802 Bookshelf: “Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger”

by Leslie Gourse, Schirmer Trade Books, 209 pages, $25, hardcover

Volume CIII, No. 7/8July, 2003

With this book, Ms. Gourse adds another winner to her admirable list of biographies of jazz musicians. She gives an interesting account of Art Blakey’s life and career, from his birth into poverty in 1919 in Pittsburgh, to his death from lung cancer in 1990. She has combed through the existing sources on Blakey and has interviewed many people who had contact with him, weaving the material into a fascinating narrative.

During his life, Blakey established himself as a unique drummer and a strong leader whose group, the Jazz Messengers, lived up to its name for 37 years, carrying their swinging message all over the world. Blakey was skillful in recognizing and hiring young talent. He mentored a long list of side musicians who became well-known jazz soloists and composers. He estimated that at least two hundred had played with the Messengers at different times.

Blakey’s father left his mother before he was born, and his mother died when he was 21 months old. His mother’s relatives raised him. Expelled from school at the age of 14, he started his musical career as a self-taught piano player in a Pittsburgh bar. He was also interested in the drums, and when the prodigiously talented young Erroll Garner appeared on the scene, the club owner told Blakey to let the kid play piano, and to play the drums instead. Art often told his audiences, “That’s the reason I do what I’m doing today. I was told to do it, and I did it. I didn’t have no choice, and music beat working in steel mills.”

As a drummer, Blakey developed a powerful style that swung mightily. He took an unsuccessful band to California in 1936, returned to Pittsburgh, and then joined Mary Lou Williams’s group in 1942. He traveled to New York with Williams, playing with her at Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street, his first major exposure. A year later, on tour with Fletcher Henderson’s band in the South, he suffered a head injury in a fracas with some white men. Doctors put a steel plate in his head and told him they did not expect him to live long.

Ignoring the doctors’ expectations, Blakey moved to Boston and led his own band at a club there. Then Billy Eckstine put together a big band with Dizzy Gillespie as musical director, and hired Blakey as his drummer. When that band broke up in 1947, Blakey stayed in New York, freelancing. He organized a big band, the Seventeen Messengers, but it was not successful. The following year he took a job on a ship going to West Africa, and there he converted to Islam and took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. After that, most of his friends and colleagues called him “Bu.”

Back in New York in the early 1950’s, Blakey and pianist Horace Silver organized a quintet that became known as the Jazz Messengers. Blakey continued to work with that group, sometimes a sextet, sometimes a septet, with myriad personnel changes, until the end of his life. He and his group became internationally famous on the jazz circuit, working a heavy schedule of concerts and club appearances and recording frequently. Besides Blakey’s many recordings as a side musician with other groups, he made more than 125 recordings with the Jazz Messengers, which were often repackaged and sold in new combinations. Many bootleg albums made from their concert appearances have also been released.

Ms. Gourse occasionally found it difficult to pin down certain details of Blakey’s personal history because he told the same story quite differently on different occasions. He appears to have been more interested in telling a good story than in an accurate adherence to the facts. But he seems to have always been very serious about his mission as a jazz musician. He would exhort his audiences to support the music. “Go out and buy a jazz record&it doesn’t have to be one of mine.”

Along with a history of Blakey’s musical triumphs, Ms. Gourse gives us many stories of a more personal nature, including the way he dealt with his managers, with several wives and countless amours, with his use of drugs, with his musicians. She has included eight pages of photographs, a chronology of Blakey’s life, and a collection of his “Words of Wisdom, Mantras and Maxims.”

–Bill Crow