The story may be apocryphal, but it's pure Art Blakey: Many years ago, on their way to a gig, Blakey and his Jazz Messengers drove past a funeral in a rural cemetery. They got out of the car and joined the small gathering at the graveside. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to speak in behalf of the deceased. After a brief silence, Blakey broke in: "In that case, would anyone mind if I said a few words for jazz?"
When death came to Art Blakey on Tuesday, it was the coda on a 35-year-long testimonial for jazz. That was how long Blakey led that ever-evolving congregation known as the Jazz Messengers. The message, of course, was jazz of the hard-bop variety, which leavened the rhythmic and harmonic advances of bebop with earthier (and more accessible) melodic undercurrents rooted in blues and gospel. It was modernism without moats.
Blakey was this music's chief evangelist, preaching and teaching, his drum stool a pulpit, the stage a sanctuary for the idiom's toughest, most consistently exciting group. Graduating from the Jazz Messengers was like getting your degree from Juilliard, except that this particular finishing school toured the world. It was a most public woodshed, a hothouse for night-blooming jazzmen.
Blakey was built like a boxer -- compact, wiry, stick solid. Had he not had the beatific smile, and the corollary charm, of a savant, he would have looked as imposing as he sounded behind his drum kit. His voice was gruff, gravelly, but the words came straight from the heart. That was the way Blakey played too. He drove music and musicians alike with enormous power, absolute authority, unflagging energy and, always, always, a brilliant sense of time -- rhythm as waves washing over and through the music, like soul itself.
Blakey's performances were legendary nightly workshops in tempo, swing, dynamics, coloration and control, master classes on the virtues of strength and delicacy, tension and release. More immediately, there were the Blakey signatures: the rapid-fire tattooing of a snare rim, the gonglike cymbal splashes, the manic riveting of the high-hat, the sly nuances of his brushwork, the raising and lowering of a drumhead's pitch with one stick while striking with the other, the billowing press roll used to launch a soloist, and the last titanic swell signaling a pause in the commotion.
As impressive as all this technique was, it was Blakey's passion and commitment that were truly infectious, reflecting the constancy of purpose evident from the onset of his career in the late '30s. But even at 71, Art Blakey never settled for becoming an elder statesman: Over the years, gray, then white, crept into his hair, and the lines in his face seemed to track deeper, but he remained immutably young in spirit, as vital as the pulse of the music. "If your heart don't beat, you're dead," Blakey once said, but he could just as well have been talking about his art.
In the '80s, Art Blakey addressed the issue of death in the same straight-ahead manner that he championed his beloved jazz. "I'll play drums until Mother Nature tells me different," Blakey told one interviewer. To another, he said, "I'll retire when they pat me in the face with the shovel." To yet another writer, he insisted that "to retire is to sit down and wait for death, and that comes soon enough."
He did not retire. Still, death came too soon.
After a Washington gig a few years ago, a sudden new fan went up to Blakey and said, approvingly, "Mr. Blakey, you sound like you're building a house." Blakey laughed and said, "No, man, I'm tearing it down." The truth was that he had brought that particular house down -- nothing new for Blakey, of course -- and that he continued to lay down solid foundations. Of course, he was a builder who chose not to live in finished houses.
"I'm gonna stay with the youngsters," Blakey once said. "When these get too old, I'm gonna get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active." The funny part is that Blakey had said this way back in 1954, when he was in his mid-thirties and the message was about to be delivered by youngsters named Horace Silver, Jackie McLean and Hank Mobley. That was the beginning, and over the next 35 years, Blakey brought to the public ear a who's-gonna-be-who of modern jazz: Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Keith Jarrett, Woody Shaw, Johnny Griffin, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and, in the '80s, James Williams, Bobby Watson, Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Wallace Roney and the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Branford. Wynton Marsalis has always equated his years with Blakey with his studies at Juilliard -- though they were probably a lot more fun.
As that alumni roster suggests, Blakey had an uncanny ability to spot untried musicians (or at least unproven ones). He often said that young musicians rejuvenated him, kept him curious. What they got in return wasn't formal training but constant nurturing, room to stretch out and find themselves. In the process, Blakey groomed them for future leadership, encouraging them to write, and to find their own voices, which they did -- some sooner, some later. Then they would graduate and others would come to take their place, drawn by the band's reputation as the most valued and valuable apprenticeship in jazz.
Blakey, Donald Harrison told an interviewer, "teaches you that the important thing is to be true to yourself." The teacher put it more succinctly: "If you can't identify yourself on a record, you're in trouble." Admittedly, young firebrands had to accommodate Blakey's hard-bop temperament, but there was no better place to hone one's chops and no better teacher to bust them. Being a Jazz Messenger was a constant challenge to stamina and creativity, which players needed equal parts of to meet Blakey's demands and match his energy.
There was a classicism to the Jazz Messengers: The band's identity was relatively fixed, regardless of who was playing, and regardless of whether it was a quintet or a sextet. The lineup was lean, as was the focus. Blakey was never particularly fond of long meandering solos (particularly on the drums), and the teacher in him forced his musicians to dig into themselves and play to their capacity, play hard and smart, make their notes and ideas count. A Jazz Messenger performance was never a jam session, but a succession of succinct solos, though Blakey himself might forget to take one, so busy was he putting down the carpet of rhythm that others could walk on. One of his favorite lines said it all: "On this tune we feature ... no one in particular!"
Not that Blakey wasn't a vital presence: He was the cop directing traffic from the drum stool, the battery recharging the music night after night. He was the indestructible core, fueling everything with hard-charging rhythms, never competing, always complementing, shading the most complex and the most subtle sonic excursions with equal grace.
Unlike many of his bop brethren, Blakey insisted that his musicians communicate with the audience, play to them, not down to them. "In jazz you get the message when you hear the music," he once told Nat Hentoff. "And when we're on the stand and we see that there are people in the audience who aren't patting their feet and who aren't nodding their heads to our music, we know we're doing something wrong."
That seldom happened, of course. Indeed, Art Blakey's message will live all the longer because he bred so many generations of fine messengers, all of whom came to understand that they were doing something right.