Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

July/August 2011: Derrick Gardner

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin’

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Art Blakey was a dynamic leader and a volcanic drummer whose hard-bop band, the Jazz Messengers, was a finishing school for young jazz musicians for almost forty years. His graduates include Hank Mobley, Chuck Mangione, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Green, Geoff Keezer, John Hicks, Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton, and Keith Jarrett.

Blakey apprenticed in the big bands of the 1940s with Billy Eckstine and Fletcher Henderson, and it was while he was on the road with Fletcher Henderson’s group that he survived a beating that left him with a metal plate in his skull. He later played with clarinetist Buddy Defranco and worked as a session drummer, appearing on recordings by Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

In 1953, Blakey and pianist Horace Silver formed a co-operative band they called the Jazz Messengers, a group that continued in different editions until Blakey’s death in 1990 (Silver quit in 1956.)

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were a swinging, energetic force that played hard bop. (The successor to bebop, hard bop has a more intense, driving rhythm.) Blakey sat at the back of the band at his drum kit and laid down a persistent, strong backbeat while he carefully scrutinized the musicians in the front line. Most drummers at the time relied on the bass or kick drum to keep time; Blakey shifted that role to the snare drum and cymbals.

The group was an incubator for young talent, and Blakey taught his musicians how to swing, how to be leaders, about life on the road, and encouraged them to bring in their songs. This resulted in an ever-evolving sound, and each version of the band has its own musical identity. Many of the Jazz Messengers’ recordings from the 1950s helped to define Blue Note as a hard bop label.

In 1958, Blakey was leading the third edition of the Jazz Messengers with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on sax, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jaymie Merritt on bass. In a one-day session on October 30, 1958, they recorded a monumental, free-wheeling album they called Moanin’ [Blue Note #95324].

Much of the sonic shape of the album can be attributed to Blakey’s tenor saxophist and musical director, Benny Golson, who would go on to become a noted jazz composer. His infectious “Blues March” has the spirit of a New Orleans marching band. “Along Came Betty” was inspired by the walk of the woman it was named after. The melody has a mid-tempo gait and is highlighted at the start by both horns (Golson and Morgan) playing in unison. “The Drum Thunder Suite” is another song written by Golson. The three-part suite showcases Blakey on mallets and brushes.

The standout, hit track from the album is Bobby Timmons’s funky classic “Moanin’.“ It is a well-proportioned tune that uses call and response to reinforce the melody. Timmons’s playing is exuberant and fresh. His young age of twenty-two belies the full scope of his talent. This is just as true for twenty-year-old Lee Morgan, who was becoming an increasingly important part of the hard bop Blue Note sound.

The momentum to drive this musical engine comes from Art Blakey. His flawless timing and his energy on the drums is unrelenting and inspiring.

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