Art Blakey escaped the noise, tumult, and danger of the coal mines and steel mills of Pittsburgh into a life of music, carrying with him a volcanic force. Blakey often told people that he had no childhood. At fourteen he was working among the blast furnaces in the daytime, moonlighting in clubs as a pianist, leading a professional dance, band and trying to finish high school. He was a husband and father at fifteen. He said that he switched instruments when another Pittsburgh youngster, Erroll Garner, showed him up at the piano and the tough guy who ran the club ordered Blakey to play the drums.
At eighteen, Blakey took his own big band west. Broke and stranded, he returned to Pittsburgh, eventually joining Mary Lou Williams, the brilliant pianist and arranger, who had formed her own group after years with Andy Kirk’s band. He toured with Fletcher Henderson’s band, then led his own big band in Boston for a time in 1944. He left for St. Louis at the call of vocalist Billy Eckstine, whose band was a hothouse for the development of modern jazz in the transition from swing to bebop. Among Blakey’s colleagues at various times with Eckstine were a budding Who’s Who of the new music: Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Budd Johnson, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Gene Ammons, Sarah Vaughan, and Sonny Stitt.
The unrelenting power and aggressiveness of his swing were matched by an independence of limbs that he used to set up polyrhythms with subtleties that a corps of drummers could not have duplicated. Taking to heart Sid Catlett’s admonition to "just roll," Blakey developed a press roll so exquisitely forceful and so unmistakably his that drum manuals give it a formal name, the Blakey Press Roll. His crisp hi-hat cymbal claps on the second and fourth beats, his accents using triplets and offbeat interjections, the irresistible tidal movement of his beat, electrified musicians and audiences.
After Eckstine disbanded in 1947, Blakey formed the first of his many groups incorporating the name Messengers: a rehearsal band called the Seventeen Messengers. He also recorded that year with an octet, the Jazz Messengers; that was to become the name of his groups beginning in 1955. He established another career pattern in 1947: the employment of young musicians he spotted as full of talent and promise. In the big band was seventeen-year-old Sonny Rollins. The octet included trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Sahib Shihab, and pianist Walter Bishop.
"Yes, sir," Blakey told the audience for a celebrated recording date at Birdland in 1954. "I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’m gonna get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active." He was a doddering thirty-four-year-old.
The youngsters in that instance were trumpeter Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and pianist Horace Silver, all of whom graduated from Blakey’s finishing school to become major figures. The other member of the band was bassist Curly Russell, a senior citizen nearly as old as Blakey. In that edition of his band, Blakey began tending toward what would come to be known as hard bop: jazz heavily invested with blues harmonies and gospel feeling. By the next edition, Blakey and Silver had established hard bop, and it became a crucible in which Blakey for more than three decades forged young musicians who populated the jazz scene and in many cases lead it today. Here are some of their names:
Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, Jymie Merritt, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Bill Hardman, Benny Golson, Johnny Griffin, Bobby Timmons, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, Woody Shaw, Walter Davis, Joanne Brackeen, Ronnie Matthews, John Hicks, Victor Sproles, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Dennis Irwin, Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Frank Lacy, Bennie Green, Geoff Keezer, Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Kenny Garrett, Donald Harrison, Philip Harper, Peter Washington, Billy Harper, Gary Bartz, Bill Pierce, Lonnie Plaxico.
Blakey’s instruction in the essentials of jazz and life helped to shape those musicians. Many of them, in turn, are bandleaders and style setters influencing the course of the music in a century Blakey did not live to see.
He died in 1990, but Art Blakey will be with us for a long time.
Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Art Blakey 314 549 089-2