Art Blakey: Praise the Messenger

To honor the drummer's centennial, more than three dozen musicians who worked with the peerless bandleader share their memories of Bu

Art Blakey at the recording session for The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, N.J., May 6, 1955. (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

Everybody does the voice. Not just for his characteristic sayings, but for the mundanities. “He’d say, ‘Thank you,’” recalls trombonist Robin Eubanks, putting “Thank you” into the deep, gruff croak that represents Art Blakey—the legendary drummer and bandleader who would have been 100 years old in October. (He died in 1991.)

When everyone from Eubanks to Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis does their Blakey impression, it’s with the deepest respect and affection. Across four decades, Blakey—also known as Buhaina or “Bu” for his Islamic name, Abdullah ibn Buhaina—acted as a teacher, mentor, and father figure for the musicians who passed through his band the Jazz Messengers (jazz’s most famous and sought-after finishing school). To have been a Messenger is a calling card that musicians carry proudly for life.

Blakey was one of the formative drummers of modern jazz. His thunderous cross-rhythms and press rolls are immediately distinctive, his swing bottomless. He was also deeply human: a colorful character whose sayings and doings are as storied among musicians and fans as his musicianship.

All these sides of Blakey, and more, come through when his onetime protégés speak of him. This article is based on the recollections of dozens of Jazz Messengers alumni. (More than half spoke about Blakey in personal interviews; others shared insights and memories at a Jazz at Lincoln Center panel in January, part of the second annual Jazz Congress.) They paint a portrait of the Blakey legacy that stands at his centennial. His students, such as they were, took crucial lessons from Bu as a musician, bandleader, and man that inform not only their careers, but also those of their own protégés.

MUSICIANSHIP

Billy Harper (tenor saxophone, 1967-69): Blakey was quite a—what do you call him?—thunderball.

Benny Golson (tenor saxophone, 1958-59)This man didn’t know how not to swing. As we traveled, he sometimes sat in with local groups where the existing drums sounded like kitchenware. But when he sat behind them, they began to speak another language—a language that not only reached the ear, but the deepest grotto of the heart’s core.

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Lonnie Plaxico (bass, 1983-85)Sometimes when I play with younger drummers, it’s like they’re going through the motions. But when I played with Art, he played every time like it was the last day of his life. I never saw him tired, or not inspired to perform. He never just was going through the motions.

Charles Tolliver (trumpet, 1965)All of those flams and paradiddles and great combinations of snare and bass drum, come to find out, it was Blakey before the rest of those greats. They all picked that up from him. And when I started to play with him, it just uplifted me so much that the drums became my mantra. I would never start a band without having a drummer that had all of those tools.

Javon Jackson (tenor saxophone, 1987-91)After you work with Art, I guess you love to play with people who in some way have that same power that you got from him. Mainly it’s the cymbal beat.

Gary Bartz (alto saxophone, 1965-66)He’d build my solo for me. The first chorus is usually pretty soft; the second amps up the intensity; the third chorus, or when he really wanted you to build, he’d just increase the intensity and the volume. So you’d have to go with him: You can’t play soft if he’s playing louder and more intense. I think everybody learned that from him.

Benny Green (piano, 1987-88)Art would play certain beats that would hook the soloists up and he would give shape and dynamics to your statements … he would break it down to brushes for a piano solo, but with a great intensity. Not cocktail brushes. Brushes that you could really feel, in your belly.

Melissa Slocum (bass, 1988): We were playing a tune, and it was a medium-tempo tune and he was playing the time that he was playing, and I was playing the time that I was playing. And he stayed right where he was, and I stayed right where I was—and we were not too far apart. But there was enough space for there to be this unbearable tension. I didn’t realize until finally I went with him, and he showed me how deep that swing could be. And the whole audience went, “Aaaah.”

Cameron Brown (bass, 1976): Frankly, it wasn’t that easy to really listen and really get used to where he was putting stuff [but] I knew that I was playing with one of the absolute master drummers of the universe. … He used to let me play the first chorus by myself with the soloist, he’d lay out; that was like “Wow!”

Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone, 1953-54)It was tremendous Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but on weekends it was horrendous—that’s when the crowds came in. Everything changed. Especially when the women came in, sat down in the front row, and raised their skirts over their knees. Then the drums got louder, the tempos got faster, and every tune was a drum solo.

Joanne Brackeen (piano, 1969-72)I brought this little record player [to Japan], and my favorite record at that time was Miles Smiles. One night the whole band was in my room just listening. [Art] didn’t say too much … but the next three nights, all we heard on the bandstand from him was everything he had heard—every tiny little detail—of what Tony Williams played.

Brian Lynch (trumpet, 1988-91)When we did the 70th birthday celebration, [Art] played, but he also had Roy Haynes on hand to play. And playing with Roy of course was fantastic, but being used to Art, everything seemed light. Art played the beat so strongly.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.