Ex-Messengers Celebrate Art Blakey’s 90th Birthday in Performance at Iridium in NYC

On December 3-6, 2010 at the Iridium jazz club in New York City, the music from Art Blakey’s Golden Boy album will be performed to celebrate Blakey’s 90th birthday. Although the album title is associated more with Sammy Davis Jr than Art Blakey, The Jazz Messengers’ Golden Boy was apparently one of Blakey’s favorite recordings. Back in 1963, Blakey got bandmembers Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and Curtis Fuller to do arrangements of material from the Broadway musical that had just opened with Sammy Davis Jr in the lead as reluctant boxer Joe Bonaparte, whose hands end up being used for violence and destruction rather than healing and creativity. The play was originally written by Clifford Odets in 1937 with the lead character as an Italian-American, but Hillard Elkins mounted a production with African-Americans in the lead and asked Odets to revise it as a musical, with Charles Strouse writing the music. Although Odets died before the production was finished, the musical became both a popular and critical success and its issues of race and violence struck a nerve with a public that was witnessing the power and complexity of the Civil Rights movement.

Art Blakey
By Tad Hershorn
Art Blakey
Art Blakey c/o Gretsch Drums

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The Jazz Messengers at that time featured perhaps Blakey’s most famous lineup with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Shorter on saxophones, Fuller on trombone, Walton on piano and Reggie Workman on bass. In order to play the more intricate arrangements for the recording, the core group was expanded into a large ensemble by adding Lee Morgan on second trumpet, Charles Davis on baritone sax, Julius Watkins on French horn, and Bill Barber on tuba. Released in 1963 on the Colpix label as Selections from the Film Golden Boy, the album did not seem to benefit from the enormous success of the musical, perhaps because the large jazz band arrangements were was so different than the music in the show or perhaps because the music was a departure from that group’s current style and repertoire. In any case, the album became one of the more obscure titles in Blakey’s long and varied discography. It has never been released on CD.

Trumpeter, composer and arranger David Weiss was asked to put together a tribute to Blakey. “I thought of Golden Boy, an album that always intrigued me,” said Weiss. “And I also remembered that Blakey was often quoted as saying it was his favorite record. Now this stuff has never been performed live and for a Blakey recording, rather obscure. I thought bringing this stuff back to life would be more interesting, fitting tribute than rehashing “Blues March” or other Blakey signature tunes that would never sound right without Blakey behind the drums. It is also a great record and has examples of some of the earliest attempts of great composers like Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton and Curtis Fuller writing for a larger ensemble. Wayne Shorter's arrangements are particularly incredible and show his writing for a larger ensemble already at an advanced stage.”

Weiss painstakingly transcribed the music from the original recording for a tribute performance at Iridium in 2008. For the shows this week, the group will include original arranger and bandmember Fuller, along with an all-star collection of players, several of whom played with Blakey over the years: Louis Hayes (drums), Mulgrew Miller (piano), Peter Washington (bass), Donald Harrison (alto sax), Javon Jackson (tenor sax), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Steve Davis (trombone), Howard Johnson (tuba), Mark Taylor (French horn) and Jason Marshall (baritone sax).

Shows are at 8:30 and 10:30 pm each night. The Iridium Jazz Club is located at 1650 Broadway (at 51st Street). The phone number is (212) 582-2121. For more information about the shows, go to Iridium’s web site.

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