Art Blakey was a jazz drummer, composer and bandleader born in sooty Pittsburgh on October 11, 1919. His father was a Southern migrant who had come up to the labor-hungry and slightly less Jim Crow North with his extended family sometime after 1910. Historians are shaky on Blakey’s mother’s identity – there are conflicting accounts, but they all agree she died shortly after Blakey’s birth and that he was mostly raised by friends of the family. Somehow he managed to master the piano, and he was working as a professional musician and living as an adult as early as the seventh grade. He was talented and cunning; he made a good living playing music; and soon enough he was a real adult, and touring the country, complete with the requisite beating by a Southern cop that left Blakey with a steel plate in his head. But at some point in the 1930s, Blakey switched from the piano to the drums. Jazz myth holds he did so at gunpoint; but the this story has been questioned, including by Blakey himself when he was alive. After the war, Blakey fled to Africa between 1945-1947. When he came back, he started his own band.
The Jazz Messengers was conceived as a roundtable of jazz musicians, but soon became in incubator of young talent, some of which became as famous or more famous than Blakey himself – Keith Jarrett, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan… the list goes on. Blakey toured, recorded music, and dedicated himself to jazz. During the course of his life, he married four times, fathered ten children, briefly converted to Islam and changed his name, and he was also a heavy drug user and smoker. Arthur Blakey died of lung cancer on October 16th, 1990, five days shy of his seventy-first birthday. He left behind jazz recordings that will live on forever.
“Moanin’” is a good Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers album to start with. But I prefer “Just Coolin’”. Blakey really goes all in on the drums on that record.