Arthur (Art) Blakey (October 11, 1919–October 16, 1990), also known as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, was an American jazz drummer and bandleader. Along with Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, he was one of the inventors of the modern bebop style of drumming. He is known as a powerful musician and a vital groover; his brand of bluesy, funky hard bop was (and remains) profoundly influential on mainstream jazz. Over more than 30 years his band the Jazz Messengers included many young musicians who went on to become prominent names in jazz.
The band’s legacy is thus not only the often exceptionally fine music it produced, but as a proving ground for several generations of jazz musicians; it is equivalent to Miles Davis’s bands in this regard. Early career In the 1940s, Blakey was a member of bands led by Mary Lou Williams, Fletcher Henderson, and Billy Eckstine. He converted to Islam during a visit to West Africa in the late 1940s and took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina (which led to the nickname “Bu”).
The African visit is the subject of some dispute as he was never absent from America for the length of time claimed. Some suspect the trip never took place. By the late forties and early fifties, Blakey was backing musicians such as Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — he is often considered to have been Monk’s most sympathetic drummer, and he played on both Monk’s first recording session as a leader (for Blue Note Records in 1947) and his final one (in London in 1971), as well as many in between.
The Jazz Messengers The origins of the Messengers are in a series of groups led or co-led by Blakey and pianist Horace Silver, though the name was not used on the earliest of their recordings. The most celebrated of these early records (credited to “The Art Blakey Quintet”), is A Night at Birdland from February 1954, one of the earliest commercially released “live” jazz records. This featured Silver, Blakey, the young trumpeter Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and bassist Curly Russell.
The “Jazz Messengers” name was first used on a 1954 recording nominally led by Silver, with Blakey, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham and Doug Watkins — the same quintet would record The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia the following year, still as a collective. Donald Byrd replaced Dorham, and the group recorded an album called simply The Jazz Messengers for Columbia Records in 1956.
Blakey took over the group name when Silver left after the band’s first year (taking Mobley, Byrd and Watkins with him to form a new quintet with a variety of drummers), and the band was known as “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers” from then onwards. Two of the group’s most famous lineups featured Wayne Shorter on saxophone. The first was a quintet that existed from 1959 to 1961 and included Blakey, Shorter, Jymie Merritt, Lee Morgan, and Bobby Timmons.
The second (1961–1964) was a sextet that added trombonist Curtis Fuller and replaced Morgan and Timmons with Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton, respectively. Shorter was the musical director of the group, and many of his original compositions such as “Lester Left Town” remained staples of Blakey’s repertoire even after Shorter’s departure. (Other players over the years made permanent marks on Blakey’s repertoire — Timmons, composer of “Dat Dere” and “Moanin'”, Benny Golson, composer of “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real”, and, later, Bobby Watson.) Shorter’s more experimental inclinations pushed the band at the time into an engagement with the 1960s “New Thing”, as it was called: the influence of Coltrane’s contemporary records on Impulse! is evident on Free For All (1964), often cited as the greatest document of the Shorter-era Messengers (and certainly one of the most fearsomely powerful examples of hard bop on record).
Later career Blakey went on to record dozens of albums with a constantly changing group of Jazz Messengers — he had a policy of encouraging young musicians: as he remarked on-mike on A Night at Birdland (1954): “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I’ll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active.” After weathering the fusion era of the 1960s and 1970s with some difficulty (recordings from this period are less plentiful and include attempts to incorporate instruments like electric piano), Blakey’s band got a shot in the arm in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the advent of neotraditionalist jazz.
Wynton Marsalis was for a time the band’s trumpeter and musical director, and even after Marsalis’s departure Blakey’s band continued as a proving ground for many so-called “Young Lion” players. Blakey continued performing and touring with the group into the late 1980s, and he died in 1990 in New York City, leaving behind a vast legacy and approach to jazz which is still the model for countless hard-bop players. Up to the 1960s Blakey also recorded as a sideman with many other musicians: Jimmy Smith, Herbie Nichols, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Grant Green, and Jazz Messengers graduates Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley, amongst many others. However, after the mid-1960s he mostly concentrated on his own work as a leader.