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Music: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, by Wiggia

Monday, March 6, 2017 5:27
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Whilst being able to appreciate their ability along with the double bass, I have never really warmed to drum solos any more than double bass solos, their job is to hold the rhythm in place for group or band.

In the big band era drum solos would provide an interlude with the likes of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich showing their mettle in front of their own bands, all very showbiz, but great drummers in their own right though there were many of the elongated solos that matched marathon dancing and had me reaching for off switch or legging it to the bar. As with all there are exceptions, for me Art Blakey stands out as not only a supreme master craftsman but also someone whom one hears in all his groups yet never intrudes, his drum solos being simply an extension of that amazing drive he pushed all his groups along with.

Born in 1919 he started as so many of his contemporaries with big bands, in his case Fletcher Henderson then Billie Eckstine and then went on to work with be bop founders of Monk Parker and Gillespie. In the mid fifties he founded the Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver the pianist but the group over the years became known more for the nurturing of new found talent and the list was impressive. It included Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan and Bennie Golson.

Blakey had a hard upbringing, losing his single parent mother shortly after he was born and being raised by a woman family friend who took in him and his siblings for some time but it was a period of little hard facts.

His early career is also somewhat muddied although he did start as a pianist, switching to drums in the thirties but who he played with and when is a bit fragmented to say the least during the period up to his big band appointment, and even after that he went and lived in Africa for a couple of years and converted to Islam whilst there. It was suggested that he as with many other black musicians at the time used Islamic names to circumvent the race laws that prevailed in many states at the time, though it seems he forgot all that shortly after return, a sort of George Harrison moment. Horace Silver left the Jazz Messengers after the first year and Blakey added his name to the group where it remained until his last appearance in 1990; he died soon afterwards of lung cancer.

His was a hard bop group when it started out and despite all the reincarnations with his steady stream of new talent this driving style with a blues undertone remained.

This classic is from ‘58 with Lee Morgan on trumpet Benny Golson on sax and Bobby Timmons on piano.

The above quintet was the quintessential Jazz Messengers and the most remembered, it stayed as a quintet for most of its life though an earlier 17 piece big band had the Messengers name and luminaries such as Hank Mobley, Clifford Brown and Jackie McLean played with them.

Below from the “Big Beat” album on Blue Note is The Chess Players; not only on this album is Blakey’s unrelenting driving style showcased but it also contains one of the finest trumpet solos in modern jazz by Lee Morgan.

And from the same album It’s Only a Paper Moon, again showing the drumming style of Blakey in all its glory and another tour de force by Morgan.

In ‘61 Blakey added the trombone to his group and it became a sextet, here at Nurnberg in Germany in ‘88 his young band once again show why the Messengers were so popular around the world.

An even bigger group in an “All Stars” tour in Japan in ‘82, giving Curtis Fuller on trombone a chance to shine, an instrument Blakey included for much of the Messengers’ life yet rarely seen in modern jazz combos. The number is Blues March written by by Benny Golson who is on tenor sax with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.

Blues March – Art Blakey and All Star Jazz Messengers (1982) from Wynton Marsalis on Vimeo.

Mosaic was a big success as an album for Blakey and the Messengers recorded in ‘61 live at the Village Gate. It had a slightly different personnel in Freddie Hubbard , trumpet and Cedar Walton piano. Here we have Children of the Night.

Still bringing on young talent: Reflections in Blue, a ‘78 recording and Stretching the number recorded in the Netherlands in ‘78 with……Valerie Ponomarev (trumpet) Robert Watson (alto sax) David Schnitter (tenor sax) James Williams (piano) Dennis Irwin (bass) Art Blakey (drums)

Blakey’s discography is enormous, there seems to be almost no one he has not played with or backed. He played with Thelonious Monk at the beginning the middle and end of his career and Monk despite having the hugely talented Dannie Richmond on drums for a very large part of his career always placed Blakey in the No.1 slot.

Art was certainly someone who enjoyed life, even if the drugs of the period played their part, he smoked heavily drank and loved food, plus with four marriages and several long time relationships it could be said he stretched the phrase bon viveur to the limit.

I finish with something that is short, it is only part of the number being played and as for the rest who knows where it is, but it shows Blakey in Africa at a Jazz Fesival in ‘87 near the end of his career, still more than capable and with a big band that are really having a blow, featuring Woody Shaw on trumpet and Herbie Hancock on piano, a Night in Tunisia.

Woody Shaw deserves a mention in his own right. Considered by many to be the last great innovator on the trumpet, he was born with perfect pitch and a photographic mind considered to be way ahead of his time; it was a loss to jazz when he died young, his ending is from his biography:

By the late 1980s Shaw was suffering from an incurable degenerative eye disease and was losing his eyesight. Details of the accident are unclear, but on February 27, 1989, Shaw was struck by a subway car in Brooklyn, NY, which severed his left arm. Shaw suffered complications in the hospital and died of kidney failure on May 10, 1989. He was 44 years old.


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