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Miles Davis circa 1955; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Cover of Sheet Music by Fats Waller
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Biographies, Life and times of the great ones Billie Holiday in Performance 1948; Benny Goodman 1936; Art Blakey at the Open Door in NYC; Awning of Village Vanguard 1960's
Art Blakey

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Buhaina, Abdullah ibn (1919 -1990) Drummer and bandleader

Audio sample Ms. B.C. by Art Blakey
Recorded 1981
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)

Art Blakey received some piano lessons at school and by seventh grade was playing music full-time, leading a commercial band. Shortly afterwards, he changed to drums, on which he taught himself to play in the aggressive swing style of Chick Webb, Sid Catlett, and Ray Bauduc. In autumn 1942, he joined Mary Lou Williams for an engagement at Kelly's Stable in New York. He then played with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from 1943-4, with whom he made a long tour of the South. After leaving Henderson, Blakey briefly led a big band in Boston before joining Billy Eckstine's new band in St. Louis. During his years with Eckstine from 1944-7, Blakey became associated with the modern-jazz movement along with his fellow band members Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, and others.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Art Blakey
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend The Best of Art Blakey (Blue Note).

When Eckstine disbanded his group in 1947, Blakey organized the Seventeen Messengers, a rehearsal band, and recorded with an octet called the Jazz Messengers, the first of his many groups bearing this name. He then traveled in Africa for more than a year to learn about Islamic culture. In the early 1950s, he performed and broadcast with such musicians as Charlie Parker, Davis, Clifford Brown, and particularly with Horace Silver, his kindred musical spirit at this time. After recording together several times, in 1955 Blakey and Silver formed a cooperative group with Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham, retaining the name Jazz Messengers. Silver left the following year taking leadership of this important band, and he has been associated with it from then on.

Art Blakey
Photograph by Lee Tanner
The Jazz Messengers were the archetypal hard-bop group of the late 1950s, playing a driving, aggressive extension of bop with pronounced blues roots. Over the years the Jazz Messengers have served as a springboard for young jazz musicians such as Donald Byrd, Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, Woody Shaw, JoAnne Brackcen, and Wynton Marsalis . In addition to his numerous tours and recordings with the Messengers, Blakey also made a world tour in 1971-2 with the Giants of Jazz (with Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, and Al McKibbon) and frequently appeared as a soloist at the Newport Jazz Festival, most memorably in a drum battle with Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Elvin Jones in 1974. He continued to maintain a busy performing schedule into the 1980s. Among his sidemen from 1982 were Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, and in 1987 he was leading a septet of young musicians including the trombonist Delfayo Marsalis and the pianist Benny Green.

Image courtesy of Chuck Stewart
Although Blakey discourages comparison of his own music with African drumming, he adopted several African devices after his visit in 1948-9, including rapping on the side of the drum and using his elbow on the tom-tom to alter the pitch. Later he organized recording sessions with multiple drummers, including some African musicians and pieces. His much-imitated trademark, the forceful closing of the hi-hat on every second and fourth beat, has been part of his style since 1950-51.

Blakey is a major figure in modern jazz and an important stylist in drums. From his earliest recording sessions with Eckstine, and particularly in his historic sessions with Monk in 1947, he exudes power and originality, creating a dark cymbal sound punctuated by frequent loud snare and bass drum accents in triplets or cross-rhythms. A loud and domineering drummer, Blakey also listens and responds to his soloists. His contribution to jazz as a discoverer and molder of young talent over three decades is no less significant than his very considerable innovations on his instrument.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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