For Art's Sake
“ Perhaps the greatest testament to Blakey's legacy is that the music he created with the Jazz Messengers is timeless, while all those "modern" experiments that passed him by in the mainstream of their time now sound as dated as a white guy with an Afro and earth shoes ”
Drummer and bandleader Art Blakey is driving through a small town when he notices a sparsely-attended graveside service being conducted in the hamlet's cemetery. He stops his car and gets out, perhaps paying his respects to some anonymous soul he would now never even meet. As the pastor's service winds down, a call is made for anyone to come forward with their own remarks. There is a long, awkward silence. Finally, Blakey steps forward. "If no one has anything to say about the deceased, I'd like to say a few words about jazz."
Arthur Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, just days after the tragic Chicago White Sox had lost the World Series in 8 games to the Cincinnati Reds, for which Blakey was banned from baseball for life. The newborn Blakey was not in on the conspiracy to throw the Series, but neither was Sox third baseman Buck Weaver and look what happened to him (go ahead and look, I'll wait here). Some jazz historians believe that the slight of Judge Landis' preemptive ban may have later contributed to Art's thunderous drumming style, an opinion that led to those people also being banned from baseball. Some baseball historians theorize that I've finally gone absolutely barking mad, an opinion that makes me want to fill their shoes with rice pilaf.
Be that as it may.
Blakey's childhood was relatively uneventful. In fact, it was so uneventful that in the initial drafts of this piece, I had to add a whole subplot just to make it interesting enough for the reader to continue on to the important stuff. It was about a bunch of Tibetan monks who believe young Art to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, and so a sinister group of Chinese Communists try to kidnap him. There's some car chases, lots of wuxia-style martial arts, important lessons were learned, and the whole bunch ended up eating huge sandwiches at Primanti Brothers and laughing like old friends. Art briefly becomes the youngest Emperor of China, but steps down because the gig doesn't pay. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it through Microsoft Word's bulls**t filter, and was left with just this paragraph to move the piece along.
Moving along, then.
Blakey's initial instrument of choice was the piano, and he quickly built a reputation around Steeltown as a precocious talent. At the same time, a young Errol Garner was also making a name for himself as a pianist in Pittsburgh, leading to an inevitable showdown between the two future jazz legends. At that time, Pittsburgh had a municipal ordinance limiting musical prodigies to one per instrument as a result of the bloody Zimmerman-Padenko Violin War of 1912-14. Blakey and Garner met in a winner-take-all game of Kick the Can at Forbes Field on March 12, 1934. The tense contest was decided when Blakey's errant kick sent a Campbell's soup can careening into the cheering crowd, striking a young Andy Warhol and forever changing the histories of both jazz and art. And Art.
Speaking of whom.
Forced to take up the drums following his defeat, Blakey was undeterred. He immediately found himself an apprenticeship under Chick Webb, the fabled drummer, bandleader and forest elf. Soon, Blakey was ready to return to his hometown and put together his first band with pianist Mary Lou Williams and some spare lumber his dad let him have. From here, he spent three years touring with Fletcher Henderson and a year at Boston's famed Tic Toc Club, spent mostly circling the block and looking for a parking space. Blakey then joined up with Billy Eckstine and the pair briefly tried their hands at being frontier lawmen (as Billy Two Guns and the Monongahela Kid) before it was pointed out to them that the West had long since been tamed, and they both looked silly in chaps besides.
A fateful trip to Africa in 1948 produced some revolutionary changes for Blakey. He learned the secrets of polyrhythmic drumming that would color his approach to the instrument for the rest of his career, as well as discovering Islam. The latter discovery would cause him to briefly change his name to Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, changing it back because of the repeated disappointment of finding virtually no personalized items in the many souvenir gift shops he visited during his extensive travels.
1954 proved an even bigger landmark for Blakey, as he met pianist Horace Silver. Their first collaboration, with Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson, was recorded at Birdland on Blue Note. Following the success of that recording, Blakey and Silver formed the Jazz Messengers. Originally intended as a courier service to provide day jobs for struggling jazz musicians, it failed in its primary mission mostly because Western Union was more established and had neater uniforms. Deciding instead to make the Jazz Messengers a sort of performing university for up-and-coming musicians, Blakey set forth on the mission that would cement his place in jazz history while Silver left the group to develop his own chain of pirate-themed fast-food fish restaurants.
Ahoy then, matey.