Born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Art Blakey studied piano before taking up the drums and performing with the likes of Mary Lou Williams and Billy Eckstine. He formed the Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver in the mid-1950s and went on to release acclaimed albums like Moanin’ and Ugetsu. A hard bop icon who was a mentor to many jazz greats, Blakey died on October 16, 1990.
Arthur Blakey was born on October 11, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother died soon after his birth with his father having previously left the clan. Blakey was thus raised with his siblings by a family friend who became a surrogate mother. As a child, he took piano lessons, teaching himself as well, while adopting adult responsibilities early on, working at a club as a musician, getting married and having children during his early teens.
He was forced by a club manager to take up playing the drums, and by 1942 was playing with Mary Lou Williams’s band before moving on to the orchestra of Fletcher Henderson. He joined Billy Eckstine’s group mid-decade and stayed with the bandleader until 1947.
Forms the Jazz Messengers
Blakey helmed a rehearsal band known as the 17 Messengers for a time before travelling to Africa at the end of the 1940s, studying Islam and taking the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. After his return to the states, he formed a co-op quintet, the Jazz Messengers, with pianist Horace Silver in the mid-1950s; additional original members were Hank Mobley on sax, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, and Doug Watson on bass.
After Silver left the group in 1956, Blakey took over leadership, simultaneously fostering a relationship with the Blue Note label that yielded a rich array of recordings over several years, such as At the Jazz Corner of the World series, Buhaina’s Delight (1962) and Free for All (1964). And albums for the Riverside label during this era included Caravan (1962) and Ugetsu (1963), recorded at Birdland.
A Mentor to Many
An icon of hard bop jazz, Blakey was known for having a thrilling, propulsive playing style that highlighted his skill and pushed accompanying musicians to shine. Over the decades, the Messengers became known for having a changing, evolving membership with a varied roster size; as the band played on, often newer musicians entered the group to learn and hone their skills under Blakey’s guidance.
Some of the artists who’d performed with Blakey included Benny Golson, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Jymie Merritt, Wayne Shorter, Joanne Brackeen, Cedar Walton, Charles Fambrough, Terence Blanchard, Lonnie Plaxico and Branford and Wynton Marsalis, among a host of others.
Blakey also worked outside of the Messengers, touring with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and performing at venerable musical events like the Newport Jazz Festival.
Grammy Hall of Famer
Among a host of awards and honors, Blakey earned an instrumental Grammy with the Messengers for 1984 album New York Scene. The classic single “Moanin'” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 while the highly acclaimed album of the same name, reportedly a favorite of Blakey’s, was inducted three years later.
Blakey died in New York City on October 16, 1990, at the age of 71, from lung cancer. He was survived by his many children. He left behind scores of albums and a technique embodied by the legion of artists whom he mentored.