In both deeds and words, Art Blakey was the definition of a dedicated jazz musician, mentor, and musical messenger. His driving, thunderous, and propulsive playing style synthesized the rhythmic approach of West African drumming coupled with American blues.
Among equals in the pantheon of jazz masters that set the pace in the 1940s and ’50s, Blakey brought a new style of swing and efficiency to jazz drumming. Anchored by a persistent hi-hat pulse and the deep sound of his 22″ K Zildjian rides, Blakey streamlined the swinging beat of bebop, making it less busy and erratic. Polyrhythmic rim clicks, a roaring press roll, and strong Afro-Cuban influences were just a few of Art’s distinct contributions to the drumming vernacular.
“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,” Blakey stated in his September 1984 Modern Drummer cover story. “I will not compete that way; I’ll compete through my band. I always liked to innovate with different sounds on the drums, because I came out of that era when the drummer played for effects.”
Blakey was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1919. He began his musical journey on piano, but switched to drums after meeting virtuoso pianist Erroll Garner. “The drum is the second human instrument,” Blakey stated. “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.”
After a short stay in New York, in 1937 Blakey returned to Pittsburgh to form his own band, which featured pianist Mary Lou Williams. In 1939 he joined the Fletcher Henderson band and stayed for three years. This experience led to an opportunity to join the band led by singer Billy Eckstine, the most advanced big band of the 1940s and a proving ground for young players who would become jazz royalty over the next twenty years. In that ensemble, Blakey worked with bebop luminaries Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, and Sarah Vaughan. “The idea of that band was for a big band to play like a small combo,” Blakey said. “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. The last time I saw Charlie Parker, he told me, ‘Make sure the kids play the blues, Art, because it hasn’t all been done yet.’”
After the Eckstine experience, Art formed a short-lived seventeen-piece big band called the Jazz Messengers. Emerging from the ashes of that band was the small group he led for the next several decades. Blakey’s groups featured a who’s who in jazz history, including Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Lou Donaldson, Gene Ramey, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Clifford Brown, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Chuck Mangione, and Keith Jarrett. The list of world-class musicians who graduated from the University of Blakey is vast.
Ride Cymbal Phrasing
Blakey’s wide and consistent cymbal beat is likely an outgrowth of his experience performing with the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine. His ride phrasing changed with the style and tempo of the tune. For example, at slower tempos and implied double-time, he would often use a dotted-8th and 16th-note interpretation. At a medium pace, he would phrase the pattern with an 8th-note–triplet subdivision. At faster tempos, his ride beat would straighten out to an 8th and two 16ths.
Coupled with his ride cymbal was a feathered bass drum that provided buoyancy to the swing feel. “A lot of drummers have no bottom,” stated Blakey. “They talk about punctuating, but they don’t keep that feeling in there, and that bass drum is the basis of the whole thing.”
For added articulation, Blakey would often play soft quarter-note dead strokes on the snare in unison with the bass drum. This helped to add point and forward motion to the swing feeling.
The next batch of exercises illustrate the riff-style snare and bass drum combinations that Art often used while accompanying melodies and soloists. Play each with a crisp hi-hat on beats 2 and 4.
Blakey often played a sharp rim click on beat 4 to lock in the time during ensemble passages and when supporting soloists.
Art would sometimes incorporate an Afro-Cuban conga rhythm between the rim click and small tom to create a more grounded groove.
Blakey also often comped using the second and third partials of the triplet. He would frequently pair this with the hi-hat playing quarter-note triplets on the downbeat or displaced by an 8th-note rest.
Another trademark is Art’s roaring press roll, which he played at the ends of phrases or as a lead-in to a new soloist. “Dynamics are so important to making the music relaxed and exciting,” Blakey stated. “Sid Catlett would always tell me, ‘Art, when you’re in trouble, roll.’”
Art Blakey was the king of the jazz shuffle. Listen to recordings of “Moanin’,” “Dat Dere,” and “Blues March” to hear this groove in action. As you practice the following examples, work on them slowly so that you can develop control of the dead-stroke technique Art used within the shuffle.
Art’s mambo variations had a beautiful lilt and swing to them. He played them with a light touch.
The Art of Blakey: A Select Discography
Art Blakey Quintet A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 /// Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers A Night in Tunisia, Moanin’, The Big Beat, Jazz Messengers!!!!!, Mosaic, Buhaina’s Delight, Caravan, Free for All, Indestructible, The Freedom Rider /// Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music Volumes 1 and 2, Monk’s Music /// Cannonball Adderley Somethin’ Else /// Jimmy Smith The Sermon /// Lee Morgan Tom Cat /// Hank Mobley Roll Call, Soul Station
West African influences are prevalent in much of Blakey’s music. He played the following 6/8 rhythms on the tune “Caravan.”
Blakey’s solo language centered on single-stroke rolls orchestrated around the drumset. He also often played unison 8th-note patterns between the snare and toms. He favored lower tunings, deep-sounding ride cymbals with rivets, and full-bodied but crisp hi-hats. He regularly superimposed 3/4 phrases over 4/4.
Steve Fidyk plays with saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and guitarist Jack Wilkins and is a member of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. He is also on faculty at Temple University and the University of the Arts.