For Art's Sake
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.