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Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger, Jazz Mentor

Art Blakey counts Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard among his Jazz Messengers alumni. And that's the short list.
Roland Godefroy
Art Blakey counts Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard among his Jazz Messengers alumni. And that's the short list.

Ninety years ago — on Oct. 11, 1919 — one of the greatest bandleaders and drummers in jazz was born in Pittsburgh, Penn. That man was Art Blakey. For more than 30 years, from the mid-1950s until his death in 1990, he led The Jazz Messengers, a band which became a sort of graduate school and springboard for some of the greatest jazz players of all time; from Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson and beyond.

In this birthday salute, we present five pieces of music that broadly suggest the arc of Blakey's phenomenal career and the number of jazz giants who performed in the great drummer's ever-changing family of blossoming jazz talent. Even though we only have room for five songs, here are the musicians you'll hear in this set with Blakey: Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Doug Watkins, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Curtis Fuller, Reggie Workman, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Billy Pierce, James Williams, Charles Fambrough, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Mulgrew Miller and Lonnie Plaxico. Not bad for starters, huh?

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Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger, Jazz Mentor

The Preacher

We start our salute to Art Blakey with a recording he made in 1955, when he was co-leader of the band Horace Silver and The Jazz Messengers. Pianist Silver wrote "The Preacher," and the band was rounded out by saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and bassist Doug Watkins. These were the players who set the bar for future musicians who aspired to become one of Blakey's many Messengers. (Oddly enough, though "The Preacher" would become one of Silver's signature tunes, it almost didn't make it onto this LP. The producer, Alfred Lion, thought it was too "old-timey." Silver and Blakey put their collective foot down and the song stayed, much to the delight of generations of jazz lovers.)


In 1956, Horace Silver took Mobley, Dorham and Watkins and formed a new group, using a variety of drummers. Blakey took the Jazz Messengers name and began to forge his own legacy as a bandleader. He left Blue Note Records for a while, but when he returned in 1958, the first thing he did was make one of The Jazz Messengers' most archetypal and popular releases, Moanin'. The title track, written by the group's pianist, Bobby Timmons, has become a jazz standard. It was an immediate hit as an instrumental and gained wider recognition in the late '50s, when lyricist Jon Hendricks put words to the song for his vocal group, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Although the song, "Moanin'," is similar in feel to "The Preacher," much of the rest of the material on this LP pointed toward the hard-bop path that Blakey would follow for the rest of his life. On Moanin', Blakey and Timmons are joined by Benny Golson (saxophone), Lee Morgan (trumpet) and Jymie Merritt (bass).

One by One

By now, the Messengers' mission was clearly hard bop, and from 1959 to '64, one of the key ingredients to fulfilling that mission was tenor saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. "One by One" is one of many compositions and arrangements that Shorter contributed to The Jazz Messengers' repertoire. The other members of the group on this 1963 recording are Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Cedar Walton (piano), Curtis Fuller (trombone) and Reggie Workman (bass).

In Case You Missed It

Most of the musicians in the Shorter-era Jazz Messengers were a generation younger than their leader. (Blakey was 24 years older than Shorter, for example.) As Blakey once said, "I'm gonna stay with the youngsters. Keeps the mind active." As time went on, that's exactly what he did. This 1981 edition of The Jazz Messengers featured some of the hottest young players on the scene at that time: alto saxophonist Bobby Watson (who also wrote this song), Billy Pierce on tenor sax, James Williams on piano and bassist Charles Fambrough. Oh, and a very promising, very young trumpeter from New Orleans named Wynton Marsalis.

Blue Night

Although Blakey's health began to fail in the 1980s, he continued to record and tour until shortly before his death in 1990. Right to the end, he continued to discover, mentor and present to the world great young jazz players. This band from the mid-'80s features Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Donald Harrison (saxophone), Mulgrew Miller (piano) and Lonnie Plaxico (bassist and composer of this piece). Thus ends a brief tribute to a man with a huge legacy. Although much of that legacy is of Art Blakey as a mentor, it should never overshadow the legacy of Art Blakey as a musician. When you listen to a Blakey recording, no matter who's performing with him, you're listening to one of the greatest bebop drummers in jazz history. After all, all those great young players who joined his band did so to learn from the best.

Nick Morrison