Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

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.

Steve Reich

Born in 1936, Steve Reich is an American minimalist composer whose work has been heavily influenced by jazz and African rhythms, as well as a deep Jewish spirituality. Known for his fascination with counterpoint, “phasing” (where the composition slowly changes incrementally over time), and his preference for rhythm over melody, Reich made most of his innovations in the sixties and seventies when minimalism exploded across the classical music scene with the work of such greats as Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Steve Reich is my favorite composer of all time – there really is nothing else like his work, he is a complete original who cannot be imitated.

I discovered Steve Reich while listening to WNYC2, which then became Q2, an internet radio stream run by WNYC in New York. Q2 offered something I couldn’t find anywhere else, something I didn’t even know about before I discovered it – modern classical music, by living composers. Q2 eventually became part of WNYC’s New Sounds radio stream, and it doesn’t play as much modern classical anymore, but it’s still a pretty good stream. At its height though, it had great radio hosts, and interviews and soundbites from most of the notable modern composers of today.

Reich’s most famous work is probably “Music for 18 Musicians”, which I have on vinyl. Of course, most performances of this piece include more than 18 musicians, because the original version required many of the musicians to play multiple instruments. Somewhere between Balinese gamelan music and Western impressionism, “Music for 18 Musicians” is best described as a 57 minute “pulse”. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the piece’s uncompromising originality just cannot be underestimated.