Jazz drummer Art Blakey and his band once drove past a funeral in a rural cemetery. Blakey stopped the car and he and his band joined the small gathering at graveside. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to speak in behalf of the deceased. There was a brief silence, broken by Blakey's plea: "In that case, would anyone mind if I said a few words for jazz?"
The story may be apocryphal, but its spirit is certainly correct and has been unerringly so for the quarter century since Blakey formed The Jazz Messengers, one of the seminal jazz groups. The first edition included Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham, and they laid down the doctrine in their first album, "The Preacher": a funky, hard bop rooted in the blues and gospel of the sanctified Churches as well as in the agressive stance of modern jazz.
The short but powerfully built Blakey has been described as a leader who builds leaders, a builder who doesn't like to live in finished houses. He has remained the heart of The Jazz Messengers while an astounding number of jazz greats have honed their chops passing through his bands: Feddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, Clifford Brown, Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw, Johnny Griffin. The list goes on like entires in a jazz poll, but the message has remained remarkably uncluttered. And at the center, shaping the music from his drum stool, sits Blakey, whose latest collection of Messengers is at Blues Alley through tomorrow.
In close to three decades, he has solidified his position not only as one of jazz's great drummers, but as one of music's great teachers. The only hints that 62 years have passed are hair gone gray and a hearing aid; Blakey's driving emotional style, a veritable tapestry of dynamics, accents and cross rhythms, remains boundless and timeless, making him less the elder statesman than the conscience of jazz. "It started out as survival, just playing music," he says of his early life in and out of the steel mills of Pittsburgh. As a 15-year-old, Blakey worked in one of that city's nightclubs -- playing piano, until a 14-year-old whiz named Erroll Garner took over the black and whites. "I was told to go to the drums by the club owner," Blakey says in a distinctly gravelly tone. "Even then, I had a knack of getting guys together, making them work together."
By 1954, when The Jazz Messengers coalesced, Blakey already had established himself as both a rugged innovator on the drums and a charismatic disciplinarian who had learned his lesson the hard way from another legendary jazz drummer, Big Sid Catlett. "I was at the Apollo Theater with Fletcher Henderson, playing on the stage with my dark glasses. In my right hand pocket I had a half pint of gin and a straw, and I was drinking while I was playing.I came off the stage and [catlett] grabbed me, picked me up, pulled the bottle out of my pocket and slapped me upside the head, knocked me unconscious, threw a bucket of water on me and said 'As long as you got a hole in your derriere, point it to the ground. If I ever catch you drinking again until you learn how to play . . .'"
"Those kind of guys" are what Blakey feels the jazz world is missing these days, and it's a role he has chosen to fulfill. His groups have been home to literally dozens of young musicians, who develop their skills before live audiences. Blakey, one of the few veterans to work with developing talent, laments the absence of big bands, where "young musicians could sit next to the experienced musicians, talk to them, get to know them. We need more of that sense of family."
Along with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, Blakey completed the move begun by Chick Webb of bringing "the drum from the back out to the front. I liked him, I studied him. I learned a lot about how to move things. So much can be done with the drum." Webb also taught Blakey an important lesson about showmanship after watching the young drummer get carried away at one point with black lights, luminescent gloves, drumsticks that flew through darkened nightclub air on wires, and other cheap effects. "He said, 'Son, the rhythm ain't in the air, it's on the drums.'"
Typically, the respect for Blakey's contributions to jazz has been more extensive overseas than in America. On the Jazz Messengers' first trip to Japan in 1960 (there have been two dozen more since), Blakey was met at the airport by a number of ambassadors (but not the American one) and whisked off to an audience with the emperor. "It's been small here, it's true," Blakey admits of the acclaim he has received at home. "But it's beem pure. In my life, 've never seen an armored car following a hearse. The only thing that goes to the cemetery is respect, and that's what you go for.
"When I take these 18-year-old kids out on tour, it makes most of the pros feel like cutting their wrists," Blakey says with unrestrained glee. "They get embarrassed. To get up on stage frightens them, they can't get up there with my kids. They're all kids, man, and they are trying to play. They're going to take the music farther than it has been."
Blakey's finishing school continues to be powered by the ferocious and constant fire of his drums, an instrument he once described as being closet to the human soul: "If your heart don't beat, you're dead." Blakey and his art are alive an kicking.