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
With Cedar Walton (left) and Wayne Shorter at a rehearsal for the Indestructible album, NYC, April 1964 (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

STORIES AND SAYINGS

Joanne Brackeen: He could tell any story about anything, and you would know that there was no way this story could possibly be true. But by the time he ended the story, you would feel that this story was absolutely, 100 percent truth.

Stanley Clarke (bass, 1972): It was the ’72 Munich Olympics. We’d finished playing and the hostage shit was starting to happen; it was time for us to get out of there. I’d been drinking the night before, and the next morning, I figured I would sleep another 15 minutes, but it went on longer. So I got up thinking I was going to rush to the lobby of this hotel where we were staying … and Art had left me there. He just left me! I had to stay in Europe and make some money to get back home. And when I got home, I can honestly say, I was never late after that.

Ralph Peterson (second drums, 1990-91)A trumpet player was poking and teasing at Charles Fambrough—which in and of itself is inadvisable. And when Charles reached the saturation point, he just reached back and popped the trumpet player in the mouth. And the trumpet player went to Art, “Aw, Bu, look what Fambrough did! My chops are all messed up!” But Art did not like whining. That night, “Ladies and gentlemen, our trumpet player…” and Art featured him all night.

Donald Brown (piano, 1981; 1986-87): We went on tour in Europe, and when we got back, Art owed me $1,100. He called and asked me when I was coming up for a week’s gig at Sweet Basil. I said, “Art, I can’t come until you pay me my money.” And I could tell he was mad, but he said, “All right, I’ll send you a check and pay for your flight. And I’ll pay you when you get here.”

I found out from Wallace [Roney] and Kenny [Garrett] that Art had been calling around to different people to do the gig and he couldn’t get anyone. So when I came into the club, Art saw me and we both cracked up laughing because we both knew what he was trying to pull. But I stayed the week and we had fun, and when it was done he paid me with a check. And then I got back to Memphis and the check bounced.

Harold Mabern (piano, ca. 1960)[Art] said, “Fellas, I’m going to get some gas, and then I’ll come back and pay you.” So he goes and he comes back, “Fellas, I got some bad news. I got mugged. Somebody stuck me up. Funny thing: I had all your money in this pocket, and I had all my money over here. They stole all your money; I don’t know why they didn’t steal mine!”

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Essiet Okon Essiet (bass, 1989-91): Art goes, “What’s your name?” I told him “Essiet Okon Essiet,” and he was like, “Huh?” I said it three times. Then we were playing the gig, and he goes, “Ladies and gentlemen, on bass, Esiot Von Coon Esiot!”

Eddie Henderson: [On my first night with him], in the first two choruses, I played everything I knew. He says, “You dumb so-and-so, Eddie, it’s like poker! If you get your hand and you don’t have anything, fold! Or bluff, because I’m not gonna support that sad you-know-what.”

David Schnitter (tenor saxophone, 1974-80)I remember I broke up with a girlfriend, and he said, “Women are like buses. You miss one, you catch another one. Or you might want to ask for a transfer.”

Wynton Marsalis (trumpet, 1980-82): Sometimes he would call for Monk out of the clear blue sky. “Thelonious! Come save me from these dumb young motherfuckers!”

Geoffrey Keezer: One of his favorite quotes was, “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”

Bobby Watson: “You don’t want to play too long, because you don’t know whether they’re clapping because they’re glad you finished!”

Ku-Umba Frank Lacy (trombone, 1988-90)He always said, “This is the Jazz Messengers, not the post office.” And what that meant was, you don’t want to stay on this gig as long as a guy stayed at the post office. You make your statement and you leave.

Robin Eubanks: “An armored car don’t follow a hearse.” “They see you before they hear you.” And “The only thing that follows you to the grave is respect, and you’ve gotta earn it.” He said the same things over and over.

Valery Ponomarev (trumpet, 1976-80): The most amazing thing he said was, “Truth is stranger than fiction. If you know the truth, don’t be afraid to say it.”Also, he added to that phrase very many times, “Buy our records. God knows we need the money.”

Terence Blanchard (trumpet, 1982-85): He would tell the audiences, “Don’t blow these guys.” He said, “You blew Bird, you blew Monk. Don’t blow these guys.”

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.