Finding Art Blakey

SKF NOTE: My first memory of Art Blakey is in the early 1970’s when I was working at Sam Goody’s record store in Huntington, NY.

Sam Goody’s was a great place to learn about jazz, rock, and classical music. Store manager, Sal Romeo, hired you only if you had at least a working knowledge of one of those musics. The Record Department (vinyl LP’s) had rows of record bins categorized (i.e. “Rock,” “Jazz,” “Classical”) and alphabetized (i.e. “Jazz A-D,” “Jazz E-H,”).

My forte was rock music, but I was blessed to have co-workers who knew a lot about classical and jazz musics.

Also, Sam Goody’s offered all kinds of jazz/classical cut-out LP’s for $1.00 – $3.00. With our 50-percent employee discount off those cheap prices it was an opportunity to build a record collection. I was mostly interested in learning about jazz. Reading LP liner notes was a great education. So was consulting fellow employees who were already “jazz heads.”

roots_and_herbsArt Blakey’s “Roots and Herbs” LP cover, then a cut-out, caught my eye. I asked Allen, a “jazz head,” if Blakey was “any good.” Allen wrinkled his nose while shrugging his shoulders. But a customer standing opposite me on the other side of the record bin said, “Art Blakey is one of the great jazz drummers.” I didn’t buy “Roots and Herbs” that day.

I’m sure Gretsch ads in Down Beat magazine were an early exposure to Blakey. Especially Chuck Stewart’s classic Gretsch photos.

When did I first hear Art Blakey? Best guess is it was early- to mid-1970’s while living in Davenport, IA. I bought an import album of Billy Eckstine’s big band with Art on drums. The sound quality was just okay. Even so, I was impressed with Art’s ability to swing, his gift for catching chart accents, and the sound and use of his bass drum! “Blowin’ The Blues Away” is the LP track that stayed with me.

Around that same time I bought “Gil Evans: Pacific Standard Time.” This 2 LP set featured on different tracks: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Dennis Charles, and Elvin Jones. Listening to this music for the first time, Blakey blew me away. He is still swinging, but I was also impressed by – to my 1970’s ears – his uncoventional fills and how he creates music on his drumset. Listen to Art on “Bird Feathers,” especially his intro.

Art Blakey’s way of accompanying the other musicians in the studio and onstage was, and is, a drummer’s lesson in how to be supportive, how to be musical, how to be felt without being oppressive. I don’t remember when I first heard Cannonball Adderely’s “Somethin’ Else” album, but Art’s playing on this classic date, especially on “Autumn Leaves,” is a case in point. He never overplays, His choice of what to play, of whether to play it with stick, brush, or mallet, is always the perfect choice.

Around this same time, I listened to United Artists’ 2 LP “Miles,” a reissue of Miles Davis’s two Blue Note albums, “Miles Davis: Volume 1” and “Miles Davis: Volume 2.” Yes, all Art Blakey qualities were there, but on top of them, Art’s unique drum fills really grabbed my attention. I’ve read writers attributing this part of Blakey’s drumming as African influenced. Maybe so. To my ears it was unlike any drumming I had heard and it was so musical. Check out “Kelo” and “Tempus Fugit.”

I flew back to Long Island, NY from Iowa for to visit my parents, taking time to also catch Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers at The Five Spot in NYC. I don’t even remember who was in the band! My attention was on Art, sitting up high behind his four-piece white Pearl drumset. How did he make those sounds I was hearing on my LP’s? That’s what I wanted to know. Whether it was his drum rims, the bell of his ride cymbal, in one motion striking and choking his crash cymbal, his signature press roll and non-stop 2-and-4 hi-hat, his brush playing. Magical!

Since then I’ve acquired and listened to Art Blakey on many, many albums. His own and others. I love Art and pianist Horace Silver together. Silver’s left-hand comping in tandem with Blakey’s left-hand comping is like a boiling cauldron of swing. Yikes! (Someone could transpose Silver’s left-hand rhythms and make of them cool drum exercises!)

Of course, all drummers should study Art Blakey with Thelonious Monk. Jazz doesn’t get any better. Here’s a classic track with Blakey and Monk in a trio setting 65 years ago! It’s fun to compare Art’s playing here with the many versions of “Bemsha Swing” recorded since.

Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Lee Morgan remains my favorite version of The Jazz Messengers. That band, for me, is in the same league as Miles Davis‘s Second Great Quintet. I own all the albums.

I leave you with two favorite Blakey cuts, both great music and great drum lessons in playing musically in a supportive role.

Thank you, Art Blakey!


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