The Jazz Messengers: The Big Beat Legacy
The pursuit of individual expression on one’s given instrument is the fundamental goal of the jazz musician. Giving wing to this singular expression of music is that primary vehicle of jazz, the band. From duos to big bands the ensemble tradition in jazz is nearly as rich and varied as the individuals who have built this music from the roots to the fruits. Few band legacies are as bountiful as that conjured by master drummer Art Blakey over the roughly 35 years he maintained his Jazz Messengers. In the spirit most recently established by the Mingus Big Band, along comes the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers Legacy Band. The idea began to bud in the mind of booking agent and erstwhile drummer Myles Weinstein, who felt strongly that Blakey’s sound could and should be actively personified by his legion of alumni. Blakey acolyte and drummer Carl Allen recommended Benny Golson to Weinstein, “because I was a kind of organizer,” Golson explained during our recent conversation. “It took us about a year and a half to really get this thing off the ground. Eighty to 85% of the musicians who were in that band went on to become leaders in their own right. So that we can get a real feel for what happened in the Messengers, I’m changing the band every year. Every October I can come up with a new group.”
Golson settled on an explosive starting lineup of Curtis Fuller on trombone, Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Geoff Keezer on piano, Peter Washington on bass, Lewis Nash in the all-important drum chair, and himself. Following this period of organization was a November week at The Iridium in New York last fall, yielding the new Telarc recording The Legacy Of Art Blakey. A month-long tour ensued, to be repeated this spring with dates mainly in the Northeast and Midwest.
Golson joined the Jazz Messengers in ’58 purely as a one night sub. “I went in to sub for somebody at the Cafe Bohemia—just to sub one night and it turned into two nights, then I finished the week. Then Art asked me if I could do a week out of town, but I had told him that I didn’t want to travel because I was just coming into town and I wanted to establish myself as a writer, writing for singers, television commercials, record dates. So he said, ‘Well, it’s only one week.’ I’m enjoying playing with him so I said to myself, that won’t hurt and I went to Pittsburgh with him. In the middle of that engagement he said, ‘Didn’t you use to go to Howard University [Washington, D.C.]?’ I said yeah, he says, ‘I bet you know a lot of people there.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s like a second home.’ He said, ‘Well we got a gig there next week, do you think you could make it to see your friends and everything?’ By now I’m really enjoying playing with him so I said, ‘Oh yeah, maybe that would be a good idea.’ But after that I never mentioned that again, I was a Messenger for about a year,” he laughed.
Helping to musically refresh the Messengers, Golson brought his Philly homeboys Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt to the band. Then he began to help Art organize the business of the band, coaxing Alfred Lion at Blue Note to record the Messengers, tightening up booking agency efforts leading to the band’s first European tour, and renewing ties with old traditional Blakey venues that had scorned the band due to the questionable antics of certain past bandmembers. “Oh yeah, even the social thing. We had to be straight when we stood up on that bandstand because I had seen some weird things happening. When I told [Art] things like that he’d look at me strange and I guess he was saying, ‘Who is this kid telling me what I should be doing,’ but he listened to me until the day he died. Whenever he had a problem he’d call me,” says Golson.
At Blakey’s memorial service in 1990, Golson was heard to exclaim “school’s out,” an obvious reference to what every Jazz Messenger had felt, that they had actually been to school with this consummate bandleader. Asked what made his Jazz Messengers’ tenure such a high point in his career, Golson was emphatic. “That man played like no other person. When I left his band my mind was so messed up it took me six months before I could play with another drummer. You got so used to hearing that high standard, that thing every night, that you took it for granted. As great as the Messengers reputation was, the whole foundation of that was Art Blakey, no matter who he had in that band you always knew it was Art Blakey.”
Once you heard the Art Blakey drum style you knew it was like none other. “He made me feel like playing, he taught me how to play stronger and louder. He would smother me in those press rolls. He steamrolled over me a few times, then finally I got the message. He hollered over there one night, ‘Get up out of that hole’ and I got the message,” Golson chuckled. “It was a matter of becoming more adventurous, rather than one and one is two, two and two is four, you’ve gotta go out there and deal with fractions.”
Terence Blanchard expressed lessons learned from his subsequent Messengers tenure in similarly unequivocal terms. “Art Blakey had a way of making things very practical. Art made it possible for me to realize that I could reach my own goals. I remember the first night I joined the band he pulled me in the back and he said, ‘Forget Dizzy Gillespie, forget Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown…forget all of them, you’re you, you’re a Jazz Messenger now and you’re here to get your shit together.’ From that moment on I had another realization of what being a jazz musician is all about. I remember specifically watching him play and having to go back and listen to all of my records again because the music sounded totally different to me now. There was a practical way of achieving my goals as opposed to waiting for this mystical gift to be given to me at some point in my life.
“The thing I noticed about Art,” Blanchard modulated, “was that he let the guys develop, he didn’t brow beat you about things; he let you make mistakes and when it was appropriate he would pull you aside and speak to you about things.” Such an instance came early in Terence’s tenure, on the subject of his nightly ballad feature. “When I first started playing with Art I was such a Miles Davis fan I tried to play like Miles every night, I even played ‘My Funny Valentine’ with the Harmon mute, even recorded it on the first Art Blakey record I did. I wasn’t playing the melody, I was stretching the phrases out real long and he let me go like that for about a month. All of a sudden he pulled me aside and said ‘Look man, I told Miles Davis about that shit. You gotta play the melody, people know those songs and they want to be able to hear the melody, they want to be able to sing those melodies, you can’t just sit up there and go off and do whatever you want to do.’ He said, ‘You need to find out who you are and stop playing that song because Miles put his mark on that song with that Harmon mute. You’ve gotta find a ballad that’s you, so we’re going to start looking for some ballads that are you.’”
While Golson, Fuller, Blanchard, Keezer and Washington all received their bachelor’s degrees from Messengers University, the awesome responsibility of occupying that singular drum chair goes to Lewis Nash, who matriculated at Betty Carter University. “It’s a great honor, a privilege and a challenge, but to me it’s a lot of fun because I really love that music and spent a lot of time listening to it, and still do. To be able to play it is just what [I] always wanted to do, with some of my best peers and idols—speaking of Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller—guys that played with Blakey. It’s a great thing to be able to play that music and see them turn to me and being encouraging and enjoying it. They played with him, they know what he could do and they know I’m not trying to be him. It’s not a play, a production where I’m playing the role of Art Blakey, I’m trying to play his music with as much heart and soul as I can and give honor to the music that he played,” Nash enthused.
“As I was preparing myself for the tour, listening to Art play the music that we were going to play, it’s funny but after all these years that I’ve listened to it, I began to listen to it with another kind of intensity only because I was going to be paying honor to this man behind the instrument that he played. So there was another kind of focus even different than any other time that I listened to his music because I wanted to do a certain justice to it. In doing that I feel perfectly fine playing some things that he played, certain riffs or phrases that he played, rhythms and beats. I make reference to a lot of them, and one in particular called ‘The Freedom Rider.’ I use a lot of the things that he played in his solo, but I also try to play as much of myself as I can and still give honor to his recorded version. So I don’t try to avoid things obviously associated with Art. As a matter of fact, I think it’s doing even more justice to try to play those things so they come off right.”
Life with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, while full of lessons, was absolutely not all seriousness and deep contemplation. Blakey stories are legion, a few of which Golson happily shared, often in the master’s gravelly voice. “He was a big liar,” the tenor man chuckled, “but we accepted it with love. He said to Mulgrew Miller once, ‘I like the way you play, Mulgrew, I’m gonna buy you a Steinway, what color would you like? Would you like a white one?’ We still laugh at that! Somebody was leaving the piano chair once, so somebody recommended this guy, he played all week and it seemed like it was going well. Art didn’t complain or anything, so he figured he was in. Then at the end of the week Art paid the guys but he didn’t pay him! So he walked over to Art and said, ‘Did you forget to pay me’? Art said, ‘Pay you, I thought you were sittin’ in?’ Art Blakey was one of a kind, I still miss him just like I miss Clifford Brown and John Coltrane.”
Golson: Selmer 80 series tenor; Rico reeds; “old, old” Otto Link mouthpiece
Nash: Sonor drums/Designer Series; 18” bass drum; 14” floor tom; two mounted toms 8x10 and 8x12; Sabian cymbals; Regal Tip sticks
Golson: “Everything: Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson, Javon Jackson, Kenny Garrett, the Four Tops, Temptations, Stylistics, Wilson Pickett…
Nash: Joao Gilberto collection (on Verve); Los Munequitos de Matanzas (Messidor); tapes of samba school drummers; assorted Afro-Cuban and Cuban music
Originally published in May 1998