The Eternal Jazzman

by Harold Howland

ART BLAKEY 1Two days before Art Blakey was to end a week-long engagement at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the legendary drummer. Blakey is a simple man of simple words who exudes love from every pore. He was in a talking mood that day and alternately revealed a philosophical, stubborn, angry and gentle nature.

Blakey was born in Pittsburgh, on October 11, 1919. He began his musical career playing piano but soon tired of the reading involved and switched to the drum. His first major association was with Fletcher Henderson in 1939. During the I940’s, Blakey formed his own group and also worked with Mary Lou Williams and Billy Eckstine.

By 1955, the Jazz Messengers evolved with Kenny Dorham, trumpet; Hank Mobley, tenor: Horace Silver, piano and Doug Watkins, bass. Other Messengers during the fifties included Donald Byrd, Bill Hardman and Lee Morgan.

During the 1960’s, Blakey’s sextet featured Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller and Wayne Shorter. Late in ’65 he returned to the quintet format, introducing Chuck Mangione and Keith Jarrett. Presently, he is recording and touring with a new sextet.

Along with Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, Blakey was a major force in the bebop and hard bop movements of the fifties. His playing is characterized by a rich, loose, drum lone and the ever-present hi-hat on the upbeat. He has never deviated from the acoustic mainstream format and has always surrounded himself with promising young players. Many of today’s jazz personalities came to the fore as Jazz Messengers and certainly one of the most vigorous of them all is Art Blakey.

HH: Is it true that you lived in West Africa for a time?

AB: No. I was only there for a short visit. I didn’t go there to play music, but to study religion. Oh sure, a lot of people said I went to Africa to play drums. African drums have nothing to do with what we do. Africans have nothing to do with us because they’re black and we’re black. We are Americans like everyone else, far removed from Africa.

HH: A lot of people who write about you seem to recognize an African influence in your playing.

AB: No, what we’re doing is American. I had Africans in my band and they didn’t know what the hell we were playing. They can’t play 4/4 time, their time is something else. They sing what we call “in between the cracks” on a totally different scale. When I had African drummer Ladji Carmara with me, I wouldn’t let the band play with him cause we didn’t know what the hell he was going to do or when he was going to do it.

HH: What is different about your new band? — (The current Jazz Messengers features a three-man horn section with Dave Schnitter, tenor; Bobby Watson, alto; Valeri Ponomarev, trumpet. In addition, Jimmy Williams and Dennis Irwin play piano and bass respectively).

AB: This band is more organized. The time between the band with Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard was spent building up this band. It takes time to build a band, sometimes five years. It doesn’t happen overnight. You have to get guys that think spiritually alike. They’ve got to like each other to play jazz. I like family bands. I don’t like stars. The band is the only star. So we come out and do the thing together. Jazz is togetherness.

This band has surpassed the other bands that came through. It’s a good feeling because the whole view of the band is different. Everybody’s happy and having a ball. With our type of music you cannot come in, read the music and leave without speaking a word to the next guy. That isn’t the way. Jazz is the only true thing we’ve got that has come out of America. Everything else comes from Europe or another continent. Americans have to realize this. Everybody else does. Every nation does. Americans must also realize it.

HH: In Europe, jazz seems to be appreciated more as an art form.

AB: It would have been bigger in the states but everyone has gone rock because of the money. The kids are beginning to see how far they can go with rock and some are backing out of it. Drummers find themselves painted into a corner playing rock; they are timekeepers once again. That’s the reason I left the big bands; too many personalities to fool around with. And you have to sit there and keep time. I’m not a timekeeper, I’m a musician.

HH: What type of equipment do you recommend?

AB: Drummers should stop looking at other drummers equipment and say, “I’m going to duplicate that.” It doesn’t matter what kind of instrument the drummer has. It isn’t the instrument, it’s the musician. You cannot duplicate the feeling a person has. When I started with Fletcher Henderson, I made my own cymbals and drums. I had rope-tension drums and a tom-tom with no tension, just a head on it. A lot of people say those drums sounded better than the ones I play today. Many kids struggle to buy cymbals they cannot afford and it isn’t fair. They should learn to open their hearts and play.


HH: Many people think you have to have a certain set-up; that you must have a crash cymbal and a ride cymbal.

AB: It’s all a gimmick and they’re going for it. The important thing is to get the feeling, to find it spiritually.

HH: How different is your tuning technique from other drummers?

ART BLAKEY 2AB: There is no technique involved. I just tighten the drums. If it doesn’t sound good, I tighten them a little more. I don’t do anything special on them. I’m lazy and don’t like to fool around like that.

HH: What about your playing technique?

AB: I got the fundamentals and rudiments down pretty good. There’s no technique or anything. I don’t think it has anything to do with the stick, ’cause most of the sticks that come out today are crooked. Catch hell trying to find a
straight stick.

One type of drum that I have found difficult is the hand drum, the conga drum. Now that is another trip. The beat’s easy but it’s difficult to play it and get the things out of it that I see the Africans doing. They play with every part of their hand . . . they’re fantastic!

HH: Mel Lewis and a few others use calfskin heads. Do you?

AB: I like the calfskin for the snare drum because you can play brushes. With other heads you cannot play brushes. Brushes go with calfskin. The only thing wrong with them is the effect of the weather. I guess some day they’ll improve these drums so you can play brushes on them.

AB: I’ll tell you what that was. I was experimenting in a box all by myself, like the rock drummers record. But that isn’t my type of thing. I like to record where I can hear the band and the natural thing. Rock drummers can record like that because they only keep time. It’s important when I’m recording that the band see me and I see them. They never know what’s going to happen. I may change something on the spur of the moment. We never play the same arrangement twice. That’s the difficulty in recording jazz, we play it different every time to keep it from getting monotonous.

HH: The sound you get on the Anthenagin Lp (recorded in March 1973) is warmer, as though everyone is right in the room.

AB: Yes. I was in the room with them. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the difference. We were experimenting; seeing what we could do. Before I put something down, I’ll try it and see what happens. I also enjoy recording live too. You never know what is going to happen when you record live and I like that.

HH: When you go into the studio, do you run into problems with engineers who want to muffle your drums?

AB: No, I don’t have that problem. They do it with younger drummers, but not with me. They know me pretty good and my reputation precedes me. If I want the drums taped up or to sound a certain way they’ll do it, but no more than specified.

HH: Tell me about Hollywood drums (made in Italy).

AB: That’s a good drum. Max Roach introduced me to them. They’re good because Europeans have more respect for jazz and jazz musicians. They have a totally different outlook. They don’t come up to you and say, “You advertise our drums and we’ll give you a set.” Give me some money! They don’t tell Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson that — don’t come and tell me that bullshit.

The Japanese have the same idea going. I went to Japan to help them make their drums. Tony Williams and all of us went over there and helped them make their drums. Then they gave the money to someone else to endorse the drums. I don’t think that’s right.

I don’t care how much money they give me, just show some kind of appreciation for what I’m doing. I’ve been playing a long time man, as long as Buddy Rich and all them cats. I’ve been right here. I did everything myself. I didn’t have help from record companies either. They’re going to give Buddy Rich thousands of dollars . . . he contributed, but so did I. He’ll tell you that himself. Don’t throw me out on the side. Jo Jones contributed. Sonny Greer. What’s happening to them? Those black drummers have been playing since I was a boy and I’m damn near sixty! You play these drums and they’re going to give you a set of drums. It takes the European companies to do it, yet the American companies have all the bread. And they get their ideas from us.

Kaiser Marshall invented the sock cymbal. He’s black. The first sock cymbal had a bass drum with a cymbal down there. Then it started with another one sitting down on the floor, (Charleston pedal). Then they had a cymbal called the Chinese cymbal with rivets in it. You know who did that? Kenny Clarke was the first one, with Edgar Hayes and his Mills Blue Rhythm band. Those guys didn’t get a penny out of it.

I put rivets in a regular cymbal and they took that idea. I didn’t get one quarter. I had to go back and say, “Look I brought these ideas here man. Elvin Jones and Max Roach, we bring these ideas here and we don’t get anything for it. And you go out and sell them.”

HH: You are in the catalog as one of the users of the sizzle cymbal.

AB: I know it. We were the working jazz drummers at the time. We would come back and give these guys diagrams showing them how to make the equipment. We didn’t have time to copyright the shit.

The drum companies here? To hell with them man. If I can find some foreign company to hook up with, I’ll sell their drums to the kids because I get to the kids. They’ve got to learn how to do things in this country. We are Americans. Don’t go off and give someone without a passport the money and put his name up there. There are a lot of American kids, white and black, that need help. Do something to help them. Help them to go to school and push out there.

HH: Tell me about time, the way you play on top of the beat, as opposed to the way Elvin lays back.

AB: Well that is just the way he feels. He may come in on the beat, or after the beat, or right off the edge. That’s his concept. I love the way Max Roach plays. And Tony. It’s the different concepts that they have.

You know, I never try to tell a kid, “That’s not the way to play it; do it this way.” No. I don’t want to put myself in anybody. I want to see the kid come out himself. He may be able to teach me something. That’s the reason I could never teach. I’m too busy trying to learn to play.

HH: What do you mean by concept?

AB: It’s the way to play a drum. Your concept, not how much you can play or how technical you can be, gets the people moving. The drums, they can move mountains, tell messages, everything! Whatever the drum says, you’ve got to do it man. They’re the pulse of everything. If the pulse isn’t there, it’s dead. That’s my concept of playing the drum. If people are out there, I’m going to get to them. That’s what happens in Africa and other societies. The rhythms change everything. The drum rhythms make music meaningful. Listen to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. See how militant he is with the drums? It tears you up.

I watch all the cats playing. I watch them dish toweling the drum. None of them are as fast as Buddy Rich. The man is a freak. He’ll do everything you’ve ever dreamed of, speed and everything. But he doesn’t get down to anything until he changes his concept and starts playing the drums. All the rest is good for visual, but if you can’t see him you’re in trouble.


HH: Sometimes concept creates a tremendous amount of pressure. If you want to come in after the beat or add a beat, you get these dirty looks.ART BLAKEY 3 copy

AB: Go on out there! The hell with that. Make a mistake and make it loud. Next time you won’t do it. But if you don’t venture it, you ain’t gonna get it.

You find a lot of young drummers trying to break out of their shell. I can always hear something. That’s my thing. That’s the reason I like to keep my band together, because I can hear things faster than other people can. I’m lucky like that. I can hear talent. All the Messengers, all the stars, came up through me. I heard them. No one else did.

Jimmy Williams has joined the group. I wanted to get a younger man because you need young people to sew it together. We have all youngsters now. It’s beautiful. This boy is right and he’s a good arranger. He can play and he’s right out of music school. I think he is worth something. Usually, you just hear people and you like them and the way they feel about their instruments. You try to give them the best chance that you can. I wish I had a recording company; I’d produce many musicians. I heard Chuck Mangione and Keith Jarrett, I put them in the band, let them play and they’re gone! Stars.

HH: It’s incredible that jazz can’t get that financial backing.

AB: Because it’s an art form and it frightens people. They’re ignorant of it and ignorance breeds fear. The time that has passed before us with the great bands of Dorsey, Henderson and Don Redman…people didn’t know what those guys were doing. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Look, Duke just left here. They let an era like that pass by. They say, “We’ll name a street after him.” What the hell is that? Look what Duke has put down through the years. And he’s gone. We blew Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey. Years later it will come out…and they’ll all be gone.

Jazz is an art form and you have to choose. They said to me, “Well Blakey, if you update your music and change it, put a little rock in there, you’ll come along.” I will not prostitute the art for that, it’s not worth it. Gain the whole world and lose your soul? It’s no good. I own me, my band and the way I do things. I ain’t got nothing. Not even a quarter. But I’m happy. I’m doing what I want to do. Just like Duke. He did it his way. He was his own man. It’s a hell of a price to pay, but you have to pay if you’re going to do it.