured with Buddy DeFranco from 1951 to 1953 in a band that also included Kenny Drew.In 1954 Art met up with Silver, altoist Lou Donaldson, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and bassist Curly Russell and recorded “live” at Birdland for Blue Note Records, but the “Jazz Messengers” name was first used on a 1954 recording nominally led by Silver, with Blakey, Mobley, Dorham and Doug Watkins.
The same quintet recorded “The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia” the following year, still functioning as a collective. Donald Byrd replaced Dorham, and the group recorded an album called simply “The Jazz Messengers” for Columbia Records in 1956. Blakey took over the group name when Silver left after the band’s first year (taking Mobley and Watkins with him to form a new quintet), and the band name evolved to include Blakey’s name, eventually settling upon “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” Blakey led the group for the rest of his life.Art’s driving rhythms and his incessant two and four beat on the high hat cymbals were readily identifiable from the outset and remained a constant throughout 35 years of Jazz Messengers bands. What changed constantly was a seeming unending supply of talented sidemen, many of whom went on to become band leaders in their own right.He had a policy of encouraging young musicians: as he remarked on-mic during the live session which resulted in the “A Night at Birdland” albums in 1954: “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I’ll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active.”In the early years luminaries like Clifford Brown, Hank Mobley and Jackie McLean rounded out the band.
In 1959, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson joined the quintet and (at Art’s request) began working on the songbook and recruiting what became one of the timeless Messenger bands with tenor saxman Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymmie Merritt. Golson, as music director, wrote several jazz standards which began as part of the band book, such as “I Remember Clifford,” and “Blues March” and were frequently revived by later editions of the group. “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real” were other Golson compositions for Blakey. Other songs produced from ’59 through the early ’60s became trademarks for the Messengers, including Timmon’s “Moanin’,” Golson’s “Along Came Betty” and “Blues March” and Shorter’s “Ping Pong.”From 1961–64, the band was a sextet that added trombonist Curtis Fuller and replaced Morgan and Timmons with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton, respectively. The group evolved into a proving ground for young jazz talent. While veterans occasionally reappeared in the group, by and large, each iteration of the Messengers included a lineup of new young players. Having the Messengers on one’s resume was a rite of passage in the jazz world, and conveyed immediate bona fides.By this time, the Messengers had become a mainstay on the jazz club circuit and began recording on Blue Note Records. They began touring Europe, with forays into North Africa. In 1960, the Messengers became the first American Jazz band to play in Japan for Japanese audiences. That first Japanese tour was a high point for the band. At the Tokyo airport, the band was greeted by hundreds of fans as Blues March played over their airport intercom and their visit was televised nationally.In 1961, trombonist Curtis Fuller transformed the Messengers into a proper sextet, giving the band the opportunity to incorporate a big band sound into their hard bop repertoire. Throughout the ’60s, the Messengers remained a mainstay on the jazz scene with jazz greats including Cedar Walton, Chuck Mangione, Keith Jarrett, Reggie Workman, Lucky Thompson and John Hicks. In the jazz drought of the ’70s, the Messengers remained a strong force, with fewer recordings, but no less energy.
At a time when many jazz musicians were experimenting with electronics and fusing their music with pop, the Messengers were a mainstay of straight-ahead jazz.Many Messenger alumni went on to become jazz stars in their own right, such as Morgan, Golson, Shorter, Hubbard, Timmons, Fuller, Mangione, Jarrett, Joanne Brackeen, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Mulgrew Miller.After weathering the fusion era in the 1970s with some difficulty (recordings from this period are less plentiful and include attempts to incorporate instruments like electric piano, Blakey’s band was revitalized in the early 1980s with the advent of neotraditionalist jazz. Art’s steadfast belief in jazz music left him well positioned to take advantage of the music’s resurgence. He had been working with musicians including trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, tenor Billy Pierce, alto saxman Bobby Watson and pianist James Williams. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ 1980 entrance into the band coincided, and played no small part in, the resurgence of jazz. Marsalis was for a time the band’s trumpeter and musical director, and even after Marsalis’ departure Blakey’s band continued as a proving ground for Johnny O’Neal, Philip Harper, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Kenny Garrett, among others.He continued performing and touring with the group through the end of the 1980s. Ralph Peterson, Jr. joined in 1983 as a second drummer due to Blakey’s failing health. Ron Wynn notes that Blakey had “played with such force and fury that he eventually lost much of his hearing, and at the end of his life, often played strictly by instinct.” He stubbornly refused to wear a hearing aid, arguing that it threw his timing off, so most of the time he played by sensing vibrations. Javon Jackson, who played in Blakey’s final lineup, claimed that he exaggerated the extent of his hearing loss. “In my opinion, his deafness was a little exaggerated, and it was exaggerated by him.
He didn’t hear well out of one ear, but he could hear just fine out the other one. He could hear you just fine when you played something badly and he was quick to say ‘Hey, you missed that there.’ But anything like ‘I don’t think I’ll be available for the next gig’, he’d say ‘Huh? I can’t hear you.'” Another bandmate, Geoffrey Keezer, claimed that “He was selectively deaf. He’d go deaf when you asked him about money, but if it was real quiet and you talked to him one-on-one, then he could hear you just fine.”Throughout the ’80 and until his death in 1990, Art maintained the integrity of the message, incubating the careers of musicians including trumpeters Blanchard and Wallace Rooney, pianists Miller and Donald Brown, bassists Peter Washington and Lonnie Plaxico and many others. In the words of drummer Cindy Blackman shortly after Blakey’s death, “When jazz was in danger of dying out [during the 1970s], there was still a scene. Art kept it going.”Blakey married four times, and had long-lasting and other relationships throughout his life. He married his first wife, Clarice Stewart, while yet a teen, then Diana Bates (1956), Atsuko Nakamura (1968), and Anne Arnold (1983). He had 10 children from these relationships — daughters Gwendolyn, Evelyn, Jackie, Kadijah, and Sakeena, and sons Art Jr., Takashi, Akira, Kenji and Gamal. Sandy Warren, another longtime companion of Blakey, published a book of reminiscences and favorite food recipes from the period of the late 1970s to early 1980s when Blakey lived in Northfield, New Jersey with Warren and their son, Takashi.John Cohassey described Blakey as a “jazz musician who lived most of his life on the road, [and] lived by the rules of the road.” This lifestyle resulted in run-ins related to but predating the civil rights era (including a 1939 Fletcher Henderson band episode in Albany, Georgia, where an altercation and Blakey’s treatment after arrest led to surgery in which a plate was inserted in his head).
Drummer Keith Hollis, reflecting on Blakey’s early life, states that his fellow drummer “wound up doing drugs to cope” like many of the era, Blakey and his bands were known for their drug use (namely heroin) while traveling and performing (with varying accounts of Blakey’s influence on others in this regard).Other specific recollections have Blakey forswearing serious drink while playing (after being disciplined by drummer Sid Catlett early in his career for drinking while performing), and suggest that the influence of “clean-living cat” Wynton Marsalis led to a period where he was less affected by drugs during performances. Blakey was a heavy smoker; he appears in a cloud of smoke on the 1961 “Buhaina’s Delight” album cover, and in extended footage of a 1973 appearance with Ginger Baker, Blakey begins a long drummers’ “duel” with a lit cigarette.
Blakey was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1981, the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1982, the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1991, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and 2001, and was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Art Blakey among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.