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Genius Guide to Jazz

For Art's Sake

By Published: April 11, 2005

Perhaps the greatest testament to Blakey's legacy is that the music he created with the Jazz Messengers is timeless, while all those "modern" experiments that passed him by in the mainstream of their time now sound as dated as a white guy with an Afro and earth shoes

Drummer and bandleader Art Blakey is driving through a small town when he notices a sparsely-attended graveside service being conducted in the hamlet's cemetery. He stops his car and gets out, perhaps paying his respects to some anonymous soul he would now never even meet. As the pastor's service winds down, a call is made for anyone to come forward with their own remarks. There is a long, awkward silence. Finally, Blakey steps forward. "If no one has anything to say about the deceased, I'd like to say a few words about jazz."

Arthur Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, just days after the tragic Chicago White Sox had lost the World Series in 8 games to the Cincinnati Reds, for which Blakey was banned from baseball for life. The newborn Blakey was not in on the conspiracy to throw the Series, but neither was Sox third baseman Buck Weaver and look what happened to him (go ahead and look, I'll wait here). Some jazz historians believe that the slight of Judge Landis' preemptive ban may have later contributed to Art's thunderous drumming style, an opinion that led to those people also being banned from baseball. Some baseball historians theorize that I've finally gone absolutely barking mad, an opinion that makes me want to fill their shoes with rice pilaf.

Be that as it may.

Blakey's childhood was relatively uneventful. In fact, it was so uneventful that in the initial drafts of this piece, I had to add a whole subplot just to make it interesting enough for the reader to continue on to the important stuff. It was about a bunch of Tibetan monks who believe young Art to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, and so a sinister group of Chinese Communists try to kidnap him. There's some car chases, lots of wuxia-style martial arts, important lessons were learned, and the whole bunch ended up eating huge sandwiches at Primanti Brothers and laughing like old friends. Art briefly becomes the youngest Emperor of China, but steps down because the gig doesn't pay. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it through Microsoft Word's bulls**t filter, and was left with just this paragraph to move the piece along.

Moving along, then.

Blakey's initial instrument of choice was the piano, and he quickly built a reputation around Steeltown as a precocious talent. At the same time, a young Errol Garner was also making a name for himself as a pianist in Pittsburgh, leading to an inevitable showdown between the two future jazz legends. At that time, Pittsburgh had a municipal ordinance limiting musical prodigies to one per instrument as a result of the bloody Zimmerman-Padenko Violin War of 1912-14. Blakey and Garner met in a winner-take-all game of Kick the Can at Forbes Field on March 12, 1934. The tense contest was decided when Blakey's errant kick sent a Campbell's soup can careening into the cheering crowd, striking a young Andy Warhol and forever changing the histories of both jazz and art. And Art.

Speaking of whom.

Forced to take up the drums following his defeat, Blakey was undeterred. He immediately found himself an apprenticeship under Chick Webb, the fabled drummer, bandleader and forest elf. Soon, Blakey was ready to return to his hometown and put together his first band with pianist Mary Lou Williams and some spare lumber his dad let him have. From here, he spent three years touring with Fletcher Henderson and a year at Boston's famed Tic Toc Club, spent mostly circling the block and looking for a parking space. Blakey then joined up with Billy Eckstine and the pair briefly tried their hands at being frontier lawmen (as Billy Two Guns and the Monongahela Kid) before it was pointed out to them that the West had long since been tamed, and they both looked silly in chaps besides.

A fateful trip to Africa in 1948 produced some revolutionary changes for Blakey. He learned the secrets of polyrhythmic drumming that would color his approach to the instrument for the rest of his career, as well as discovering Islam. The latter discovery would cause him to briefly change his name to Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, changing it back because of the repeated disappointment of finding virtually no personalized items in the many souvenir gift shops he visited during his extensive travels.

1954 proved an even bigger landmark for Blakey, as he met pianist Horace Silver. Their first collaboration, with Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson, was recorded at Birdland on Blue Note. Following the success of that recording, Blakey and Silver formed the Jazz Messengers. Originally intended as a courier service to provide day jobs for struggling jazz musicians, it failed in its primary mission mostly because Western Union was more established and had neater uniforms. Deciding instead to make the Jazz Messengers a sort of performing university for up-and-coming musicians, Blakey set forth on the mission that would cement his place in jazz history while Silver left the group to develop his own chain of pirate-themed fast-food fish restaurants.

Ahoy then, matey.

From the beginning, the Jazz Messengers attracted some of the brightest young names in jazz. Hank Mobley and Jackie McLean spent time with the group, as did Benny Golson and Lee Morgan. It was, in fact, the iteration of the Messengers featuring Golson and Morgan that produced what is considered by many to be the hallmark album of the group's long and multifaceted recording career, 1958's epochal Moanin'. With pianist Bobbie Timmons and bassist Jymmie Merritt, the group produced what might also be considered the blueprint for hard bop; bluesy, relaxed while never failing to swing, and accessible without compromise.

In fact, Moanin' may rightly be considered the embodiment of Blakey's mission not only to give young musicians a starting point, but to rescue jazz from the plague of intellectualism that had infected it since the rise of Bebop. Blakey sought to rescue jazz from the chin-scratchers and return it to its rightful place among the people who both invented and prospered the music throughout its history. Amid the toe-tappable beats and melodies it didn't require an advanced college degree to whistle, there was always contained an egalitarian sentiment that spoke to the very heart of the common genius that created jazz in the first place.

Take that, Pulitzer Prize committee.

Throughout the Sixties, the Jazz Messengers continued their crusade even as jazz morphed and spiraled in a myriad of unexpected directions. Blakey remained resolute in his ideals, and in his definition of jazz. Musicians as varied as pianist Cedar Walton, trombonist Curtis Fuller, trumpeter Chuck Mangione, and several other guys whose first names didn't begin with a C made their way through the ranks. Keith Jarrett made a brief appearance with the group while just barely out of his teens, leaving to devote more time to his impending mustache.

The Seventies were in many ways a difficult time for jazz. Straying almost as far from its roots as it ever had, the lines between jazz and other kinds of music blurred and blended until it was impossible to tell what was jazz and what was just arty, pretentious pop. Fusion, the electrified rock-jazz hybrid pioneered by Miles Davis, was the definitive genre of the era. Blakey was undeterred, and kept the fire of traditional jazz burning through those dark days when white guys with Afros and earth shoes reigned atop the jazz hierarchy.

Blakey's vigilance would be rewarded, though, at the dawning of the eighties. Dexter Gordon's triumphant return from a self-imposed exile in France had reawakened an interest in traditional jazz, and Blakey was perfectly positioned in his familiar stalwart role. The addition of a talented young trumpeter from New Orleans by way of Juilliard bolstered the Messenger's lineup, and it could be said that Wynton Marsalis lit his torch from Blakey's and has carried that same fire for jazz ever since. Insert your own Ken "burns" joke here.

Blakey continued as an ambassador, defender and professor right up until just shortly after his death at age 71 on October 16, 1990 (he had a gig already scheduled for the 18th, and Art was nothing if not dependable). Perhaps the greatest testament to Blakey's legacy is that the music he created with the Jazz Messengers is timeless, while all those "modern" experiments that passed him by in the mainstream of their time now sound as dated as a white guy with an Afro and earth shoes.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.


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