Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On Caravan with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Orrin Talks About The Keepnews Collection

“This is a series of reissues that can be described as largely centered on my incredibly long (even to me) career as a jazz producer. Each of them is of special Importance to me — some because of the initial impact they made, others because they have particular personal meaning or may present a performer whose value has no! been fully appreciated. Above all they are expressions of the talent — not infrequently the genius — of their featured artist. But I feel no need to downplay the several roles I have had in bringing them into being and in contributing to the careers of some of the most significant jazz performers of our day. For more than a half-century in this incredibly unstable age of jazz activity I have frequently succeeded in finding, recognizing, coddling, arguing with, and collaborating with a great variety of talented and occasionally difficult people. On the whole, I am unreasonably and unshakably proud of the results.

The series follows a specific set of ground rules. In each case the original product is preserved — cover art, the notes, and the entire initial recorded content, in the exact original sequence — and it is now presented with the sonic benefits of 24-bit remastering from the original master tapes. Alternate takes or originally unissued numbers, when available, appear as bonus tracks. In some instances I've added to the total lineup a never-used version that may have been recorded forty or more years ago. When that occasionally allows you to hear for time first time a "new" performance by a long-departed artist, be aware that I join you in considering this a truly wonderful addition. Finally, I have written a complete set of new commentaries, digging back into my memories of those often very good old days to tell a few more stories about this remarkable music and its people.”
- Orrin Keepnews

Despite my clumsy attempt to use it cleverly in the title of this piece, Art Blakey’s Caravan recording is worthy of your attention should you wish to include another of the Jazz Messengers’ hard bop treasures to you library without the Blue Note imprimatur on it.

Orrin Keepnews, the owner-proprietor of Riverside Records, the first of a number of Jazz-oriented labels that he would be associated with during his long and distinguished career as a record producer, explains how it all came about in the above annotation to the CD version of Caravan by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers.

And the significance of the recording at the time of its issuance as an LP on Riverside is underscored and elaborated upon by Ira Gitler in the following notes which appeared on the original album liner.

“This is on event: the Riverside debut of Art Blakey's assertive and stimulating band, in an album that finds the group celebrating its new affiliation by performing at top-level form. The name "Messengers" has been an apt description of Art's several groups down through the years to this sextet. For the ability to communicate directly to an audience — to deliver the message — is and always has been a Blakey hallmark.

The name was actually first used in the mid-1940s, when Art led a big band in New York known as the Seventeen Messengers, but its current history began in '55, when he used the "Jazz Messengers" handle for the quintet that included Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Doug Watkins. Until mid-1961, Blakey continued to lead five-piece groups with periodically shifting personnel, groups to which new flavors were frequently introduced by such composer-members as Bobby Timmons, Benny Golson, and Jackie McLean.

Then in 1961, several key changes took place. Timmons and Lee Morgan stepped out on their own and were replaced by Cedar Walton and Freddie Hubbard. Wayne Shorter remained, and perhaps his new status as the band's "veteran" sideman has accelerated his rapid growth as both performer and writer. Most significant, however, was the addition of Curtis Fuller, not merely because of the trombonist’s great individual ability, but also because this made the group a sextet for the first time. The three-horn lineup immediately presented the opportunity for more tonal colors and voices in motion. The most recent change, the 1962 shift to Reggie Workman as bassist, completes the current Blakey band, a group with more room for musical depth and with no lessening of the outpouring of spirit that has been at the center of all Messenger units.

The unmistakable solo power of the front line is very much in evidence here. Significantly, Shorter, Hubbard, and Fuller have in recent years each been voted a New Star award in the Down Beat International Critics' Poll. By now, although all are still young men, the word "new" no longer applies, but the description "star" certainly does. The rhythm section is a "tough" one: Walton, the solid camper with a personal solo style; Workman, the firm bassist whose playing takes his name seem on inevitable one; and Blakey, the swinging strong man. In the hands of a lesser artist, Art's style might easily become blast and bombast. But as Miles Davis has said, in discussing precisely this point: "Art's got so much talent."

The three horn men and Walton are all contributors to the band's overall book, but only Shorter and Hubbard are represented here. The first of Shorter's two pieces leads us to recall that long ago, the combination of Wayne and waltz could only mean orchestra leader Wayne King “The Wallz King," a sort of predecessor of Lawrence Welk. Today, a jazz waltz is by no means a rarity — which does not mean that there is anything commonplace about the artful construction and general effectiveness of this Wayne's waltz,
"Sweet 'n' Sour," which takes its name from its use of musical contrasts.

Shorter's other number, “This Is for Albert," is harmonically provocative, with a notably rich ensemble sound. (It is dedicated to Bud Powell — although standard reference work: don't list it, Wayne says Art and other contemporaries of Powell insist that the pianist's actual first name is Albert.) Hubbard's original, Thermo," is a darting minor-key theme, as hot and explosive as its title, that moves right along with an absence of strain in theme and solo sections alike.

The ballad performances, "Skylark" and "Wee Small Hours," belong for the most part to respectively, Hubbard and Fuller. Freddie is singing and soaring on the former; Curtis is warm full-toned, and more ruminative on his featured number.

Actually, Blakey is (for him) relatively subdued through most of the album. This is not to say that one is unaware of his presence. His sticks and feet accent imaginatively; his brushwork behind piano solos is masterful; his general vitality is always felt. And on the album's lead track and title tune, "Caravan," he is really in high gear. From his opening salvos, leading into the North African motifs that precede the theme, through his volatile accompaniment to the horn choruses and his excitingly polyrhythmic solo, to the rumbling, dramatic ending, Blakey is consistently the master drummer. There is technique galore in his solo, but you're much too concerned with what he is saying to stop and marvel at it from any academic standpoint. The band responds marvelously throughout, and especially delightful is the mercurial counterline that Hubbard and Shorter play against Fuller's line during the bridge.”
—Ira Gitler

Caravan Revisited by Orrin Keepnews

“The first time I heard Art Blakey, I did not know who I was listening to. For that matter, if I had been told the name of the drummer on the test pressing that was being played for me, the information would not have meant anything to me at that time. Under the circumstances, I remain rather proud of the fact that I was quickly aware of what his function was supposed to be on that record and how well he was accomplishing it!

Blakey, who of course was the drummer on Thelonious Monk's first Blue Note session in the fall of 1947, had been one of no more than three East Coast drummers who were recognized by the players around them as thoroughly understanding the underlying rhythmic patterns of the new music. About five years younger than Kenny Clarke and roughly that much older than Max Roach, he was actively involved in the music by the end of his teens, so that some of his earliest jobs were with leaders from the swing era, like Fletcher Henderson and Mary Lou Williams, and by the mid-1940s he was anchoring the legendary early-modern big band of Billy Eckstine. So it is easy to understand why this squat, powerful, super-energetic man seemed to have always been at the center of activity on the bandstand as far back as anyone was able to remember Rather amazingly, he actually was leading various versions of his Jazz Messengers for a full thirty-five years.

I have remained deeply impressed by the fact that listening to Art was an important (if almost subliminal) part of the action on what quite possibly was the most significant music-appreciation event of my life — the evening when I sat in Alfred and Lorraine Lion's living room and listened. Blakey, as I first heard him then, was engaged in providing essential rhythm support for his friend and colleague, Thelonious Monk. Playing behind Monk was an important activity that Art engaged in on quite a few occasions over the years. So, even though it was several years before I had an opportunity to pay serious professional attention to his work, I have no hesitation in saying that on mat first disembodied listening occasion early in 1948 I began to eventually become a die-hard Blakey fan.

(The full story of my first encounter with Monk is best appreciated in a quite different context: Early in 1948, when I had just become the virtually-unpaid managing editor of an esoteric jazz record collectors' magazine called The Record Changer, I was invited to spend an evening in the home of the founder of Blue Note Records. I largely occupied myself that night with interviewing Thelonious for an article that would appear in the magazine. Seven years later these circumstances would lead to a situation in which I, having become one owner of Riverside Records, was able to sign Monk to a contract and could spend several years as the producer of some of Monk's most significant recordings. But one unexpected valuable sidelight of the evening was my opportunity to hear advance test copies of the records that the pianist, supported by Blakey prominently among others, had recently made for Blue Note.)

It was not until the beginning of 1955, a couple of years after Riverside came into existence, that I had on opportunity to deal directly with Blakey. By this time he was quite firmly established as a major drummer; we were moving into the era in which the style took on its more powerfully developed shape as "hard bop," and Art was beginning to be involved in a cooperative quintet, not quite permanently organized, but pretty consistently using the group name "Jazz Messengers." At the very beginning of that year I had my very first studio experience with the man. It was a simple and easy trio session and an example of how warm and good-hearted a human being he could be. It was one of my very first record dates, with a young pianist named Randy Weston, who can be considered Riverside's first "discovery," although we accomplished very little for him. He has had o long and still-ongoing career, and has for many years been a major link between jazz and world music, but back then Randy did not even have a drummer working with him with any regularity. Blakey knew the young man and liked him, and said to count on him as the drummer for the album. So we all inevitably went out to Van Gelder's studio and rather quickly and easily cut a half-dozen numbers.

That was all we needed. Although this turned out to be an important transitional year, ending with everyone making 12-inch albums, this project was one of the last of the 10-inchers. I already knew that our competition, particularly the extremely cost-conscious Bob Weinstock at Prestige, worked whenever possible by paying in terms of recorded time. The musicians union labor agreement allowed a record company to issue up to fifteen minutes of music to be paid for as one session, plus a further overtime payment of one-third of union scale for each additional five minutes of music. Scale, in those far-off days, came to $41.25 per three-hour session. Thus if you worked efficiently, sideman scale for the just-under-forty minutes of music on a ten-incher came to two sessions and two overtimes, a total of exactly $110. Mr. Blakey, when I gave him a check for that amount, informed me that he was doing us a considerable favor by working for scale, that il was being done entirely on behalf of Randy, and that at least I could be enough of a gentleman to not cut all the corners and pay him three full sessions worth of scale! It was a quietly delivered lesson, immensely valuable to receive at such an early point, and one for which I remained forever grateful. (The next time he worked for me was with Thelonious on the tremendously important 1957 Monk's Music album, which eventually drew a lot of its strength from him, even though it is best remembered for teaming Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. He was paid over scale for that one; he was worth it.)

Although a handful of full-size orchestras may have stayed continuously in existence for longer periods of time, I can think of no other, large or small, with such a massive cumulative roster of major talent (except perhaps the constantly self-renewing Duke Ellington orchestra). There is a certain amount of vagueness about their actual starting point, since apparently there was first a shifting 17-man group simply called The Messengers, and the origins of the long-lived quintet and sextet were in on attempted cooperative band fronted by Horace Silver, which also seems to have basically involved Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, and Art. Donald Byrd and Clifford Brown were other early members. By 1956, Horace and the rest of the original cast were gone, and until the end, which was not until 1990, the leader was Blakey and the band was named the Jazz Messengers.

The drummer seems to have maintained a simple formula throughout his career: he hired highly promising young players, gave them much opportunity to express themselves and a beat that never seemed to stop. A brilliant, endless roster of young players served as "musical directors" — most, but by no means all, were tenor players. They did the bulk of the writing. Basically, it always seemed that there were excellent replacements in the wings whenever they were needed. To some extent because of his constant association with young players, Blakey found himself not really accurately cast in the role of a father figure. I remember sitting between sets in the backstage area at San Francisco's Keystone Korner with what must have been one of his last bands, although it was very much in the earlier pattern, a youthful group built around the young-but-mature New Orleans trumpet player and composer, Terence Blanchard. With total apparent seriousness, Art began lecturing these kids on the virtues of being on time. I listened silently as long as I could, but eventually it was all too much for me. "Art," I interrupted, "you should let these young men know thai this theory you are advocating is not one you always personally follow. In my case, if I should somehow be able to regain all the time I have spent in record studios in my lifetime, waiting for you to show up, I'd still be a young man today." This was followed by a truly awful moment of silence — Art was obviously evaluating how to respond to a truly off-the-wall comment that I somehow had not been able to avoid making. Then, without warning, he burst into a heavy wave of all-out laughter, throwing me an airborne punch in an obviously friendly gesture. But I really should learn to be more careful about some of my off-hand comments!

[Sometime before reaching the 1960s, Art had spent some time in West Africa— or at least claimed to have done so — and to a substantial extent openly identified himself thereafter by the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. That in turn led to the frequently used nickname "Bu." Since I can neither confirm nor deny the origin of the name, it is hard for me to figure out the best place to insert this probable fact into this narrative, so I'll settle for just bluntly presenting it right here, to be used however each reader finds it most helpful.]

Like a number of his hard-bop contemporaries, he was primarily thought of as belonging to Blue Note, but in the late 1950s, I had close associations with a couple of key band members. Benny Golson, the arranger for the 1958 band, made a couple of albums for Riverside and did a lot of valuable small-group charts for various record dates of ours. Bobby Timmons was Art's pianist at that time and wrote their biggest individual hit, the classic "Moanin'," but in '59 he joined the new Adderley band and wrote their breakthrough hit, 'This Here," and later made several trio albums for us.

Then, during one early-1960s period, the Messengers were actually under contract to Riverside. We were able to steal them for entirely non-musical reasons. Between 1962 and the start of '64, at the peak of our sales success with Cannonball Adderley and a couple of others, we were in a brief period of quite untypical financial strength. Blue Note presumably was not; Blakey definitely wasn't. As I recall, the IRS was breathing heavily in his direction; we were able not only to offer a healthy advance but arranged for it to be in the form of regular monthly installments paid directly to the government on his behalf.

The record business, however, can swiftly create some very bitter ironies. The contract would not be renewed. This initial album was recorded in the fall of 1962; the third and last one in February 1964. That was nearly two months after the sudden heart-attack death of my partner had revealed that we were in even worse shape than imagined; we were out of business by the end of June.

It was an excellent Messengers band, as can readily be heard on this album. Everyone was quite young, but several of them were already finding an early musical maturity. Of the three albums we made, I find this one still holds up as an exceptionally pulled-together effort. Ira Gitier's original liner notes, reproduced here, are particularly worth paying attention to for what they have to say about young Wayne Shorter — and please bear in mind that they are referring to Wayne's writing and performing skills of forty-five years ago! Unfortunately, the second album was recorded in performance at Birdland; it was my only such attempt. I have a very good track record at venues like the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard, and San Francisco's Jazz Workshop, but 52nd Street and Broadway in New York was too much for me.

Coda: In writing about this band, I have inevitably had to insert more than a few additional names, but I remain aware of how many really significant players of the whole bop-to-hard bop era have been to some extent graduates of the Art Blakey School. Since the Blakey "school" remained in session through the 1980s, I would run out of space long before doing a complete review, but I simply cannot conclude these notes without indulging in at least a very partial drum-roll's worth of name-dropping.

1 Right at the start of things, I had been given an invitation I could not ignore. Thelonious Monk, following a brief working trip to Chicago, had returned home thoroughly enthusiastic about Johnny Griffin. Johnny made his way to the Big Apple shortly thereafter, becoming part of a Messengers sextet whose horns included an incredible saxophone duo— Jackie McLean on alto, Griff on tenor—and for years thereafter a major mainstay at Riverside.

2. Walking into an East Village club one night, I found myself unable to figure out what thought process had led Blakey to hire at about the same time two such aggressively incompatible stylists as Keith Jarrett and Chuck Mangione, Don't get me wrong; each an admirable player in his own way, but hardly born bandmates. I never did figure out what if anything he had in mind, but it surely was clear that he was a man who would never avoid trying something just because it was different.

3. In the late-1960s days of my second record label, Milestone, I had gotten in the mail a very impressive unsolicited demo tope by a young alto player. It become the only time in my fifty-plus years in this business that I have actually signed and recorded a player I had first heard in that way. The auditioner was Gary Bartz; the peculiarity was that at the time he had no need to approach me through the mail — he was already a member of the Jazz Messengers.

4. I first recorded Mulgrew Miller in the very early Eighties; he was part of a Johnny Griffin quartet, and I was really intrigued by how absorbed he was in tfie piano— he never stopped playing between takes or even on breaks. I was between companies then, so I told him that the first time someone offered him his own date he should check with me before responding. When he did get in touch he was already with me Messengers, and I had a new label, so I went ahead and produced his first half-dozen albums.

5. In case you are young enough to feel that the Marsalis family has always dominated the jazz scene, please be aware that Wynton and Branford are merely part of a fine old tradition — at the beginning of the 1980s, you could hear them with the Messengers, and Wynton was in the time-honored role of Art's "musical director."”


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