If you want to know why I love jazz, look at the aside picture. It’s Art Blakey and he is smiling. In fact, any picture of him behind a set of drums wielding a pair of sticks has a beaming face. That’s unless he’s brandishing a lit cigarette. Then, with lips pursed he reveals a sly grin.
The reason for the smile is because Blakey loved what he did. As a self-taught drummer in the late 40’s, he became an intricate sideman to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As a budding bandleader in the 50’s, he formed the Jazz Messengers, a tight-knit group that created the funky style known as hard bop.
If there is one word I would use to describe Art Blakey, it would be joyous. If jazz could be the musical equivalent to gospel, Blakey, who grew up a Seven Day Adventist, spent every waking moment spreading the good news. Jazz filled him with an infectious spirit and he was tireless in his pursuit. Many pictures not only had him smiling behind a set of drums but profusely glistening. To him a concert was like a tent revival and he did everything under his power to bring everybody along.
Another aspect of Blakey that I love is how he never dulled in his musical pursuit. When his band evolved in the 70’s and 80’s as a breeding ground for new talent, Blakey saw the setup as a two-way street. For the rookies, they were given an established platform to make their argument. For Blakey, he had continual flow of new blood to keep his band moving to the next gig.
Blakey recorded over 100 albums but it was his constant touring that he saw as the key. His zeal is so well known there is a possible “true” story in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes to highlight this dedication:
Art was driving to an out-of-own job and passed through a village where traffic was completely tied up because of a funeral procession. Since he couldn’t get past the cemetery until the service was over, he got out and listened to the eulogy. The minister spoke at length about the virtues of the deceased, and then asked if anyone had anything else to add. After a silence during which nobody spoke up, Art said, “If nobody has anything to say about the departed, I’d like to say a few words about jazz.”
I have over 20 songs of Blakey marked favorite. One thing they have in common is they are bold and crisp. They establish the melody early and get on with the solos. I also find them thematic: Arabia, Night in Tunisia, Free for All and Alamode. Just listen to Noise in the Attic and see if you don’t agree.