Born on October 10, 1929, in New Orleans, LA; died on October 7, 1992, in Hartford, CT; married; children: three.
Hailed by the New York Times in his 1992 obituary as "one of the most important drummers in jazz," Ed Blackwell mixed a New Orleans-bred rhythmic sensibility with an affinity for studied experimentation in a style revered for its melodiousness. Blackwell made his name as an early collaborator with saxophonist and free jazz giant Ornette Coleman, but also performed and recorded with such well-known innovators as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Eric Dolphy and, later, David Murray, as well as trumpeter Don Cherry and, briefly, saxophonist John Coltrane. Blackwell's ability to stick to the rigorous gigging and touring schedule required of a jazz artist was hindered by kidney failure, which he suffered in 1973. He continued to support a host of musicians for the next 20 years, however, while keeping up regular dialysis treatments, and in the last years of his life led his own ensemble, the Ed Blackwell Project.
Blackwell was born on October 10, 1929, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised in the city's Garden District. Inspired by both the distinctive rhythms of the city's signature parade bands, as well as a thriving R&B scene and the sounds of two tap dancing siblings, Blackwell took an early interest in the drums. He played snare drum at Washington High School and also immersed himself in the city's rhythm-and-blues scene. Drummer Paul Barbarin particularly influenced him, and Blackwell used to visit his mentor at local clubs, although segregation prevented him from interacting with white patrons. "Whenever I had the time to go down to where he was working, he'd always let me sit in," Blackwell recalled in a 1968 issue of Down Beat. "Naturally, they had this segregation thing going, so I always had to go 'round behind the bandstand, but this didn't bother me because it was just such a gas just being there listening. He's beautiful."
Blackwell joined the R&B outfit of brothers Plas Johnson, a pianist, and Charles Johnson, a saxophonist, around 1949. At the same time, he had his first introduction to Ornette Coleman. Blackwell moved to Los Angeles in 1951, and two years later he encountered Coleman again while playing at a friend's house. The two became musical collaborators and roommates, although many audiences proved unreceptive to their experimental, free jazz style. "Of course, when we walked into a joint, everybody would walk off the stage, so we had to go up there and perform, just Ornette and me," Blackwell recalled in a 1977 issue of Down Beat. "We got used to doing it together, because the only time we could get a bass player to even rehearse with us was if we could guarantee him a gig."
Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1955 and formed the American Jazz Quartet with clarinetist Alvin Batiste, saxophonist Nat Perrilliat, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and bass player Chuck Badie. The group released the album Boogie Live . . . 1958 on the AFO label in 1958. Blackwell also toured with pianist, singer, and R&B legend Ray Charles in 1957. He moved to New York, where Coleman had relocated, in 1960, and planned to join saxophonist John Coltrane's new outfit. But when Billy Higgins had to leave Coleman's group, Blackwell replaced him for a long-standing gig at the famous Five Spot, and appeared on several albums with Coleman, including 1960's This Is Our Music (with the Ornette Coleman Quartet) and Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) (with the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet), two seminal free jazz releases. Coleman paid his friend and bandmate high praise on the liner notes to This Is Our Music. "Ed Blackwell, the drummer, has to my ears one of the most musical ears of playing rhythm of anyone I have heard," he wrote. "This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other's places."
Following a tour with Coleman, Blackwell returned to the Five Spot to join pianist Mal Waldron and bassist Richard Davis in a combo led by trumpeter Booker Little and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy. A live recording from those sessions, Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, is considered an important album of the time, as Little died just three months later and Dolphy died in 1964. For the next two years, Blackwell played with trumpeter and fellow Coleman bandmate Don Cherry, and they recorded two albums together on the Blue Note label: Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers, and Where Is Brooklyn?. The pair also joined Coltrane on Blue Note's The Avant-Garde in 1967.
That same year, Blackwell visited Africa on a State Department tour with pianist Randy Weston, with whom he had been playing since 1965. The pair returned to the continent a second time, this time staying in Morocco. Both trips profoundly influenced Blackwell's mindset and style. "The freedom I've always felt for drumming I really could hear in the drummers in Africa," he told Down Beat in 1968. "I feel more uninhibited now as far as the right and the wrong things to play are concerned. I began to realize that there's really never any wrong way to play if you play the drums."
Blackwell played with Coleman again in 1969, and in 1971 he joined Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as an artist-in-residence, where he remained until his death in 1992. In 1973 he was diagnosed with uremia, a chronic kidney malfunction and the same disease that had killed Little. While frequent dialysis treatments limited Blackwell's travels, he remained a mainstay on the New York jazz circuit. In 1976 he co-founded Old and New Dreams with former Coleman bandmates Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden, as well as Dewey Redman on saxophone. The group released their self-titled debut the same year, and issued a second album of the same name in 1979. They also toured internationally.
Blackwell performed with several leading avant-garde jazz musicians in the 1980s, including reed player Anthony Braxton, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, and saxophonist David Murray. He reunited with Waldron during this period as well. Old and New Dreams performed at an Atlanta festival held in Blackwell's honor in 1987, and released a live LP from the event, One for Blackwell, on the Black Saint label. In the early 1990s Blackwell formed the Ed Blackwell Trio with Redman and bassist Cameron Brown, which released the album Walls-Bridges on Black Lion, and then formed the Ed Blackwell Project with cornetist Graham Haynes, saxophonist/flutist Carlos Ward, and bassist Mark Helias. The band issued a self-titled LP in 1992, followed by What It Is? and What It Be Like?, a two-volume account of Blackwell's final live performance at Yoshi's in Oakland, California.
Blackwell died of complications from kidney failure on October 7, 1992. He was survived by his wife, Frances, and three children. In an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Myrna Oliver quoted Blackwell as stating he had no regrets about assuming bandleader status only late in his career. "I don't really have a leader feeling," he said. "I try to play along with whomever I'm playing with, not so much as an accompanist but an equal." In 1991 Blackwell expressed his thorough enjoyment of his art to the Austin American Statesman's Owen McNally. "Once you get obsessed with doing something that's fun, there's no problem about doing it," he said. "I used to carry sticks in my back pocket with little rubber balls on the end so I could sit down and play on any surface, on cement, or whatever. Anywhere I'd sit down, I'd take out my sticks and practice. I'm still obsessed today---24 hours a day."
by Kristin Palm
Ed Blackwell's Career
Began playing in New Orleans with a rhythm-and-blues outfit led by saxophonist Plas Johnson and his brother, pianist Raymond Johnson; moved to Los Angeles in 1951, played with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, 1953; formed American Jazz Quintet with clarinetist Alvin Batiste, saxophonist Nat Perrilliat, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and bass player Chuck Badie in New Orleans, 1956; toured with rhythm-and-blues pianist and singer Ray Charles, 1957; replaced Billy Higgins in Coleman's New York-based quartet, 1960-61; joined pianist Mal Waldron, trumpeter Booker Little, and saxophonist Eric Dolphy for gigs at New York's Five Spot and recorded live album with the group, 1961; recorded with trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Archie Shepp, 1960s; began playing with pianist Randy Weston, 1965, and accompanied him on a State Department tour of Africa; joined Coleman again, 1969-73; joined music faculty of Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, 1971; continued to record with a variety of musicians, even after suffering kidney failure in 1973; formed Old and New Dreams ensemble in 1976; recorded and performed with reed players Anthony Braxton, Jane Ira Bloom, and David Murray, among others, 1980s-1990s; performed in Cherry's quintet Nu, 1984-89; formed Ed Blackwell Project, early 1990s.
- Selected discography
- (With American Jazz Quintet) Boogie Live . . . 1958 AFO, 1958.
- (With The Ornette Coleman Quartet) This Is our Music Atlantic, 1960.
- (With Ornette Coleman) Twins Atlantic, 1960.
- (With Ornette Coleman Double Quartet) Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) Atlantic, 1960.
- (With John Coltrane and Don Cherry) The Avant-Garde Atlantic, 1960.
- (With Ornette Coleman) Ornette on the Tenor Atlantic, 1961.
- (With Eric Dolphy) Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot New Jazz/ODC, 1961.
- (With Don Cherry) Complete Communion Blue Note, 1965.
- (With Don Cherry) Symphony for Improvisers Blue Note, 1965.
- (With Don Cherry) Where Is Brooklyn Blue Note, 1967.
- (With John Coltrane and Don Cherry) The Avant-Garde Atlantic, 1967.
- (With Don Cherry) Mu BYG, 1967.
- (With Ornette Coleman) Science Fiction Columbia, 1971.
- (With Old and New Dreams) Old and New Dreams (live) Black Saint/ECM, 1976.
- (With Old and New Dreams) Playing ECM, 1980.
- (With Don Cherry) El Corazon ECM, 1982.
- (With Old and New Dreams) One for Blackwell Black Saint. 1987.
- (With Ed Blackwell Trio) Walls-Bridges Black Lion, 1992.
- (With Ed Blackwell Project) Ed Blackwell Project Enja, 1992.
- (With Ed Blackwell Project) What It Is? Enja, 1992.
- (With Ed Blackwell Project) What It Be Like? Enja, 1994.
- Austin American Statesman, May 23, 1991.
- Down Beat, October 3, 1968; June 16, 1977.
- Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1992.
- New York Times, October 9, 1992.
- "Ed Blackwell," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 10, 2005).
- "Ed Blackwell," Grove Online, http://www.groveonline.com (May 10, 2005).