© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Art Blakey was one of jazz's staunchest advocates throughout his long life in the music. The little speech he would deliver at the end of every set may have sounded mawkish to some, but there was no doubting the sincerity of his commitment to its sentiments. For Blakey, jazz really was the greatest art form ever developed in America, delivered from the Creator through the musician to the people, and he was always happy to repeat what seemed to him the self-evident facts of the matter, as in this extract from an interview with this writer in 1987.
‘Jazz is just music, that's all. This is what we like to do, this is what we like to play. Charlie Parker, and Dizzy, and Monk, guys like that, they took the music to a higher level of performance, to the highest level of performance on a musical instrument, and it's spiritual music, where the audience have a part to play as well, they're not excluded from the music. The music comes from the Creator to the musicians, and the musicians play to the audience, they don't play down to them. You have to present something to the people, you can't just do anything.’
What Blakey presented to the people for the best part of nearly fifty productive years in music was the quintessential hard bop band, The Jazz Messengers. He built the band on a solid foundation acquired in the decades when swing transmuted into bebop, and persevered with the music through some barren years before seeing a resurgent interest during the last years of his life in the form he did so much to define.”
- Kenny Mathieson, Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-1965
“Cette confidence est la clé de toute l'œuvre d'Art. La force de la communauté noire, c'est sa foi. Jouer de la musique constituera donc toujours pour Art l'occasion d'affirmer cette foi. Le batteur se forgera ainsi une force intérieure inébranlable grâce à une vie spirituelle riche. Et cette vision du monde, qui marie la musique et la religion habitera le musicien tout au long de sa vie. C'est pourquoi il se considérera toujours comme porteur d'un message divin -lui n'étant qu'un modeste intermédiaire, une simple « porte battante » entre le monde terrestre et l'univers céleste.”
“This confidence is the key to the whole work of Art. The strength of the black community is its faith. Playing music will therefore always be an opportunity for Art to affirm this faith. The drummer will forge a unshakable inner strength through a rich spiritual life. And this vision of the world, which combines music and religion, will inhabit the musician throughout his life. That is why he will always regard himself as the bearer of a divine message - a modest intermediary, a simple "swinging door" between the earthly world and the heavenly universe.”
- Georges Paczynski, Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz
The young drummer never "trained." He made a virtue of being self-taught, often saying that study might inhibit natural responses to music, not an unusual attitude among instinctive players. Blakey confidently relied totally on his instincts. Intense and always curious, he learned the craft by listening to musicians in Pittsburgh and, later, was particularly attentive on the road and after he got to New York. …
“What Art Blakey did with all he learned from others is central to his story. How he shaped music and made it sing and swing grew out of his focus on accompaniment and support of a band and individual players. He didn't aspire to be a transcendental soloist, as many others did when he was coming along.
What pleased him most, early and later on, was that musicians asked for him — in clubs, concerts, and on record dates — because of what he could do for them and the music. Though he was more ego-driven after becoming widely known, Blakey was essentially an unselfish player—one who even asked his colleagues, particularly if they were new to him, what and how they wanted him to play.”
- Burt Korall, Drummin Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz - The Bebop Years:
“I hear an element of Art Blakey in almost every drummer. He remains a great influence to this day.”
- Rudy van Gelder, iconic recording engineer
Nobody has ever played Jazz drums like Art Blakey.
Power and passion were his bywords. He didn’t play the drums, he exploded them. Every time he played a press roll, I thought the walls were going to cave in.
What he laid down on the drum kit sounded complicated, but it wasn’t. If you were a drummer, you didn’t study Art’s technique. But, if you listened to him with your heart and mind open, you learned how to engage your emotions in the music and how to propel the swing that makes Jazz cook.
Art Blakey was all about RHYTHM.
Muscle Jazz would be an apt description for the style of Jazz that Art favored as he led his Jazz Messengers through a 35 year excursion of the World of Hard Bop.
Until his death in 1990, Art’s life revolved around two things: Jazz and his religious faith. He brought unremitting zeal and fervor to both.
“To go through life and miss this music - Jazz - would be like missing one of the greatest things about living.”
Art said this often and he led everyday of his musical life as a though it were a musical devotion.
Art Blakey, who was known to many as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina or simply as “Buhaina” or "Bu," remains synonymous with an open, deeply swinging, often searing form of modern jazz.
A small, wiry man, with enviable energy and a strong personality, he played and spoke authoritatively and with unusual freedom.
He was a compulsive storyteller and went on at great length about whatever concerned him, often embroidering the basic theme differently each time around — as he did in his playing.
Music was everything to Blakey. Like his friend and idol Kenny Clarke, he began to live only after he entered music. A native of Pittsburgh, sharing this derivation with Clarke, Billy Eckstine, Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge, Mary Lou Williams, and Dodo Marmarosa, among others, he served his musical apprenticeship in the industrial city, then moved into a wider, more demanding world.
Art was born in 1919. At thirteen, Blakey went on his own so he could help his foster mother. Employed in either the nearby coal mines or the fearsome local steel mills during the day, he played piano in clubs at night. Soon he turned to music full-time. The day jobs were dangerous and low-paying. The clubs were more pleasant: he loved being in the company of musicians, and the money was far better.
Blakey could play piano in a few keys, but he didn't know a quarter note from a baseball. He took his own band into the Ritz, a local club. His "ears" made it easy for him to deal with the music until a top act came in from New York with arrangements. Blakey tried every ruse possible while the band ran the charts down. But it was clear he couldn't do what had to be done.
Erroll Garner, a very young Pittsburgh pianist, was in the house. Even though he wasn't literate in a formal musical sense either, he had fantastic native ability. Immediately upon hearing the music, Garner played what was needed and took Blakey's spot. The club owner, a gangster, who carried extra authority in the form of an angry-looking automatic, said if Blakey wanted to stay, he would have to play drums. And that's how it all started. The year: 1934.
As Burt Korall explains in his seminal Drummin Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz - The Bebop Years: The young drummer never "trained." He made a virtue of being self-taught, often saying that study might inhibit natural responses to music, not an unusual attitude among instinctive players. Blakey confidently relied totally on his instincts. Intense and always curious, he learned the craft by listening to musicians in Pittsburgh and, later, was particularly attentive on the road and after he got to New York.
"Honey Boy" Minor, a local drummer whom many musicians from the area remember, provided valuable insight when it came to playing shows and reaching audiences.
The gifted Kenny Clarke was an inspiration to Blakey from his early days and from then on. Because they had many life and musical experiences in common and grew up in the same sort of economic and psychological circumstances, it wasn't entirely unexpected that their focus and interests as jazz musicians would be so similar.
The drummer who really got inside Blakey — and an entire generation of drummers — was Chick Webb. The centerpiece of his popular Harlem big band, he became a national figure with the help of his communicative singer Ella Fitzgerald before his death in 1939-
Blakey was close to Webb. He worked for him as an aide and valet, always watching, listening, paying close attention to what the drum king said and advised. Webb made it clear to the young drummer that concentration on developing his hands and conception was crucial. He advised Blakey to work on creating his own identity and strongly suggested he lighten up on show business tactics, even though Webb was a top-of-the-line showman.
Sid Catlett also had a major influence on what and how Blakey played. Ray Bauduc, the star of the Ben Pollack and Bob Crosby bands, caught his attention. He admired Bauduc's capacity to swing and what he did for a band. Duke Ellington's Sonny Greer was a factor in his development as well. The Ellington veteran had the sort of adaptability and discipline that Blakey sought to bring to his own playing.
“What Art Blakey did with all he learned from others is central to his story. How he shaped music and made it sing and swing grew out of his focus on accompaniment and support of a band and individual players. He didn't aspire to be a transcendental soloist, as many others did when he was coming along. What pleased him most, early and later on, was that musicians asked for him — in clubs, concerts, and on record dates — because of what he could do for them and the music. Though he was more ego-driven after becoming widely known, Blakey was essentially an unselfish player—one who even asked his colleagues, particularly if they were new to him, what and how they wanted him to play.”
Blakey caught on with the famed composer-arranger-bandleader Fletcher Henderson for the first time in 1939. The following year, he played with a small band headed by Mary Lou Williams, who, after leaving Pittsburgh, made a name as pianist-arranger with the Andy Kirk band. Williams brought Blakey to New York for the first time in 1940. The group played at Kelly's Stable.
Blakey was in and out of the Henderson band until shortly before he joined Billy Eckstine in 1944. During a Henderson tour of the South in the early 1940s, the drummer was involved in a racial incident in Albany, Georgia. A local policeman beat him brutally about the head with a truncheon. The concussion and other injuries stemming from this unprovoked attack made major surgery necessary. A steel plate was placed in Blakey's head.
The drummer left the Henderson band to spend a period of time in Boston with his own group of musicians, playing at the Tic Toe Club and the Ken Club. It was during this interval—late in the spring of 1944—that he was asked to join the Billy Eckstine band at the Plantation Club in St. Louis.
Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie had the most to do with the concept of the band and who the players would be. Shadow Wilson was Eckstine's first choice for the drum chair. They had been in the Earl Hines band together. Wilson was hired; he made some of the first Eckstine band records for Deluxe. Then he was caught in the draft.
In the first week or two of June 1944 when the band played its initial dates, Eckstine had drummer trouble, big time. Gillespie suggested Blakey, feeling he could solve the band's problems. The drummer had certain basic capacities that appealed to the trumpeter-musical director. Though he hadn't heard him, Eckstine hired Blakey for three basic reasons. He'd been strongly recommended by Gillespie, someone Eckstine respected enormously. The drummer had spent a considerable amount of time with a big band and knew how to handle himself in that context. And Art Blakey was from Eckstine's hometown.
Once again, Blakey learned on the job. Not on intimate terms with the new music, he opened himself to what was happening around him. He became familiar with the twists and turns and initially puzzling sounds and rhythms of bebop. Blakey took risks and made some mistakes. Before long, the sturdy drummer hit his stride. He had the ability to hear and make adjustments, to meet the music head on, involving himself in its demands and possibilities.
Dizzy Gillespie, Blakey's mentor and teacher, brought him around; the often humorous trumpeter could be a stern taskmaster. Gillespie told the drummer what and when to play things and why. Often he would jump up and move over to the drums and sing phrases and rhythms to Blakey.
There is a well-documented story that makes the point best. When Blakey joined the Eckstine band and was just beginning to find his way he arbitrarily inserted a shuffle rhythm into one of the arrangements. Gillespie berated him in front of an audience, as the band continued to play and the dancers moved around the floor. He made it clear that Cozy Cole would have been hired had the band wanted that sort of rhythm.
The meticulous Gillespie did all he could to extract from the young drummer what he knew was there. He encouraged Blakey to play his own responses to the music. And that's what Blakey did. But it wasn't as easy as it seemed from the audience.
The drummer played his way through difficulties. As he noted numerous times in interviews, there was so much happening in the band. Everything moved by so rapidly. Blakey was in the middle of a musical thunderstorm. He had to be a quick study to survive. Fortunately he was a good listener and a fast learner.
The Eckstine band was like a school, filled with high-level, ambitious students, all trying to go in the same direction, all seeking to live up to what they heard around them. Working in the company of such luminaries as Gillespie and Parker, Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, Freddie Webster, Fats Navarro, and Miles Davis—for a little while—made for constant pressure and musical challenges.
The recordings do little to mirror the band's impact. The sound is dreadful; the recording studio must have been small and underwater. But the band's loose yet imperious swing and power and the creativity of the players gets through. The Armed Forces Radio broadcasts are a far superior source. You realize how wild, exciting, and inventive this exploratory ensemble could be. In person, it was a killer experience.
Blakey was making a modern statement in a big band—in the process revealing a raw, sometimes frightening talent for modern jazz. Burt Koral: “When I saw and heard him for the first time, I was bewildered, as were several others with training on drums. For those of us who were used to hearing the beat sharply enunciated with little or no embroidery—and we certainly were in the majority in the mid-i940s—Blakey could be infuriating. His vibrating left hand and heavy, active right foot made the beat a bit elusive.
Moreover, he could be terribly sloppy. He moved awkwardly, was lacking in grace. But what came out was often impressive—even if you didn't immediately know why.”
The music was different. Certainly the racial attitudes of the players in the Eckstine band had little in common with what was typical of their older predecessors on the black band scene. Blakey told Cadence editor Bob Rusch: "It was a young band and they weren't going for nothin.' Everybody ... was armed. . . . The war brought about changes."
Though the players were untamed and loved a good time, they were very serious about what they were doing and had to toe the line.
There also was humor and humanity in the hand. Jazz historian and New York radio personality Phil Schaap says: "The guys took pity on Blakey because he had a terrible, ragged-looking drum set. One day they called him into a room and torched his drums as a joke. But in the corner was a brand-new Slingerland kit that they had bought for him."
Blakey felt that the Eckstine band was one of the key experiences of a life filled with great music. The public made the band a going proposition for a while. Young ladies were drawn to Mr. B.'s cavernous baritone voice and film star handsomeness. But the music, beyond what Eckstine sang, could be a bit much for the general audience. The music press had little good to say. "Later journalists and critics described the band as legendary, marvelous," Eckstine told Burt Korall, adding: "While we were trying to make it, they gave us almost no help."
Not only that, the band didn't get the breaks that are so necessary for success. The records were so badly done. The band had few, if any, hotel or location dates with air time — nightly coast-to-coast broadcasts crucial to widely disseminating its message, giving the band an edge. Engagements at New York's Lincoln Hotel, then a base for the Basic band, were promised but never finalized. Places of that stature, which featured coast-to-coast remote broadcasts, could have given Eckstine what he needed. But the Eckstine band had no luck. It offered too much too soon for an audience used to the uniformity of Swing Era bands. Even after all this time, the Eckstine music remains memorable and exciting. It's easy to understand why the visionary bandleader was so bitter about how things turned out.
Like the others in the band, Blakey was a witness and contributor to history. The records document a central, contemporary jazz drum style taking form. Crucial to the feel of the band, Blakey played unforgiving, feelgood pulsation. Tapping out the time on his Chinese cymbal he really cut through to the marrow of the matter. Beyond a vivid, basic foundation, he also consistently offered telling evidence of the potency of his ideas.
Blakey made all the "hits"—the key ensemble accents—backing the band strongly. He shaped and sharpened the configuration of the arrangements. "Bombs"—snare/bass drum combinations—were potently placed. He generally enhanced the impact and interest of the music by deftly employing rhythmic counterpoint, double-timing, triplets, and rolls. A variety of colors enriched the thrusting, undeniable pulse.
Try Gerry Valentine's "Blowing the Blues Away," with "Mr. Dexter" Gordon and "Mr. Gene" Ammons riding a crest stirred up by Blakey. Also "I Stay in the Mood for You," a bluesy ballad featuring Eckstine up front singing, the fizz of boppy trumpet lines—certainly written by Gillespie—and a Dizzy solo.
Even on the slower things, showcasing Eckstine, Blakey keeps you awake and alert, waiting for his next combination of sounds to take you by surprise.
Following the dissolution of the Eckstine band, Blakey made sure the feeling and sound he had lived with for three years would not entirely disappear from his life—at least for a little while. A big band, the 17 Messengers, was formed. Blakey insisted big band experience was important to musicians, because it provided education on several levels and what he often described as "a family atmosphere."
Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, and the Heath Brothers— Jimmy and Percy—were among those involved. Thelonious Monk wrote some material for the ensemble and showed up at rehearsals—generally at Smalls' Paradise in Harlem—to run the band through his compositions. The Messengers rehearsed a good deal but played only a few gigs.
Blakey always said that his association with Thelonious Monk was so very important for his development—as a man and as a musician. "He was responsible for me," the drummer often asserted. The two were very closefriends and saw each other another almost every day. They talked and played together. Monk's son remembers the two being inseparable.
Thelonious Monk, Jr.: “Art was always at the house. His face was the second male face that became familiar to me at the beginning of my life. He was making most of the records with Thelonious. I would see him everywhere— on record dates, on the handstand, at his house and mine.
A quintessential character, he had that rough voice and always was talking a lot of stuff—about this, that, and the other—talking loud, really sounding like the leader of the pack.
Blakey plays two basic roles: time player and interpreter-commentator. He adds both reason and the unexpected to the music. Using all the elements of the set, snare, tom-toms, the bass drum, the rims, the drums' shells, the cymbals—all parts—the hi-hat cymbals and hi-hat stands, and even the sounds of the drumsticks themselves, he simultaneously defines Monk and himself.
More than almost any other musician, Monk calls on Blakey's capacity for subtlety, thoughtfulness, quiet creativity. You might think this would be a stretch for a generally "bashing" player like Blakey. But it's not.
The trio recordings Blakey made with Monk for Prestige in 1952. and 1954 show how well he could do what was needed. He plays responsively and responsibly. Blakey shows to best advantage on Work, a thirty-two-bar structure. He paints in pastels but remains an underlying rhythmic presence and source of light, provoking accentuation and left-hand commentary.
His solo is one of his best. A triplet figure establishes direction. Derived from a pattern he plays behind Monk before he breaks into the open, it is variated and cleverly developed. His comments emerge out of the music itself, not any form of preconception.
Over a chorus and a half, Blakey builds upon the triplet idea, complicating matters as he goes along, changing the solo's balance and density. The resulting multilayered commentary derives its personality from the rhythms acting on one another and being skillfully linked. Blakey's juggling and juxtaposition of rhythms and his admirable architectural sense make this forty-eight bars interesting to listen to again and again. His mastery of "independence"—the use of hands and feet, each with its own rhythm or rhythms—makes for new levels of interest. There is no speed or flash involved, just unfolding, naturally rendered music—from the drums.
The pairing of Monk with Blakey and his Jazz Messengers in the late 1950s—Johnny Griffin (tenor sax), Bill Hardman (trumpet), and Spanky DeBrest (bass)—Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk (Atlantic), is also certainly worth attention. The two friends, more outgoing and competitive than usual, meet on a middle ground between the straight-from-the-hip swinging of the Messengers and the unorthodoxy of Monk. The balance is tipped by Monk's compositions, comprising five sixths of the album, and, of course, his piano playing.
The milieu motivates more diverse improvisations by Hardman. The speedy Griffin, who later played regularly with Monk, shows he's a very engaging, adaptable player. Rather than fighting it, as some do, Griffin follows where it leads, entering into the developmental process. Blakey clearly finds the situation stimulating. The drummer digs into his seemingly endless resources, using whatever keeps the music interesting and moving. Cross-stick rhythms, imaginative use of triplets, rumbling explosions, and his general intimacy with the mysteries of Monk, help define and redefine the music.
Blakey proved on many occasions that he could be surprisingly effective when performing quietly, in an almost modest manner. The trio recordings he made with the now legendary pianist-composer Herbie Nichols on Blue Note in 1955 are a case in point. In the listening lies the realization that Blakey's fire could burn at a low flame. He could infiltrate the music, remaining at moderate volume, with delightful, light-handed decoration adding impact.
Blakey allows Nichols's music to speak to him on its own terms. He reacts in much the same way he did to Monk and other artists who have a base in tradition but veer to the thoughtful and unusual. He seeks to I establish firm rhythmic grounding while tracking the music's form, its emotion, its implicit and explicit demands. He utilizes an open, reactive, instinctive approach. Blakey plays for Nichols and his music, showing little ego, staying away from the excessive and unnecessary.
I also suggest the recording the drummer made with Gil Evans in the late 1950s, New Bottle, Old Wine (World Pacific). An intensely personal orchestral album, featuring alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and other leading jazzmen, it offers more evidence of Blakey's flexibility, discretion, and perception as a player.
No matter what the Evans arrangements of well-known jazz compositions — "King Porter Stomp," "Lester Leaps In," "Manteca," etc.—ask of him, Blakey responds in a manner that strengthens the material. He reads nothing and senses everything, as has always been the case. In essence, Blakey allows the punishment to fit the crime, never sacrificing his own voice, only lowering it a bit. He mixes well with the other instruments, sometimes almost disappearing in the blend.
When Blakey worked with the Duke Ellington (1952) and Lucky Millinder bands (1949) and others, he did the job that was called for. He became part of the sound and the setting. With Ellington, he played what he called "Ellington drums," laying down the rhythm, coloring and swinging, doing what Ellington wanted and needed. And that wasn't An Blakey playing bebop.
With Millinder, the drummer mixed up a batch of cooking, updated Harlem swing. The ebullient Harlem bandleader and showman, though not trained as a musician, knew what he wanted. And Blakey gave it to him. With Illinois Jacquet's swinging little band, with Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street—both in the 1940s—and later as a member of Earl Hines's small band, very typically, Blakey did what was needed and expected in each situation.
Blakey learned early that each context has its own set of rules. Because he came up during the Depression, when you took every job to survive, he became a bit of a pragmatist. Never, however, would he make sacrifices purely for commercial reasons. His evolution as a musician was far too important to him.
Blakey went through a startling growth phase during the years separating the breakup of the Eckstine band and the formation of the Jazz Messengers as an ongoing group in 1955. A lot happened to him, not all of it related to music. He converted to Islam, as did many black musicians during that period. The reasons for this vary and in some cases are a matter of speculation. Some found the religion an escape from blackness, racism, and all that reminded of slavery. Others sought and found peace in the faith— another view of the world. French Jazz drumming historian Georges Paczynski suggests that Art’s conversion to Islam became a source for confidence in all aspects of his life.
Blakey lived in Africa for a period late in the 1940s. His goal was to study Islam and fully understand religions as they related to him. Many journalists insisted he made the trip to find out more about African music, drums, and rhythm. However, he consistently disputed this view. His investigatory stay in Africa had a philosophical focus rather than a musical one.
During this time and extending through the 1950s, Blakey involved himself with all kinds of music and musicians. As early as the latter years of the 19405, he began looking into African and Latin root sources, absorbing rhythms and techniques essential to the two intersecting musical streams. His interest in techniques of Latin and African derivation progressively became a factor in his playing.
According to Ray Barretto: “No other drummer came as close to the African and Latin root as Blakey. I did a couple of records with him, with Sabu on bongos ami timbales and some other people. Art talked a lot about his Latin and African influences. They became more and more a part of him. Every time he played "fours" or "eights," something African or "Latinesque" inevitably would flavor his comments. He was really empathetic with all that rhythm.”
This became unmistakable on record in 1948. Blakey was an integral part of saxophonist James Moody's recording for Blue Note, James Moody and His Bop Men, which also featured several outstanding gentlemen out of the Dizzy Gillespie big band, including the influential bongo/conga drummer Chano Pozo. Out of the sessions came a Latin/jazz fusion success, Tin Tin Deo.
Blakey had a flair for juggling a variety of musical elements and making them collectively work for him, His tom-tom playing, the way he used his elbow to change a drum's sound, and his timbale and cowbell techniques, as applied to jazz, all grew out of his burgeoning Afro-Latin interests.
Blakey's feeling for Afro-Latin music motivated him to make other cross-culture recordings, including Orgy in Rhythm, Vols. 1 and 2 (Blue Note). Informing, often exciting music, it featured accomplished Afro-Latin and jazz musicians pooling their concepts. In the diverse lineup were Art Blakey and Arthur Taylor, drums; Jo Jones and "Specs" Wright, drums and timpani; Sabu, bongos and timbales; "Potato" Valdez and Jose Valiente, congas; Ubaldo Nito, timbales; Evilio Quintero, concerro, maracas, and tree log; Herbie Mann, flute, Ray Bryant, piano; and Wendell Marshall, bass.
"Buhaina called me just as I was opening the door to my apartment, here in town. I'd just had a long, difficult flight from Europe," Arthur Taylor remembered. "Get yourself down here to my session, I need you!" Blakey insisted. "A.T." complained he was too fatigued for a record date. Blakey wouldn't give way.
Taylor took his tired body and his drums to Manhattan Towers, where the session was going on. "Everyone felt good; there was food, drink, and beautiful ladies around," Taylor said, then noted: "The music and the musicians got everyone going."
Cross-culture musical activities aside, something far more basic and significant was happening to Blakey's playing. Trace his recordings from 1947 into the 19505. You sense the change. Listen to The Thin Man, recorded in 1947 for Blue Note with an octet out of his big band. Compare that with what Blakey does on the MGM records, done in 1952. with leader-clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, pianist Kenny Drew, and the omnipresent bassist Curly Russell. Then audition the glorious live 1954 Blue Note sessions at Birdland, with Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver, and, once again, Curly Russell. A new, far more effective and exciting Blakey had emerged.
The newfound intensity and surge relate directly to one singular technique: closing the hi-hat briskly on "2" and "4" of every 4/4 measure. This may sound simplistic, but the effect was momentous. It stabilized, centered, and sharpened Blakey's time; enhanced, integrated, and brought a sense of style and finality to his work. It was the key that unlocked everything.
Buddy DeFranco: “We were together for two and a half years in the early 1950s—recorded many albums, traveled around the world. My little band was really hot. With Art back there, you couldn't coast. I never played harder—and it was so enjoyable
Art was in charge of the rhythm. No doubt about it. When I was tired before a job, I'd say something like ‘I don't think I can make it tonight.’ Art would say: ‘I'll make you play!’ And he did—every time.
It was a happy group, I was the only white guy. None of us thought much about it. In our world, a guy played or didn't play. That's all that was important. We traveled together, stayed together.”
The 1954 Birdland recordings on Blue Note provided the stylistic foundation for the rest of Art Blakey's career. His style had completely crystallized. His pulsation was undeniable, a natural force; the counter-rhythms he brought to the mix made what he played that much more affecting. There was a purity about what he did—and always motion. He was spontaneous, free, creating every minute.
That he was in the company of peers, all performing in an admirable manner, had a lot to do with making this "on-the-spot" session such an important musical document. The band never stops burning. The exhilarating Clifford Brown moves undaunted through material, fast, slow, in between, playing fantastic, well-phrased ideas that unfold in an unbroken stream. His technique, almost perfect; his sound, burnished. He's a gift to the senses.
Lou Donaldson, an underrated alto player in the Bird tradition, offers much to think about while you're tapping your foot. Horace Silver is crucial to the effect of this music, much of it his own. Certainly the rhythms that inform his piano playing and writing make it all the more soulful. On this and other records he serves as a catalytic agent, provoking swing and engaging intensity. Hard-hitting, unpretentious, communicative, Silver has little use for compositional elements or piano techniques that impede his message. A live-in pulse permeates his music and his playing, strongly affecting the shape, content, and level of excitement of his performances and those of his colleagues.
An original and tellingly economic amalgam of Parker, the blues, shuffling dance rhythms, and a taste of the black church for flavor, Silver is quite undeniable. Listen to his delightful "Quicksilver" on A Night at Birdland With the Art Blakey Quintet, Vol. 1 (Blue Note). It capsulizes what he does.
On this album, Curly Russell shows once again he can play "up" tempos and interesting changes. He ties in well with Blakey. But Silver and Blakey, in combination, determine the rhythmic disposition of the music. Blakey's natural time and fire raise the heat to an explosive level before the listener realizes how hot the fire has become.
Perhaps more than other recordings Blakey has made, the Birdland session documents his great strengths and technical failings. At almost every turn, he shows what an enviably well coordinated, buoyantly confident, rhythmically discerning player he is.
As a soloist, he's either breathtaking in the manner of his mentor Chick Webb, as on "Mayreh," or a victim of inconsistency. And it's always under the same circumstances. In the hope of achieving great speed he over-taxes his technical capacities and fails. You hear him stiffening up and becoming increasingly less precise. He was not a virtuoso.
The Jazz Messengers, the band that made Blakey an internationally admired jazz figure, came into being in 1954.
Horace Silver was playing at Minton's in Harlem. Blue Note's Alfred Lion wanted to get Silver in the studio to make follow-up recordings to his successful trio releases. It was decided to present the pianist-composer as a group leader. Two members of his Minton's quartet—tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins—and trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Blakey made the sessions. The resulting album, Horace Silver and the jazz Messengers, was a great success.
It was timely and seemed to answer a need. The music and the performances had the directness and simplicity, the straight-ahead quality, that countered a suggestion of compositional pretension that was becoming a factor on the jazz scene in the mid-1950s.
This LP established what was to follow. The band played hard swinging music, mingled with what Silver described as a "gutbucket, barroom feeling." It reached into bebop, the blues, and sounds, rhythms, and feelings out of the black evangelical churches. The music had an earthy taste and more than a suggestion of black reality.
Blakey and Silver were into essences. The band emphasized directness and economy. The music was called "hard bop." I'm not sure the descriptive is appropriate, but it did give comfort to those who market records and are obsessively involved with categories.
After a while, the band as a co-op didn't work. Silver felt a band should bvea "leader," someone to make the decisions and give direction. He left the group to freelance; there was no bad feeling involved. A little later Silver put together his own band, which was pretty much in the same groove as the hand he had left behind. Blakey took the Jazz Messengers name and hired his own people. He remained the leader and central force of the Jazz Messengers until his death in 1990.
Silver and Blakey created a centrist position for jazz. Both had strong feelings about swing and communication and audience participation. Their band had a "sound." It was black music that brought forward emotion in no uncertain terms. Open and, at times, unrelenting, the music had more to it than was immediately apparent. It had substance, freedom, discipline, ind soul, a proud quality and a deeply historic center. The ballads, articularly treatments of the great American standards, were thoughtful and lyrical —
meditative qualities not generally associated with either Blakey or Silver.
Blakey wanted organization in his band, discipline beyond the looseness of the jam session. He determined his answer was "music," compositions lat would give the Messengers a foundation from which all would develop. Over the years, he retained "musical directors" and utilized writers within the band who could do this for him. He hired musicians—generally young, talented, and hungry who had the wherewithal to make the music meaningful, The only specification he made to the writers involved: that the music retain a base in swing.
The Jazz Messengers, either a quintet or sextet—two or three horns in the front line and three rhythms—became a school for aspiring players. Blakey was the master teacher.
The list of those who attended the school over three and half decades is imposing indeed. So many leading players: Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Benny Golson, Bobby Watson, Wilbur Ware, Hank Mobley, Billy Harper, Doug Watkins, Joanne Brackeen, Gary Bartz, Reggie Workman, Cedar Walton, Ira Sullivan, Terence Blanchard, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Billy Pierce, Sam Dockery, Spanky DeBrest, Donald Harrison, James Williams. It goes on and on.
The style and goals of the Messengers remained consistent through the group's long history. Improvisation gave the band life and variety. Certain writers and musical directors altered or enhanced things without affecting its identity. Benny Golson contributed discipline and a great deal of melodic writing. Wayne Shorter developed rapidly and brought a new depth to the
band, as a writer and as a player. Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Bobby Watson, and the others gave what they had to the music.
Any way you turn it, the Messengers was Art Blakey's band. Any time you heard the group, no matter what edition, you knew who and what you were listening to. As drummer Cindy Blackman commented to Burt Korall: "Art was tribal. He'd get you one way or the other. Before you knew it, that volcanic pulse was into your feet, your whole body. His comping, his solos, his fantastic time did it for me and everyone else. He'd just draw you in!"
Blakey played until the last shot was fired. Deaf, ill, it didn't matter. There was only one thing he knew—and loved. A preacher for the jazz cause, a teacher of young people, an innovator and great player, he fulfilled his mission.
For all the marvelous things Blakey did for music and musicians, he, like many others of his generation, was deeply into drugs. One writer friend of mine said he "handled it" very well. Some say he eventually put it aside. Considering his stature among young musicians, how influential he became as a respected source and a role model, the Blakey involvement with drugs seems a paradox. But remember where he came from—his link with the turbulent, revolutionary 1940s and the plague it spawned. It is best to keep in mind his good works and how creatively he played.
Art Blakey brought new muscle and meaning to the modern drum style. He played with such concentration and acuity that the beat entered your system through pores opened by excitement. He seemed to be everywhere as the music told its story.
Sweeping through his large catalogue of recordings, as leader and as sideman—with equals like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins—he seldom fails to satisfy. He very personally reacted to the music and made it better just because he was there and knew his job.
Proud, self-involved, but also kind, Blakey could be generous and supportive to a musician who deserved encouragement. This is an important part of his legacy.
[The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is indebted to the following source for information about Art:  the drummer world website,  Modern Drummer magazine,  Kenny Mathieson, Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-1965,  Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Bebop Years,  Georges Paczynski Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz and Downbeat magazine,  JAZZ IMPROV Magazine Vol. 4 No. 3 with a feature article on Art Blakey and 2 CDs].