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Artist Profile: Jazz Drummer Art Blakey

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Artist Profile: Jazz Drummer Art Blakey
Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Born:

October 11th, 1919 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania

Died:

October 16th, 1990 in New York City, New York

Also Known As:

Abdullah Ibn Buhaina

Awards:

  • Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame Reader's Choice Award (1981)
  • Grammy Award Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group (1984) for the album New York Scene
  • Honorary Doctorate of Music at Berklee College of Music (1987)
  • Grammy Hall of Fame Induction for the album Moanin' (2001)
  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2005; Awarded Posthumously)

Jazz Messenger:

Jazz drummer Art Blakey grew up in a religious family, and he learned to play the piano in church. He gigged in Pittsburg clubs as a pianist, and later switched to the drums. Guided by swing drummer Chick Webb, Blakey developed great skill at the instrument, and he began to make a name for himself while performing with pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams.

In 1939, Blakey joined Fletcher Henderson’s band, and later played with bandleader Billy Eckstine. In that group, Blakey had the opportunity to play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He contributed to the development of the bebop style of drumming, pioneered by drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. By the late 1940s, Blakey was one of the top drummers on the scene, playing with musicians such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

In 1948, Blakey visited West Africa, where he was exposed to Islam and to the polyrhythms in African music. This visit had a profound impact on his life and work. He began to consider himself a Muslim, and took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. He also sought to infuse bebop with a soulful and powerfully rhythmic drive, sewing the seeds of the hard bop style.

In 1954, Blakey formed a quintet with pianist Horace Silver, bassist Curly Russel, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and trumpeter Clifford Brown. They recorded the seminal album Live at Birdland, Vol. 1. This album marked the beginnings of the Jazz Messengers, which Blakey later dubbed his small ensembles. The Jazz Messengers became a pinnacle group of the 1950s and early sixties, and launched the careers of many legendary jazz musicians.

Blakey populated the Jazz Messengers with the most talented young musicians. At one time or another, his group included Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, and Benny Golson, and decades later, contemporary stars such as Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Kenny Garrett. Playing in Blakey’s group was practically a pre-requisite for becoming a serious jazz musician. Since Blakey didn’t compose very much, band members could hone their composing skills.

The Jazz Messengers continued in various forms throughout the decades, through peaks and valleys of critical and commercial success. Wynton Marsalis and the “Young Lions” of the 1980s and ‘90s, adopted Blakey’s emphasis on soulfulness and swing, which paved the way for the modern straight-ahead school of jazz.

Art Blakey died of lung cancer in 1990, just after his 71st birthday. To this day, his propulsive drumming style and the body of work he spurred by leading the Jazz Messengers are regarded as two essential elements of jazz history.

Albums by Art Blakey

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