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
Left to right: Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, and Gigi Gryce at Birdland, February 1954 (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

LEADERSHIP

Randy Brecker (trumpet, 1969): Art led from the drums. He wasn’t very verbal about what he did. … It was just like being run over by a steamroller. What a thrill.

George Cables (piano, 1969)He would direct the band just by changing gear, or reminding somebody to play harder, or giving them confirmation of what they’re playing. You could hear him in the back saying, “Get mad!” Which meant play harder. Or, “Let it run down your leg!” That meant get very soulful.

Chick Corea (piano, 1966)Art would pick up the talk mic and speak to the audience as if they were his next-door neighbors.

Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone, 1959-64)One time we were playing at Birdland, and people were talking loud. … So Art for the first time stopped the band. And he got on the microphone and said, “We’re trying to do something up here. Y’all don’t do that shit at Carnegie Hall! If you don’t want to hear what we’re trying to do, get the hell out!” And that place got quiet, man.

Eddie Henderson (trumpet, 1973-75)He’d tell you if you were wrong, and he wouldn’t say anything if you were right; it would be self-evident.

Branford Marsalis (alto saxophone, 1982-83): He told me I had to play a ballad. I didn’t know how to play ballads. So I … did what young people always do: started changing all the chords so I could sound less sad. So he walks by and goes, “What the hell is that?”

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I said, “Man, I don’t wanna do this crap! You’re making me do it, I’m just trying to make it hip.” He said, “This song is written by George Gershwin. George Gershwin has written an opera; he has written symphonic pieces; he wrote some of the greatest pop songs in the history of American pop music; he does not need your sorry ass to make him hip. You will play the song as written.” At the time it was awful, but five years later, I’m like, “Boy, I’m glad he made me do that.”

Geoffrey Keezer (piano, 1989-91)Art understood that music is not only an art form but also entertainment, and I think he balanced those two sides really well. Some jazz musicians don’t talk to the audience; they act like it’s the audience’s privilege to see them onstage. Blakey was like, “The audience paid good money to come see us, so we gotta give them a good show. And also good art.”

Robin Eubanks (trombone, 1980; 1987-88)There was a thing each set that he called a “creature feature,” somebody featured on a ballad. I remember we were at Sweet Basil, and I had my back to the band and played this solo introduction, and then I gave a down beat for everybody to come in and start the song, and nobody came in. I turned around and nobody was onstage! When the feature came up he would go back to the band room, and all the boys would follow him. So you just had to play until you heard the snare drums or the cymbals rattling. He would leave the piano player out there for 15 minutes sometimes!

Benny Green: Art really liked to pit us all against one another. … He would love to go to one guy and say, “Hey, man, what’s going on with this guy?”—one of the other guys in the band. “He says he has a homey that would be much better in the band. But I think you’re cool!” And then he’d go to the other guy and say the exact same thing about you. We were kids, man, and we fell for it. So we’d get on the bandstand, and we’d all be gritting at each other, but smiling at Art. And that’s how he liked it.

Brian Lynch: In terms of selecting his groups, he didn’t necessarily select the people who would be completely compatible with each other. You have to throw in a little something that’s going to put things into motion. Maybe one musician who has something that’s very challenging to the other musicians. Or somebody plays in a different style. Very Art: “Now let’s see what they’re gonna do!”

Bill Pierce (tenor saxophone, 1980-82): Art could be a rough guy. He’d fight in a second if he thought you were disrespecting him or the band members. If you were in the band you could do anything you wanted. But if you weren’t, you could not talk to or about his musicians in any way other than with respect.

Leon Lee Dorsey (bass, 1988-89): The art of keeping the band together, people don’t even understand that dimension. When you think about the Messengers, keeping egos and personalities together … to be able to sustain it for close to half a century is just unbelievable.

Kevin Eubanks (guitar, 1980)I was still at Berklee when I started, then I moved to New York, and every now and then Art would call me and say, “The piano player couldn’t make it, can you come in?” His idea was that once you’re a Jazz Messenger, you’re always on call. He would totally expect you to just be there.

Lonnie Liston Smith (piano, 1965-66): Art didn’t write any songs, but he would also never come to rehearsals. And then—man, I could never figure this out. Art would come in, sit behind the drums and say, “Okay, go ahead.” He could play your song, the first time down. And then he would put the Art Blakey thing on it and that just made it even better.

Bobby Watson (alto saxophone, 1977-81)There were certain things that Art liked to do, and as a composer you tried to write around that. … He wasn’t gonna do certain things, but he was always open. So you learned what he likes to do, and what he doesn’t like to do, and tried to write accordingly without losing too much of yourself.

Wallace Roney (trumpet, 1981; 1986-87)Art was going around like the Pied Piper and encouraging young people to discipline yourself, get yourself to a certain level, and you can join my band and get out on the road to play this music. He had young people all over the world wanting to play with him. To me, he’s the one who really kept this music alive. People talk about Dexter and the resurgence—no. It was Art Blakey.

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.