THE first rays of dusk suffuse Art Blakey’s Greenwich Village apartment with shards of amber gray light, and as the shadows dance upon his brow, Blakey’s face takes on a totemic grace. The snow-white hair fades out of the foreground becoming the color of frosted granite, and all attention is brought to bear on his face: the half drawn shades of his eyes, wary and curious; the broad mouth, lips pursed together in one part snicker, one part sneer; the high sculpted cheekbones; the quizzical, bemused brow, projecting majestic dignity. As the light recedes, the ritual mask the drummer presents to the world drops away and something much older and more mysterious than Art Blakey peeks through the darkness. It’s the countenance of a spirit—a tribal elder of rhythm.
You can see that spirit peek through on the bandstand, too, as Blakey leads his young charges, the Jazz Messengers, as he has for over three decades. By now it’s a face familiar to generations of music lovers the world over: the head upraised, eyes rolled back, mouth wide open in delight. “Swiiiiiiinging,” as Blakey puts it, with childlike glee, extending the first syllable like a press roll, still entranced by the wonder of rhythm and a life that’s blessed him with the opportunity to express the power of that word through jazz. “The way I figure it,” Blakey explains, “is that Monk, Bird, Dizzy and them cats took the music to a higher level, you know? I think it’s the highest level of any kind of music. It’s the most highly spiritual music because they don’t know what they’re going to play. It’s from the Creator, to the artist, direct to the audience—split-second timing. If that isn’t spiritual, I don’t know what the hell is.
“See, I wanted to become a great drummer, but just in the sense of having musicians want to play with me—not to be better than Buddy Rich or to compete with someone. I will not compete that way; I’ll compete through my band. If musicians have a preference and they say, ‘I want to play with Bu,’ that just knocks me out. And I’ll ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to make you sound better? What do you want me to do behind you when you play?’ My head never got so big that that wasn’t my goal—to play with people.”
Did he ever! To look at him now, Art Blakey is the very picture of swing. First among equals in the pantheon of modern jazz masters that set the pace in the 1940s and ’50s (people like Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones), Art Blakey brought a new kind of primal force and elemental simplicity to trap drumming. Anchored by his persistent 2-4 sock-cymbal pulse and hissing K. Zildjian top cymbals, Blakey streamlined the swinging groove of bebop, making it less busy and spasmodic. At the same time, he managed to synthesize the tonal approach of West African drummers with the grit of American blues musicians.
Art Blakey’s drumming seemed to accompany the soloists even as he goaded them on and challenged them to reach for new ideas: either mix it up with the rhythm section or get out of the way.
It’s unlikely that any drummer in jazz history has been as committed to good, old-fashioned, hard swing. In the 1950s, when the cool school threatened to overturn the advances of bebop, Art Blakey, pianist Horace Silver, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenorist Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins helped call their children home as the Jazz Messengers; and the music they created, alternatingly known as hard bop, funk, post-bop and what have-you, drew upon equal portions of modern jazz, Gospel, the sanctified church and the blues. These were blues as they have rarely been played before or since by jazz musicians—with authority, reverence and authenticity. Tunes like “The Preacher” (and later Messenger Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’ “) helped pave the way not only for the bop revival of the ’50s, but for the music of people like Ray Charles and young generations of rockers, funkers and fusionists. And in 1984, Art Blakey remains a leader and tribal elder. “The last time I saw Charlie Parker,” Blakey reflects, “he told me, ‘Make sure the kids play the blues, Art, because it hasn’t all been done yet.’ ”
Of course there are happy blues as well as sad blues, and Art Blakey’s life has been an intermingling of the two: victimized by racism, leaving him with reduced vision and a steel plate in his skull; orphaned, adopted and then thrust out into the everyday world of survival; witness to the rise and fall of those friends and fellow innovators so close to him; and all the while struggling to maintain the standards of his elders and to live his life with dignity. “Respect,” Blakey intones with extra emphasis. “There can’t be no love without respect. Don’t no armored car ever ride behind the hearse. The only thing that follows you to the grave is re-spect. ”
And it’s all around him: the love and respect accorded to a father, from the extended family Art Blakey always wanted as a child, but fate denied him. “It’s a big family,” Art concurs. “And all the cats who ever played with me are like my family. All them cats . . .” he says with a sigh. “I miss ’em.”
All the musicians, and all his children, too—a total of 21, adopted and begotten. And as if to confirm his vitality, Art Blakey and his wife are expecting another child. “He’s due on October 11,” Ann Arnold Blakey smiles, beaming with pride. “Art’s birthday . . . Monk’s, too. I’m not a drummer but I have pretty good timing,” she laughs.
Art Blakey laughs, too. He can afford to, because approaching his 65th birthday, he’s playing better than ever, all the more remarkable considering the joker Time has dealt him from the bottom of the deck: Art Blakey is almost totally deaf.
Yet Art is reflective about it, and considers the grace with which a close musical friend of his is gradually going blind. “But he takes it like a champ; that’s a test of strength and he never complains. I think I’m the only person he mentions it to, because we lived together so long. But he just goes on and plays.
“Since I’ve started wearing my hearing aid, it’s frightening. If I take it off, out of the whole world of sounds I’m used to, everything is silence. I see people moving around, but silence; the only thing I can hear is music. I can hear vibrations. I take my hearing aid off when I’m on the bandstand, and I can hear better than the other musicians; I know when they’re out of tune.”
Art Blakey hears enough of the vibrations coming through to more than make sense of the music, but that still doesn’t explain how, at 65, he’s able to play with so much pure fire and thundering power. He’s as free and modern as musicians half his age or less. Is there a secret?
“Freedom without discipline is chaos; you have to have some discipline. Everything that you do takes discipline. A lot of young drummers are real good: their reflexes are good and everything, but will they be able to do that when they’re 70 years old? Will they have enough discipline? Discipline means to relax: Can they relax? That’s what it takes to play the drums.
“That’s what Chick Webb taught me. That’s the only teacher I ever had who taught me anything—him and Sid Catlett. Sid Catlett would always tell me, ‘Art, when you’re in trouble, roll. Just relax, you know what I mean?’ It takes a long time to learn how to just relax. I lectured the other day in Chicago—talking to some young drummers. They all sound like they came off of a conveyer belt because they don’t identify themselves. There’s no originality, and this is blocking the advancement of the instrument. People don’t give a shit how many paradiddles you can play; people only know what they feel. The drum is the second human instrument, the voice being the first. You can take a drum and just move the earth; you can just transport people. I was taught by Chick Webb that, if you’re playing before an audience, you’re supposed to take them away from everyday life—wash away the dust of everyday life. And that’s all music is supposed to do.
“Nowadays they’ve got kids rehearsing to play the drum in front of a mirror. Now who ever heard of that? It doesn’t make sense. And they’re up there making faces. The drums are not supposed to be that hard to play. If the instrument is that hard, I don’t want to play it. And then they say, ‘Well look at this old guy up there and he’s 65.’ I can play faster and much better than I could 25 years ago—much better because I’m just be ginning to learn about what Chick Webb and Sid Catlett were trying to teach me all those years ago. All these kids ought to get up there and watch some of the old drummers, like Kenny Clarke. He ain’t gonna bust his butt for nothin’. He’ll be up there playing a long time, and all of them will be if they just learn to relax. You don’t have to be up there trying to impress nobody. And I happen to know that drummers are like that.”
To be sure, there’s a lot that Art Blakey knows about drums and drummers, and as he warms to his subject, something of his own philosophy (and openness) comes through loud and clear. “I always wanted to be an innovator and find out different things about the instrument, because I always knew that the traps were a bastard instrument. It’s like those cymbals you see now with rivets in them. I was the first one to do that when I was with Gretsch, but I didn’t see any money, any more than Kaiser Marshall did for inventing the hi-hat pedal.
“I just wanted to hear something different—to experiment. I always liked to innovate with different sounds on the drums when I started to play, because I came out of that era when the drummer played for effects. See, I had everything, like a thing that sounded like a machine gun. I had to learn how to play a show in almost a standing position. I had to keep the bass drum going, grab this, and blow that, and do a roll. But that was fantastic, because it helped me get where I wanted to go, and helped me find out what it was I wanted to do.
“A lot of kids today have all of these tom-toms, and people moan and scream about that. But they can do anything they want to do because it’s a bastard instrument. If they want to add 40 tom-toms up there, they can add them. There’s nothing wrong with it. They’re trying to find out something. If they keep them up there long enough, they’ll learn how to play them. And that’s why I like the drums, and why I never put that down. I myself have four or five tom-toms, and as I grow I’m going to get more. You add on to it; you don’t stop. I used to play with one cymbal; now I have five, and I use them all for different effects. I just don’t put them up there for show. I got them to use them for different things that I do. Every cymbal means something different to me; they’re totally different instruments. And the way I attack a cymbal, where I think it should go, and what it should sound like—it’s just an idea. It doesn’t have to be right, but I keep trying different things. I’ll listen to other drummers and listen to their approach on the cymbal. Sometimes it doesn’t suit me. Sometimes I think about what I could do with it, but I can’t do it yet because I haven’t reached that level yet, you understand? I think the cymbal should be approached in a different way, and it will be in the future; some kids will take it somewhere else. It won’t have to be ding ding-a-ding, because every beat should be swinging, not just 2 and 4.”
That’s certainly one of the hallmarks of the Art Blakey style, as on a tune like “Blues March” where he plays the Texas shuffle very much on the upbeat. And generally, even when he’s crushing the hi-hats on 2 and 4 with swaggering ferocity, Art Blakey will be accenting on the 1.
“That’s because what I’m doing now is innovating on the upbeat. The upbeat is just as important as the downbeat. That’s what I’m trying to get people to see, especially the musicians. Horn players have to see that the upbeat is vitally important; before you hit down, you hit up. Do you see what I mean? So instead of just riding the cymbals like dang dudu-dang dudu-dang, I’ll go bang on the one: BAM dang-du-dang dang-du-dang dang-dudang dang-du BAM, and it scares them, and turns them around. The upbeat is first and it’s important. They have to be made to realize that. All the old drummers used to emphasize the first beat, especially Papa Jo. Now I don’t do that; I turn it around and go somewhere else. That frees me a lot to do other things. Sometimes I may do that in a two-bar or a one-bar break; I may play four or six upbeats and let them know where I’m at, before I come in and go ding-a-ding.
“And it’s fun. I love to keep everything going on at once and everything swinging. The only way to do that is to relax. When I get tight, I can’t. I feel myself getting tight every now and then. You know what I mean? Now I’m getting older and I can’t keep that intensity if I’m tight. Like double speed [hums an aggressive Art Blakey phrase]: I don’t do that anymore.
“Sometimes, when cats are playing solos, I may not play the first chorus. Then on the second chorus, I come in with maybe just tom-toms, but no cymbals. On the third chorus, I bring in the hi-hats in 3/4 or 6/8; the bass drum is still moving all this time. Then I just make a roll way late and bring the cymbals in, and man, this makes such a difference in the color. It makes such a difference to the soloist too. It makes cats play different and think different and everything. Oh, man, it’s just so fantastic the way you can do them. Like when we were playing in Japan; at that time the band with Freddie [Hubbard] had just gotten it together. He’d learned the arrangements and we were just starting to play on them a little. I got them to use a lot of dynamics, and they played so much music that night, I’m telling you. When we closed the number, we closed the show, and after that all of them cats—Wayne [Shorter] and Freddie, and Cedar [Walton] and Jymmie [Merritt] and Curtis [Fuller]—ran up on to the drum riser, and they kissed me. They kissed me. They said, ‘Goddddddaammmn, Blakey.’ You know, it’s just the idea of using dynamics, which is what I was telling them all the time. I said, ‘Don’t get out there and blow your brains out; you ain’t got nothing to prove. Why don’t you sit down and let’s play some music, starting real soft and then build, you see?’
“I mean, dynamics are so important to the music as a whole—to making the music relaxed and exciting. Drummers have to understand their role in the band and how important each part of the kit is to the section sound. Like playing the bass drum: A lot of drummers today have no bottom. They talk about punctuating, but they don’t keep that feeling in there, and that bass drum is the basis of the whole thing. And if you let that go it sounds like . . . well, opinions are like ass holes— everybody has one—but it sounds like shit to me. That ain’t the way it’s supposed to go, because the drummer is supposed to play in the rhythm section. So if drummers come out of there and start playing for themselves, then it’s all lost.
“And rarely, if ever, will you see anybody pick up a pair of brushes. Oh, you might see old Papa Jo or Philly Joe or Max Roach. If you’re a drummer, you should be able to play them, and most drummers don’t even own a pair. Who are they kidding? They’ve got a bunch of great big parade mallets and you can’t hear the piano; you can only imagine you hear the piano. You have to imagine you’re hearing the bass, because the drummer is too damn loud. They don’t know anything about dynamics. They know about it, but they won’t do it. I don’t know why.”
When Blakey speaks (and speaks and speaks) about drumming, he invariably comes back to one or two key points, such as the role the drummer played in the development of American music. As one of the main movers in the rhythmic-melodic-harmonic collaborations that shaped our music (Monk and Blakey; Max Roach and Charlie Parker; Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie; Miles and Philly Joe and Tony Williams), his words have extra meaning—particularly when zeroing in on the Americaness of jazz, and the essential color blindness of its essence.
“From Dixieland to rhythm & blues, rock, funk or whatever they want to call it, the only thing that changed that music was the drummer. It was the beat in relation to the melody. This rock thing came out called ‘The New Orleans Beat,’ where they locked the drummers in to a certain beat. The drummer became the timekeeper again, like way back in ragtime, you understand, where all the drummer did was keep time. So you see, the pendulum swings back and forth; there’s nothing new under the sun. And who changed it? It was the drummers.
“And another thing that’s always goofed me up is that, since so many of the great jazz musicians are black, they try to connect us up to Africa, but I’m an American black man. We ain’t got no connection to Africa I imagine some of my people come from Africa, but there are some Irish people in there, too, so I’m all messed up. The idea of it is that I’m a human being and it don’t make no difference where I come from. But I know that if I weren’t an American, I wouldn’t be able to go to places and do the things I do, and I appreciate it, because this is a great, great country. In the end, we’ll come out alright. I may not be here to see it, but I’m planting the seeds. It’s certainly a lot better now than it was in 1955, 1950, 1945 . . . oh, man!— 200% better. I feel better about it; I see the progress; the musicians are more advanced—not more talented in playing, but more disciplined. And I’m really proud of them.
“So I can’t understand about jazz having such a hard time of it. And they’re trying to put it off in the corner as being black. Jazz is American; it ain’t got a damn thing to do with color. I’ll take kids from any part of the world; if they want to play jazz, I’ll put them in my band and they’ll play jazz—and really play it, too. And if they continue with it, they can become some of the great competitors of our time with it, and take jazz somewhere else.
“Once an idea is brought forth to the world, it doesn’t belong to the individual, or the individuals who brought forth the idea: It belongs to the whole world. But what I’m here for is to see that the ones who bring forth the idea get the credit. Not the money—the credit. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and all these people should get the credit. It has nothing to do with race. It wasn’t just Louis Armstrong; all of these white musicians who came along at the same time were ostracized for playing this music. It was funny, because the white musician was playing the so-called chamber music in all these big hotels. If you know your history of Count Basie, he was booked by John Hammond into a white hotel in Pittsburgh, and that was unheard of. Many of the big hotels in New York had black orchestras. I thought it was very unfair that all those great, black jazz orchestras were out there setting a standard for jazz music, and they turn around, get Paul Whiteman and say he was the King of Swing. The only way he could swing was from a rope. So they did that—a racial thing—and they’re still doing it. Hell, they’re even doing it rock.”
It was in the 1920s, an era of ersatz kings what of swing, post-war boom, flappers and major movers like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, that young Art Blakey came of age. His father was a mulatto, who ran out on Art’s mother after their “shotgun” wedding. Then, when Art was four or five months old, his mother, Marie Roddericker, passed on, and the child was brought up by her first cousin. Growing up in a relative’s household, Art Blakey never suspected that he wasn’t part of the family. He was shocked by the resentment of his brothers and sisters. He was about 13 when he found out the truth. “She had two kids of her own, and you know how kids are— jealous. When they told me she wasn’t my mother, that just tore me up. When I found that out, I didn’t say nothing. I just split.”
His childhood aborted, young Blakey found himself working in a grimy, dangerous Pennsylvania steel mill. “I worked open hearth at Jones & Laughlin in Pittsburgh. When the steel gets ready, you stand up on a little platform, you tap the furnace, the steel comes out white hot, runs down a ladle and into a pot. It burns all the hair off your face. You’re standing up there with goggles on, and if you take them off the rubber just stays around your face, making you look like a raccoon. You’ve got your regular steel-toed work shoes and wooden shoes under that. I was all of 14. Being a little guy, I thought I was going to get away easy, but they put the little guys right up there on the platform, because big guys can’t move around there. Also, I didn’t drink. A lot of those guys drank a lot, and they’d fall in. It was white heard was ‘AAAAAaaeeeee’ and that was that. It happened twice when I was there. I was earning $38 a week, saying to myself, ‘I can’t take this. I have to get out of here.'”
So, as it was for many other young black men and women of that time, music (or show business or sports) offered not only an escape from the depression, but a ray of hope for something much better. Having knocked around on the piano for a number of years, Blakey was able to put together a little band, install himself as musical director, and land a steady gig at the Ritz Club in Pittsburgh. “We’d make $38 a night in tips,” Art enthuses, still shuddering at his narrow escape from the steel mill. “Our tips were just unreal. Some weekends people would be drunk and partying and feeling good. We might pull in $60 a night. I had a ball, just had a baaawll. That’s when the life really started for me in the clubs.”
And as is the case with countless other great jazz musicians, though the expression might come out in the clubs, the inspiration came from the church. “But see, the church I went to was quite different from rock.” any other church, because they didn’t allow any musical instruments in there what of so ever. The choir was a cappella. They clapped their hands and stomped their feet. Oh yeah, all the time—swinging. And all of them didn’t clap like this [on 2 and 4]; some of them clapped like this [1-2-3-4] at different tempos. They had, and they still have, all sorts of polyrhythms going in the church. And that amazed me.
“Then when I went to school, they had a band. I wanted to play trumpet, but Mr. Kelly told me ‘Your chops are too big,’ so he gave me a tuba. I didn’t want to be playing no tuba, so I got out of that, went to work, and boy it was rough. But there was a piano around the house and I used to play on that all the time. And the woman who raised me had a son who played the piano. I heard a lot from him, and I tried to do what he was doing. I learned to play in a couple of keys. I went out, got a band and began to play. I was cool until Erroll Garner came along and sat in. Erroll Garner was playing, man. I had to play drums because I couldn’t play piano as good as he could. I didn’t even have time to study them. I just had to pick it up from different people, like Chick. I’d ask them about stuff when they came through Pittsburgh.”
So when did Blakey first have a drum? “HAVE ONE? The night I started playing ’em! The drummer in my band had a whole set, and when I couldn’t do the show, Erroll played the show. They played a record of the tune they wanted. When it got to the piano part, I couldn’t read and I couldn’t play it. Erroll had been sitting in a corner. He heard it and he played it. So the guy who owned the joint called me over; he had a Magnum hanging on his side—gangsters, you know. He said, ‘Play the drums.’ And I said, ‘Well, damn, pretty soon you’ll want to be up there calling the tunes and directing the sets.’ The owner asked how long I had been working there. I told him that I didn’t own any drums and the drums that were there belonged to Skippy. He said, “That’s alright, I’ll buy them off the kid. Send him over here to me and I’ll talk to him. ‘So you know what that was about. The kid wasn’t going to take the drums out if they said to leave them. So I just went up there and played the show. How, I’ll never know, but I made it.
“Coordination comes from playing every night. I used to play every night. It didn’t matter how much money I was making, I just had to play every night. When we’d get through playing at night, it was daybreak: 6:00. Then we’d play the breakfast show. After that we’d have a jam session which would go on until like 2:00 in the afternoon. So maybe by 3:00 I’d get to bed, and be back in the club again at 8:30. So I never stopped, really. I was playing all the time so I didn’t have to worry about practicing.
“At home, I didn’t have much time, but when I did, I’d usually just practice on a pillow. I’d never practice on a pad because a pillow would make me pick up my sticks, instead of depending on the rebound of the pad. So I’d practice on the pillow, stretch my wrists and then go off and play. And I’d think about what I was going to do before I did it. I was always thinking about the music, and that’s why I’m not so interested in getting high. Music doesn’t run through my head when I’m getting high. I just get drowsy and go to sleep. So as long as I’m clear, and get enough rest and good food, the music just pours through my head. I’ve always tried to keep a piano around, so I can bang on that to get ideas about what I’m going to play.”
When he wasn’t banging around the club or working out on the pillow, there were a number of drummers in Pittsburgh for Blakey to look up to. “There were a lot of drummers in Pittsburgh. There was Klook [Kenny Clarke], there was a drummer named Jimmy Peck, and then there was a guy named Sammy Carter. But the guy I learned the most from in Pittsburgh—and everybody knows him—was a guy named Honeyboy. That’s the cat who taught me how to play shows. And he could play. But mostly he taught me how to twirl the sticks. I used to throw them up in the air. I had a little thing going and the lights would go out; I got that from Ben Thigpen, Ed Thigpen’s father. I tied a black string to the ceiling, and when they put the black lights on, I’d be twirling. Then I’d throw the stick out into the audience. Everybody would be screaming and ducking. The stick would come back to me, I’d catch it and keep on playing.
“Chick Webb saw that and watched me for a long time. After the show, I went over and spoke to him. I told him how pleased I was that he was there. He said, ‘So, you about two years. He asked if I wanted to want to be a drummer?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ So he stay, and I said, ‘Sure.’ So he said, ‘Well said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you, boy, take your get up there and play the drums.’ I told him snare drum upstairs to the dressing room, I’ll be right up.’ He came in wearing a camel-hair coat and a cap, and brought Ella Fitzgerald and a chihuahua with him. He said, ‘Make a roll, kid,’ and I started rolling—what I thought was a roll. He walked to the door with Ella, pushed her out, turned around, looked at me, went ‘Sheeeeeeeeeet,’ slammed the door and walked away. That was my number one drum lesson with Chick Webb. Another time I went to see him, and I thought I’d hang out with him all night. Instead, he put me upstairs with a metronome, made that damn thing go at the slowest tempo you ever heard, and said, ‘Roll to a hundred, And if you stop, I’ll come upstairs and break your skull.’ That man was some thing. He was a disciplinarian.
“Chick Webb was the master of syncopation. Other drummers were just time keepers in the band—any band. Chick Webb would interpret the arrangements, and the next guy I heard do that was Klook. Interpreting arrangements is so important. Chick brought the drums to the front as a leader. The band would have to follow his cues, and that’s where he brought the drums up front. He had the best sounding black band in the country. They’d broadcast every other day or so. He was the first drummer to syncopate melodic figures off the pulse. Everybody else had to just sit up there and play time. Some drummers might occasionally play some figures with the brass, but most people didn’t want drummers to do that—especially Fletcher Henderson, because his arrangements were so busy that you couldn’t do anything.
“But then Chick Webb came along and different types of arrangements came out of that featuring the drummer—you understand? About that time, Klook was with Edgar Hayes and the Mills Blues Rhythm Orchestra doing ‘Edgar Stepped Out,’ and you could hear Klook punctuating the arrangements. The first time I saw Klook it was so amazing to me, because he had one big Chinese cymbal, a bass drum and a snare—no sock cymbals. He just had his foot stomping on the floor— lead foot. He played his ass off, and I heard him.
“When you listen to Chick on the last chorus of ‘Liza,’ he’s beating the shit out of them drums; and I still use that lick to this day. [Sings figure] Oh, boy! And he would do this so damn fast. You couldn’t even see his arms move when he took a solo. His arms were extended like a little chimpanzee; he must have had 36 arms, the way he’d play. And I used to see Gene Krupa watching him,” Art giggles. “Man, Gene just used to love to watch him play. Chick Webb was a master of the drums and he knew what he was doing.
“I liked his cymbals. I wanted to get a hold of his cymbals so badly, but I couldn’t do it. I liked the way he got his drums to sound. He liked deep sounding drums. He got the drums to sound like drums. His bass drum was almost as tall as he was, and that used to tickle me. And his foot . . . this is where I learned about controlling the music with the bass drum. When he was playing, no matter what the speed or the tempo of the tune, his foot never stopped. He’d always control that pedal and keep the bass drum right up under the bass fiddle. All of a sudden he might go BOOOMPH and drop in an accent. But he never let up.
“Chick Webb would be juggling his sticks and crossing his arms. His cymbals hung upside down on a hook on a leather strap. He didn’t have anything to tilt them with, but he would tilt them and control the angle as he played them. He was the first drummer to play up there, riding the cymbals; they call that Eastern drumming. The sock cymbal and the snare drum—that was Jo Jones’s thing, and that’s Western drumming. Chick Webb was a master and an inspiration.”
It was during Blakey’s stint as a timekeeper with the Fletcher Henderson band that he came up against his other inspirational elder, the imposing but graceful Mr. Sid Catlett. “I was playing a show, had on my dark glasses, and had some gin in my pocket that I was sipping through a straw. When I came off, he came running up to me and said, ‘Man, you played that show beautifully, baby.’ He was so huge, you know, and he picked me up to hug me. He felt that bottle and said, ‘What?’ So he put me down and BAM!—knocked me cold. Then he threw some water on me and said, ‘Until you master that instrument, I don’t want to see you drinking. You understand me?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ and I flew upstairs to my dressing room! He was a hell of a man to do that for me, because I was in trouble, but he set me straight in a hurry. When I went to rehearsals, he’d say to me, ‘Hey man, what did Chick teach you?’ I’d answer, ‘He taught me how to roll.’ So Sid would say, ‘What do you do when you get in trouble?’ When I’d tell him that I didn’t know, Sid would say, ‘Roll.’
“That’s how I learned the drums, and I thought I was a bitch when I joined Billy Eckstine. I was playing behind Sarah[Vaughan] one night, and I had a little shuffle going. Dizzy walked up to me, while the band was playing a show, and said, ‘Blakey, what the hell are you doing?’ When I told him that I didn’t know, he asked, ‘Well, why are you doing it?’ I answered, ‘Because I heard Cozy Cole doing it behind you.’ And Dizzy said, ‘That’s why he ain’t here.'”
And so it was that Art Blakey’s early germination led him to become an elder himself, but not before passing through gigs with Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams and other masters of the swing era. Then, a call from singer Billy Eckstine brought him to the drum chair of the most advanced big band of the ’40s, a proving ground for the young firebrands who would become the jazz masters and movers of the next 20 years. From there, as the big band era died down, Art Blakey emerged from the experience very much his own man (as air checks of the Eckstine band from 1945 will prove, even though, as Art Puts it, “Nobody knew but me and the musicians.”).
It was during this period that Blakey began his fruitful collaborations with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Buddy DeFranco and other young beboppers. It was also during this period that Blakey attempted to hold the spirit of the Eckstine band intact with the formation of the Seventeen Messengers; emerging from the ashes of this big band were his small combos with Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson and so many of the leading lights of modern jazz (and even contemporary crossover) that it’s almost pointless to mention all of the players who I graduated from the University of Blakey. Fiercely competitive (in the sense of daring soloists to go beyond their limitations), the various Jazz Messengers organizations of the past 30 years have set the standard for small-combo jazz. Much as the Eckstine band was an attempt to play big band style like a combo, the Jazz Messengers have succeeded over the years in taking a bare bones combo and filling out the skeleton like a big band.
It was during this period as well that Blakey (as the de facto house drummer for Blue Note Records) became one of the most recorded drummers in jazz history, playing with the likes of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols and on and on . . . “With Fletcher Henderson I was nothing but a timekeeper. We never did get to play anything in Fletcher’s band—maybe on a Basic arrangement or a Claude Thornhill arrangement, but generally I was just keeping time because the arrangements were so busy. Any drummer could have done that, which is why I left. Mary Lou’s thing was a little combo, just straight ahead. She didn’t care what you played; you had freedom. There wasn’t any set thing like there was with Fletcher. Jimmy Lunceford was a set thing. Count Basie was a set thing. You can’t come to Count Basie and play bebop—impossible. This is Count Basie. If you play in Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra, then you play bebop, up to a point, because Dizzy likes that bass drum, and if you ain’t got the bass drum going, you’re in trouble, because he’s going to tell you about it. Charlie Parker was quite different. You could play anything you wanted. He didn’t care. He was Charlie Parker, and he was just above that. And that’s the way it was with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and certain guys like that.
“Duke was something else, and in his band you just became an Ellington musician. That’s what I admired about him. All the cats that left him had to come back because they couldn’t make it. He was just so slick, and that was the style of his music. I played with him when Louis Bellson was with him. When Louis married Pearl Bailey, they were in Europe, and they got Elvin [Jones]. Elvin scared them to death, going ahead playing his thing. So Duke called me and I met them when they hit Omaha or something. I played with them a couple of weeks, and I played Duke Ellington; I didn’t go in playing Art Blakey. I played what he wanted to hear. I’d heard Sonny [Greer] and Louis, so I knew the way his music went. He asked me about it: ‘Hey, baby I really love you; how did you come in able to do that?’ I told him that I listened to his records, and he said, ‘Well, you didn’t come in here trying to do something else.’ I said, ‘Well, sir, I try to let the punishment fit the crime.’ He fell out; he said, ‘Art—you crazy.’
“Thelonious Monk—there was real freedom. If you didn’t play the drums, he’d get upset about it. And the way I played with him on records set a precedent for the drum style, because cats who played with him from then on had to play in that vein. We were close and I understood what he was doing. Well…I didn’t understand it, but I would play my thing and sort of melt into it. I’m not going to say I understood it, because I used to argue with him all the time about time, rhythms, tempos, chords and the way he would do things. He was much more advanced than I was. I just liked to argue because I was close to him, and we were friends. I’d say things to him that nobody else would say to him. Same thing with Dizzy. I’ll say things to a lot of the top musicians that nobody can say to them, because we grew up together. That makes a difference. Monk would get mad, and I’d say, ‘Until you prove me wrong and show me that you’re right, you’re wrong.’ This is the way we’d argue, but, out of respect, nobody else was going to do that. You don’t do that, any more than I would have gone up and said that to Pops. I wouldn’t have said that to him. That was Pops; that was Louis Armstrong, right or wrong. I wouldn’t have said that to Duke or to Basie. I knew Duke. He’d kiss me on the cheek, straighten up my hair, and set me straight. I’d have done anything in the world for him. Same with Basic. They could have said anything to me, but I wouldn’t have talked back because I respected them. If I agreed, okay; if I disagreed, okay.
“And Monk . . . man, wasn’t he some thing? He sure didn’t say much, but what he said was profound. Guys would come around high, talking about [affects hipster dialect] ‘Hey baby, what’s happening? Monk, you going to give me a gig?’ This one cat was a trumpet player who thought he was really bad—thought he was in a class with Dizzy, for God’s sake. He wanted Monk to tell him what he thought of his playing, you understand? So Monk never said much or passed opinions. But this cat kept pushing him to tell him what he thought. So Monk said, ‘You sure play a lot just to be playing nothing.’ Man, I loved that. He fixed that guy.
“That same cat was up there with Dizzy. He said, ‘Hey, give me the changes to “Night In Tunisia,” and I’ll come up and blow with you man.’ So Dizzy said, ‘Okay, but son, when you get up there, don’t be fooled by what you heard last set, because when you get up there on that stage you become my competitor and I’m going to put the fire up under your ass,'” Blakey laughs. “He packed up his horn and split. You better get some sense before you go running up there on the bandstand. Sit down and listen; you might learn something. My son did that in Birdland years ago. He’d just graduated from high school. He went up on stage and played. All the women were screaming. So I went up there and turned Wayne and Freddie loose on ‘Children Of The Night.’ He leaned over to me and said, ‘Hey, pop, lighten up, man. Lighten up.’ And I said, ‘It’s your ass buddy, if you come up here on this stage. This is my business; this is my stage. You are my competitor. So when you come up here, you’d better be ready, because I’m going to try to sweep you off— with love.’
“It used to be that way with Lou Donaldson and Clifford Brown. Lou would play his ass off, and he’d turn to Clifford and say, ‘Okay, follow that!‘ And Clifford would say [little squeaky voice] ‘Okay, if you want me to.’ Clifford would go whoosh! and just sweep Lou off the stage. Lou would say, ‘I didn’t tell you to play like that…damn.’ They were funny. That used to go on every night. You can hear the fire between them on the records. The group wasn’t that hip, but it sure was swinging. Clifford is one of my favorites. He sure was sweet. If Clifford had lived, who knows what would have happened? He put it all together: Fats, Dizzy, Miles.
“And Charlie Parker—man, do I miss him. He was one of a kind; that’s for sure. I first met him in a train station in St. Louis. He was with Earl Hines and I was with Fletcher. The saxophone player in our band introduced me to him, because I was always a Willie Smith fan. And here’s this cat coming through the station with a tenor saxophone, so high he could hardly hold it, and he was trying to go somewhere. But that’s where I met him. When I first heard him play, I was the most shocked I could be. I never heard anybody play like that before or since.”
Art then expresses shock when he brings up the training grounds of bebop, the Billy Eckstine Band, mentions the tune “Cottage For Sale,” and I draw a blank. “Yeah, well, I guess you had to be there, because that band never really recorded; we got caught up in that jive Petrillo recording ban. And the records they did release are about as sad as McKinley’s funeral; even the horses cried. However, Walter Davis got this record they released in Japan which captures that band in a live date, and that’s something you’ve got to hear—Charlie Parker playing first alto, Dizzy playing first trumpet, Freddie Webster, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Freddie Webster, Ooooooooooooh! What a band, what a band, what a band! What a hell of a band! That band should have been a concert band. That’s what Billy always said, because that’s what it was. But at that time people were used to dance bands. Like you said, the idea of that band was for a big band to play like a small combo, and that’s what we did. They didn’t read music. They gave you two or three weeks to learn the book, and if you didn’t commit it to memory, you were fired. You followed the first alto, who was Charlie Parker, and whatever he decided to do that night, you had better follow, because he was playing lead alto. Wherever the first trumpet led, you followed. Wherever the first trombone led, you followed.”
Yet somehow this spirit was captured in the work of the Jazz Messengers, with their intricate arrangements and voicings. “Horace Silver’s stuff? The only thing wrong with Horace Silver was that we had to break him, because he wanted his arrangements played a certain way every night, and I didn’t work that way. We might rehearse an arrangement, and play it that night. A month later, you would hear it after the band had been playing it for a while, and it would sound like a different arrangement. Everybody has changed, and they’ve made mistakes. The idea of playing jazz is to be professional enough to make a mistake, make the same mistake again and then make something out of that. That’s jazz: That’s jazz! And if you ain’t professional enough to do that, then you ain’t a professional jazz musician. Now I’m not saying you’re not a good musician, but if you don’t know your instrument enough to go back and make that mistake twice, and do something creative with it, forget it. Because that’s how jazz was born: Somebody goofed.
“Erroll Garner was at a seminar and he explained himself and what he could do. This fool jumped up and asked [stiff, parochial voice] ‘Can you play an A7 chord with a flatted ninth?’ And Erroll said, ‘Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, I’ll play the hell out of it.’ Erroll would make anything fit. If it didn’t work, he would make it fit. That’s why he had to have special bass players to play with him, because whatever the chord in the tune, he’d make the chord fit whatever he played; he would drive it right through and it would sound good. And I think that’s what being a musician is.”
But there are musicians, and then there are leaders and leaders who produce leaders. That is Mr. Art Blakey. He’s still carrying on the traditions of his elders, bringing along youngsters and allowing them to fine tune their concepts, putting the fire to their ass when necessary—with love.
“My current band is really good, but I’m going to switch up the guys pretty soon. I got me some cats, and there are so many young kids out there who need the opportunity. I don’t want nobody in my band too long, because this ain’t no Modern Jazz Quartet. When cats stay too long, they get complacent, get big heads, and then it’s time to get out, buddy, because there are no stars in this band: The band is the star. When you keep cats too long, they start to get a little too relaxed. Besides, I like to hear different interpretations. About my favorite Jazz Messenger group was the one with Wayne, Freddie, Curtis, Jymmie and Cedar. Musicians like that don’t come along all the time, but if you keep combing the woods, one will turn up sooner or later. And when they get strong enough to be on their own, I let them know it—time to do your own thing. See, a lot of things that happen in my band, I don’t agree with, but I want to give it a chance to develop because there are some heavy young people out there. Wait until you hear this young tenorist, Marshall Ivory. He’s fire personified. And this young bassist Charnett Moffett—he’s only 16, but when he’s through with high school, he’s coming with me.”
Evening is upon us, and Art Blakey is talked out. Time to rest up for a few hours, then off to Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theatre to preside at the “Art Blakey Morning Jam Sessions,” beginning at three in the morning. He lectures me on the importance of family (“Every week there should be a day set aside just for you and your daughter. Some time that belongs to nobody but her—not even your wife”); on the importance of diet; and the importance of music—music of the past, present and future. “Technology is here to stay, and there ain’t no reason to fight it. It’ll change things for the better, just as soon as the kids learn what to do with it. I think it’s great. I was talking to Herbie Hancock about that record he did with all them computers, and he said, ‘Art, man, it’s something else.’ Ha. Technology is amazing. But then, so are people. Get them both in tune and you got chemistry.
“Yeah,” he reflects, considering a long, fruitful life, and the new life to come, “I’m looking forward to seeing what the future has in store. And I’m going to hang around for a while to enjoy it.”
Classic Blakey Trademarks
Art Blakey’s explosive jazz drumming style is characterized by a powerful drive and rock steady time, both of which remain unmatched in the hard-bop idiom. Blakey can light a fire under any soloist or ensemble with his hard-driving energy. Here’s a look at a few of the elements that make up the burning Blakey style.
The distinguishable Blakey time feel is noticeably intense for several reasons: (1) Heavy accentuation of 2 and 4 in the right-hand time pattern, activated by a whip-like wrist action which moves in a circular motion over the ride cymbal. (2) A biting hi-hat which supports and blends with the solid cymbal work. (3) A remarkable ability to stay on the very front edge of the beat, without rushing, which gives a strong sensation of forward momentum.
The penetrating click of head and rim (butt end of stick placed across the snare drum rim) on the fourth beat of every bar is another Blakey technique used to nail down the time behind soloists and ensembles.
The Press Roll Roar
Another dominant trademark of the powerful Blakey style is the roaring snare drum roll placed a: the end of phrases, or as a lead-in to a new soloist. The dramatic effect of this technique is enhanced by the crescendo as the roll swells from a whisper to a roar.
Blakey will often interrupt the flow of the biting 2 and 4, to incorporate the hi-hat as an independent rhythmic voice behind a soloist. Quarter-note triplets which sing out beneath the time beat is one approach.
The Afro-Cuban Feel
The West African flavor is prevalent in much of Blakey’s music and no analysis of his playing would be complete without a glimpse at one Afro-Cuban rhythm applied to the drumset. The pattern below is from “Caravan,” Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers: Caravan (Riverside 438).
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