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 home in New York, August 1959 (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

LESSONS

Donald Brown: I learned to be on time. To be a man of your word. How to pace the sets and the solos. How to carry yourself on and off the bandstand. How to present yourself individually as well as collectively as a band. How to stand up for what you believe.

Wynton Marsalis: You have to be able to let the cats call you a motherfucker and a sack of bitches sometimes. Don’t create an environment where people have to negotiate around you. This is a job, not a cult. Them being able to cuss you out is part of the business.

Lonnie Liston Smith: Bu, he just wanted you to create. It was amazing, you could really develop your own style. You could be very creative and be yourself, and Bu would enhance that.

Kevin Eubanks: He was adamant about not playing what somebody else played before you; he would call it walking on graves. “There’s no grave walkers in this band.” So if you played and you were sounding like someone else, he would just play all over the drums, purposely, to get in your way. That’s his way of keeping you in your creative lane. That whole idea of grave walking has always stuck with me.

Gregory Charles Royal (trombone, 1977-78)The lesson is that life goes into the horn, not vice versa. It was expected that you knew your craft technically, but what he taught us was to make that connection between your heart, your soul, and the music.

Ku-Umba Frank LacyClarity of thought, presence of mind, and focus.

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David Schnitter: I learned more self-confidence. Just being around him, and playing all the time, I grew as a musician and a person. He instilled a lot of good ideas.

Leon Lee Dorsey: I learned that there’s no ceiling on passion and commitment to the music. That will drive your desire to get better and to practice.

Wallace Roney: That this music demands that you play on a higher level—and if you can go further, go further. And every time you hit that bandstand you do not jive. You do not shuck. You play at your highest ability, and even that is not good enough. Constantly stay up on your instrument, try to get better, and demand that everybody do it.

George Cables: Always being present. It’s not something he necessarily said, but it’s something you learned from being there and always ready to play with Art and the band.

Ralph PetersonYou hear lots of those stories about Art not paying people, or making them chase him to get paid, or what have you, but there was a method behind that madness: You learned to stand up for yourself. There’s a lot of people in this business that’ll push you to the wall if you let them.

Wayne ShorterLeave everybody alone. When somebody’s playing music, leave them alone. Get out of the way. Be quiet. Don’t ask them no questions, just let them all fly.

Donald Harrison (alto saxophone, 1982-85): He wanted to produce leaders, and that’s something he instilled in me—to produce leaders. And I’m proud to say I had a young Christian McBride with me, and a young Esperanza Spalding, and a lot of people who are leaders now. As [Art] said, “Raise the banner high,” and keep that legacy going forward.

Terence Blanchard: He taught us how to relate to the audience. One of the things I tell my students all the time, because Art Blakey used to drill it—he said, “Never play above your audience. Never play beneath them. Play straight to them.”

Essiet Okon Essiet: My biggest takeaway from Art was being part of this fraternity, because three-quarters of modern jazz players had gone through Art. And when Art passed, I wasn’t out of a job, because all of a sudden Freddie Hubbard called me and I played with him for a year. Benny Golson called, and I stayed with him for a while. Jackie McLean called, and I played with him. Now I’m playing with Ralph Peterson. Art left so much behind to help me. Man, his influence is felt even today.

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.