Born October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, PA; died of lung cancer, October 16, 1990, in New York City; married four times; 12 children (five adopted), including Art Blakey, Jr. (deceased).

Art Blakey's death in 1990 brought to a close a remarkable and multifaceted career; not only was he one of the most influential jazz drummers of his day, but he was also something of a father figure to dozens of aspiring jazz musicians. His group the Jazz Messengers, which he led for nearly 35 years, served as an incubator for talents as diverse as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Keith Jarrett. The vast catalog of recordings he left behind documents the development of his trendsetting drumming style, and perhaps more significantly, the evolving sound of his ensemble, which, though its membership was continually in flux, always maintained Blakey's mandate to create first-rate jazz that would, as he remarked in an interview in The Black Perspective in Music, "wash away the dust of everyday life."

Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, a city that has produced many other jazz notables, including pianists Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and Errol Garner. As a youngster, Blakey worked in the steel mills dotting the outskirts of Pittsburgh; in the evenings he played piano at local clubs. After hearing the immensely gifted Garner play at one such venue, Blakey decided his talents would best be served on the drums. By the time he was 15 he was leading his own band and listening closely to the work of many of the great swing-era drummers, including Chick Webb, Kaiser Marshall, and Sid Catlett.

Blakey played briefly with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1939, then joined Mary Lou Williams's group at Kelly's Stable, a club in New York City. After rejoining Henderson for a year and leading his own band in Boston, Blakey was hired by singer Billy Eckstine to play in his orchestra, a group that included several bebop luminaries--trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Fats Navarro and saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker.

In 1947 Blakey participated in several recordings with pianist Thelonious Monk; the sessions produced timeless early versions of some of Monk's tunes, including "'Round Midnight," "Well, You Needn't," and "Ruby, My Dear." Monk had taken Blakey under his wing when the drummer first arrived in New York from Pittsburgh and had introduced him to the competitive club scene there. As Blakey told Down Beat' s Zan Stewart of Monk, "He was my best friend.... If it hadn't been for him, I'm not so sure I would have been me. I learned so much playing with him, being with him." The many recordings the two musicians made together are, in fact, testaments to the musical and personal empathy between them.

In 1948 Blakey traveled to West Africa to pursue a long-standing interest in world religions. For a year he studied Islamic religion and culture, eventually taking the Islamic name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina--from which comes his nickname, "Bu." Although Blakey denied that this trip influenced his music, he did adopt several African drumming techniques after his sojourn, including rapping on the side of the drum and changing drum pitch with his elbow.

After his return to the U.S., in 1949, Blakey continued his association with many of the great early bebop musicians, occasionally performing and doing radio broadcasts with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Then, in 1955, Blakey and pianist Horace Silver formed the first incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, with Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, and Doug Watkins on bass. Blakey would lead this group, with varying personnel, for the rest of his life. The diverse Messengers groups recorded prolifically and toured widely, visiting Japan alone at least 47 times.

From 1971 to 1972 Blakey toured the world with a group called the Giants of Jazz, which included Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, trombonist Kai Winding, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and bassist Al McKibbon. In 1984, one of the latter-day Messengers groups recorded New York Scene, which won a Grammy Award. During his later years, Blakey was almost completely deaf and played drums by feeling vibrations. Nonetheless, he continued to perform until he was incapacitated by illness during the summer of 1990. Blakey died of cancer in October of that year.

As a drummer, Blakey helped elevate his instrument from the mainly accompanimental role it had occupied in the swing bands of the 1930s and '40s. He sustained such a continuous interaction with the other soloing instruments that, as Mark Gridley commented in his book Jazz Styles, "for him to solo was almost anticlimactic." Blakey's distinctive use of the high-hat cymbal and the press roll (a brief and tightly controlled roll on the snare drum) were two influential and instantly recognizable elements of a style notable for both its complexity and direct appeal. As Herb Nolan described it in Down Beat, "Blakey developed a driving, emotional style filled with so many levels of sound [that] there is the illusion of great rhythmic waves washing over and through the music. He offers strength, delicacy and soul all mixed into a style that is impossible to mistake for any other drummer."

As a bandleader and discoverer of new talent, Blakey continued a jazz tradition begun by his early employer Fletcher Henderson, who in the 1920s helped launch the careers of musicians such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Rex Stewart. The list of musicians who played in the various Jazz Messengers ensembles reads like a Who's Who of Jazz: trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard, saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie McLean, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and pianists Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton are just a few alumni of the group.

Blakey maintained a "revolving door" policy with the Messengers; whenever he felt a member of his group was ready to make it on his own, he would encourage him to do so. As he told Down Beat' s Stewart, "I look for the new guys, and I just give them a place to hone their art and they grow. They do it themselves. I just give them a chance. All they need is a little guidance, a little direction, and they're gone. When they get big enough I let them go and get their own thing."

Blakey may not have believed in hoarding talent to make himself look good, but he still benefitted from his "paternal" role. He freely admitted to David H. Rosenthal of The Black Perspective in Music, "My imagination is much better by my being around young people." Indeed, the presence of young talent in his group not only provided jazz listeners with an ongoing series of new stars; it also continually revitalized Blakey's own playing.

by Jeffrey Taylor

Art Blakey's Career

Worked in steel mills and played piano in nightclubs; switched to drums; became full-time bandleader, c. 1934; member of Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1939; joined Mary Lou Williams's band, 1942; member of Henderson Orchestra, 1943-44; led band in Boston; member of Billy Eckstine's Orchestra, 1944-47; recorded with pianist Thelonious Monk, 1947; lived in West Africa, exploring African religion; performed and did radio broadcasts with saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, and pianist Horace Silver, early 1950s; Blakey and Silver formed Jazz Messengers with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley, and bassist Doug Watkins, 1955; leader of Jazz Messengers, 1956-90; toured world with Giants of Jazz, 1971-72.

Art Blakey's Awards

Down Beat New Star Award, 1953; (with Jazz Messengers) Grammy Award for best jazz instrumental performance--group, 1984, for New York Scene; honorary doctorate, Berklee College of Music, 1987; Northsea Festival Charlie Parker Award, 1989.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 15 years ago

I just spent a few minutes looking at the biographies of Kenny Clarke, Clifford Brown, Booker Litte, and Art Blakey, and I must say that I am impressed with this site! They mention Curtis Fuller with the jazz messengers and he tends to get overlooked by all the other guys who passed through Blakey's "school". These are well written AND they give more resourses!!! Very glad to stumble upon this information!