Art Blakey's Legacy: A Rallying Cry And A Gathering Place

Oct 11, 2019
Originally published on October 12, 2019 4:56 am

Art Blakey was born 100 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1919, and America's homegrown music — jazz — might not sound quite like it does today if it weren't for the influence of the late drummer.

"I would call Art Blakey's music the spine of the jazz tradition post-World War II," Giovanni Russonello, a music critic for The New York Times, says. According to Russonello, Blakey's rhythmic groove set the pace for jazz in the second half of the 20th century. "He was playing music that was meant to pull people together, and that was why I think he became such a great mentor, such a great carrier of the tradition and passing on of the tradition. That beat was magnetic. That beat was a rallying cry [and] it was also a gathering place."

That gathering place became his group, the Jazz Messengers, founded in 1954 with pianist Horace Silver. From the beginning, he sought out talented young musicians and encouraged them to compose for the group. It came to be called "Blakey's University."

Blakey himself learned from his elders. He grew up in Pittsburgh and was playing in jazz clubs as a teenager while working in steel mills during the day. In his 20s, the drummer made a name for himself with some of the biggest big bands and the early beboppers before passing on his knowledge to the next generation.

"[Young musicians need] someplace to hone their arts," Blakey told me in 1986, between sets at the Sweet Basil jazz club in Greenwich Village. "All musicians of my time should be ... nurturing the young cats. Let 'em play. Let 'em come along, because that's the only way the art form is going to live. And [jazz] is the only art form America has."

Wayne Shorter, who went on to become one of the most respected composers and saxophonists in jazz, was 26 years old when he joined The Jazz Messengers in 1959. Blakey's advice to Shorter and all the "students" of Blakey's University — future stars such as Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Clifford Brown and Terence Blanchard — was to "never overplay and don't short [change] your audience," Shorter says.

"He gave us a lot of room to grow, all the time. He wanted us to try things," Terence Blanchard, who was only 19 years old and a trumpet student at Rutgers University when he replaced Wynton Marsalis in 1982, says. "He would tell us, 'Don't rest on what [you] did in the past. You guys have to create your own vision and your own sound with this group.' "

Blanchard went on to lead his own bands and compose music for Spike Lee's films. In four years with Blakey's band, Blanchard says he learned as much from the drummer off the bandstand as he did on it, with Blakey's humility, in particular, leaving a mark.

"He said, 'This is about music. It's about washing away the dust of everyday life for people who have been working all day and want to get away,' " recalls Blanchard. To make " 'a moment in time where they could be divorced away from all the trials and tribulations of the day.' That's what he used to talk to us about — about the importance of being an artist [and] what our role is in society."

And that role was making art that inspired, as Art Blakey said in 1986.

"You can't just think about making money. Because you ain't never going to see an armored car following a hearse. The only thing that follows you to the cemetery is respect. And you must earn it. So that's where I'm at: I chose respect."

Art Blakey died in 1990 at the age of 71. As for respect, from the musicians in his bands and from his audience: He earned it.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jazz might not sound quite like it does today without the influence of the late drummer Art Blakey. For more than half a century, he provided a pulse for the music. And for almost as long, he provided a laboratory in his band for younger musicians who went on to become stars in their own right. Art Blakey was born 100 years ago today, and Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: First and foremost, Art Blakey was an extraordinary drummer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAKEY'S "A NIGHT IN TUNISIA")

GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO: I would call Art Blakey's music the spine of the jazz tradition, post-World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAKEY'S "A NIGHT IN TUNISIA")

VITALE: Giovanni Russonello is a music critic for The New York Times. He says Art Blakey's rhythmic groove set the pace for jazz in the second half of the 20th century.

RUSSONELLO: He was playing music that was meant to pull people together. And that was why I think he became such a great mentor and such a great passer-on of the tradition because that beat was magnetic. That beat was a rallying cry, and it was also a gathering place.

VITALE: And that gathering place became his group, The Jazz Messengers...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "INFRA-RAE")

VITALE: ...Founded in 1954 with piano player Horace Silver.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "INFRA-RAE")

VITALE: From the beginning, Blakey sought out talented young musicians and encouraged them to compose for the group. It came to be called Blakey's University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ART BLAKEY: They can call it what they want. I don't care, long as they spell my name right.

VITALE: In 1986, between sets at the Sweet Basil club in Greenwich Village, Art Blakey told me that he tutored the young musicians in his band in order to keep jazz alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLAKEY: This is the place where their hone their arts. They got to have someplace to hone their arts. And all the musicians of my time should be nurturing the young cats. Got to let 'em play. Let 'em come along. Because that's the only way the art form is going to live in, and it's the only art form America has.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "MOANIN'")

VITALE: Blakey himself learned from his elders. He grew up in Pittsburgh and was playing in jazz clubs as a teenager. In his 20s, he made a name for himself with some of the biggest big bands and the early beboppers. Blakey passed on what he'd learned to the young cats.

WAYNE SHORTER: He said all musicians - opera singers, everybody - should listen to Louis Armstrong sing, tell a story.

VITALE: Saxophonist Wayne Shorter was 26 years old when he joined The Jazz Messengers in 1959. He says he did learn how to tell a story in music by listening to Armstrong and by working on the bandstand with Art Blakey.

SHORTER: He exemplified the curve in an evening of playing music. You have a curve. You go from ground zero, take off, and you reach a plateau, say what you have to say as a soloist, and get out of the way. Art said, never overplay your hands and don't short-guess your audience.

VITALE: Wayne Shorter went on to become one of the most respected composers and saxophonists in jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ MESSENGERS' "LESTER LEFT TOWN")

VITALE: Over the years, graduates of Blakey's University included such future stars as Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Clifford Brown and Terence Blanchard.

TERENCE BLANCHARD: He gave us a lot of room to grow, man, all the time. He wanted us to try things. He would tell us, don't rest on what we did in the past, you guys have to create your own version and your own sound with this group.

VITALE: Blanchard was a 19-year-old trumpet student at Rutgers University when he replaced Wynton Marsalis in The Jazz Messengers in 1982. He went on to lead his own bands and to compose music for Spike Lee's films. In four years with Blakey's band, Blanchard said he learned as much from the drummer off the bandstand as he did on it.

BLANCHARD: He said, this is about music. It's about washing away the dust of everyday life for people who have been working all day and want to get away from all of the trials and tribulations of the day. You know, that's what he used to talk to us about, about the importance of being an artist and what our role is in society.

VITALE: And that role was making art that inspired, as Art Blakey said in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLAKEY: You got to believe in it. You can't just think about making money 'cause you ain't never going to see a armored car following a hearse. The only thing that follow you to the cemetery is respect, and you must earn it. You know? So that's where I'm at. I chose respect.

VITALE: And Art Blakey got it from the musicians in his band and from his audiences.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.