Art Blakey was born on October 11, 1919 in Pittsburgh, PA to a religious family and began learning and playing music in church. His first instrument was actually the piano and as a child become a young master of both the piano and the bible. As a teen, Art played piano at the Democratic Club in Pittsburgh and was ordered off the piano and onto the drums. The owner of the club found someone else to play piano; Errol Gardner. Just like that Art Blakey becomes a drummer and learns the instrument without much of a break in his musical career. (That is ridiculous!)
Art studied drums with Chick Webb, serving as his valet at the time and in 1937 began playing drums with pianist Mary Lou Williams. In 1939, Blakey toured with Fletcher Henderson and followed that by playing with Billy Eckstein’s band, which included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sara Vaughn. Blakey traveled to Africa in the late 1940s and learned about polyrhythmic drumming and Islam. He returned with a new name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, and new knowledge of the drums.
In 1954 Art teamed up with Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, Clifford Brown and Curly Russell and they recorded the album “Live” at Birdland in New York for Blue Note Records. Blakey and Silver formed their own group after this called The Jazz Messengers and when Silver left a few years later to form his own group, he left Art with the name. Early members of the band included Clifford Brown, Hank Mobley and Jackie Mclean and Benny Golsen who wrote a lot of their early material. Later The Jazz Messengers included Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Jymmie Merritt.
By the 1960s Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers were regulars in the club scene and the recording studio. They toured Europe and North Africa and became the first American Jazz group to play in Japan. When the band arrived in Japan, they were greeted by hundreds of fans, their tune ‘Blues March’ was playing over the airport intercom and their visit was nationally televised. Blakey’s band became a rite of passage for musicians coming up and band members in the ‘60s included Curtis Fuller, Keith Jarrett, Cedar Walton, Chuck Mangione, Reggie Workman, Lucky Thompson and John Hicks. The band managed to survive the ‘jazz depression’ of the ‘70s and continued to roll into ‘80s with members Billy Pierce, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, James Williams, Terrence Blanchard, Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, Lonnie Plaxico, and Peter Washington among others. Blakey also played as a sideman during his career for Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith and Grant Green.
Blakey continued strong until he passed away in 1990 at the age of 71. Some of the awards given to Art include Newport Jazz Festival Hall of Fame in1971, Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame Reader’s Choice Award in 1981, a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Jazz Performance” in 1984 for his album ‘New York Scene’, Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music in 1987, and posthumously two Grammy Hall of Fame Awards for the tune ‘Moanin’ as well as the album.
“Music washes away the dust of every day life.” – Art Blakey
“What ever truth drops on it eventually grinds to a powder.” - Art Blakey on racism