We all know those iconic black-and-white images: Blakey at the kit, sweat beads on his forehead, a flash in the eyes, and that mouth agape—sometimes with the tongue flat out—in pure elation. And that’s also how he sounded.
Sure, there’s the dancing independence, the chops, the gravity-force time feel. But what’s buried in our collective unconscious is the big, meaty, in-the-guts drive and growling drum sound, broadcasting a life-affirming exuberance.
Throughout a long career, Art Blakey’s drumming remained rooted in tradition. Blakey’s earthy, soulful swing, which influenced multiple generations, will never go out of style. The drummer also reigns as one of the great musical mentors, through his decades-long leadership of the Jazz Messengers.
Blakey was born in 1919 and earned his stripes on the Pittsburgh jazz scene, first on piano and later on drums. After accompanying pianist Mary Lou Williams at home and in New York, the young drummer stepped up to a steady gig touring with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra between 1943 and 1944. Advancing quickly, Blakey nabbed the prestigious drum seat in vocal star Billy Eckstine’s big band (1944-47), a known incubator for future jazz notables. In this fertile setting, under the influence of bandmates such as Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and especially a mentoring Dizzy Gillespie, Blakey emerged with a newly authoritative strength.
Following the big band’s breakup, Blakey journeyed to Africa, initially as a spiritual pursuit. Raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family, the traveler sought new inspirations. Embracing Islam, he returned to New York with an adapted name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. Fellow musicians affectionately called him “Bu.” West African influences emerged in his drumming, as implied in his surging, reactionary polyrhythms. More specific applications were heard in multi-drummer experiments, most notably on Drum Suite (1957) and also on Orgy in Rhythm Volumes 1 and 2 (1957) and the lesser-known The African Beat (1962).
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Blakey had been active with the iconoclastic bebop inner circle, performing with like-minded explorers such as Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. Along with Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, Blakey contributed to the evolving bop drum style that helped transform jazz from a dance-oriented genre into an untethered instrumental art. In 1947 Blakey broke historic ground, playing on Thelonious Monk’s visionary debut sides for Blue Note Records, later compiled on the 1951 LP Genius of Modern Music Volume 1.
Blakey’s evolving harder-charging style of the ’50s is well documented on the superb 1954 live recording A Night at Birdland, which includes pianist Horace Silver, a frequent collaborator. This unit laid the groundwork for Blakey’s greatest calling: the formation of the Jazz Messengers. The group, initially co-led with Silver, eventually evolved into the drummer’s own band, which he molded into a legendary jazz institution. Configurations changed and sidemen came and went, yet the core sound stayed intact for thirty-five years, due to Blakey’s steadfast vision. Known for its discoveries and nurturing of future jazz leaders, the band boasted an impressive alumni roster. Noted graduates include Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Terence Blanchard, and Wynton Marsalis.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers represented the definitive voice of the rising “hard bop” sound and its ultimate embodiment on the drums. Extending beyond the clipped machine-gun scatterings of bebop, Blakey slathered on the thicker stuff, embracing a raw and bluesy, hard-swinging, dirt-under-the-fingernails feel. He played with a controlled raucousness— bold and loud, with a darker spreading wash. Even as complex syncopations darted about, an undercurrent of backbeat was suggested. Clomping down a hard 2 and 4 on his hi-hats, the drummer thundered across his toms and often used a rimclick on beat 4 to nail down shuffle feels. He swooped up the band into transition sections with a signature crescendo press roll that sounded (and felt) like a turbine at takeoff. There was no doubt as to who was in charge.
Heavy (but not heavy handed) blues and gospel influences are displayed on the 1958 album Moanin’. This classic LP introduced new jazz standards that became Blakey signature pieces, including the title track and the insistent “Blues March.” And the seven-minute-plus cut “The Drum Thunder Suite” says it all, driven by a volcanic barrage of toms. Other classicera Messengers highlights include The Jazz Messengers (1956), The Big Beat (1960), Buhaina’s Delight (1962), and Caravan (1962).
Outside of the Messengers, Blakey amassed an extensive discography as a sideman that alone could have guaranteed him greatness. Art lent his fiery edge to records by the big ones, including Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Jimmy Smith, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Johnny Griffin, Clark Terry, Illinois Jacquet, Wayne Shorter, Lou Donaldson, Fats Navarro, Randy Weston, Kenny Burrell, and many more. In 1971 and ’72, the tireless drummer also squeezed in a hiatus to tour the world with the Giants of Jazz, an all-star group featuring Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, and Al McKibbon.
As the late ’60s saw experimentation with “freer” drum styles, Blakey stayed the course, dedicated to the beauty of hard pulse and solid harmonies. Yet he did welcome edgier excursions, especially in the Messengers edition featuring Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, as heard on Free for All (1964). The many fruitful incarnations of the group continued to record and tour the world right up until three months before Blakey’s 1990 death at age seventy-one. In 2005, Art was honored posthumously with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Today, the great mentor’s discs sound as spontaneous and vital as on the day they were tracked. Art Blakey’s statement was straight-ahead: Mean every pulse passionately—and with that, the primal and spiritual become the same. He carried it around the world. Thank you, Bu.
“Art Blakey has such a distinctive style, like bombs going off with the grace of a ballet performance,” says 2012 MD Pro Panelist Brian Reitzell. “The three great drum sessions he did—Orgy in Rhythm Volumes 1 and 2, Holiday for Skins Volumes 1 and 2, and The African Beat—are seminal and feature some of the best-sounding drums and cymbals ever recorded. The solos on ‘Swingin’ Kilts’ from Holiday for Skins Volume 2 are blazing and beautiful—Art Taylor, Philly Joe Jones, and Blakey trading off with a wicked Latin percussion section. That album was recorded in a ballroom in Spanish Harlem with probably only two microphones. Unbelievable sounds engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. I spent many hours in Tokyo while on tour digging through record shops hunting down these records back in the ’90s; now they’re quite easy to find.”