Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers not only supplied consistently exciting and innovative music for nearly 40 years, but also provided the experience and mentoring for young musicians to learn their trade. Though self-taught, Blakey was already leading his own dance band by age 14. Blakey's first noted sideman job came in 1942 with Mary Lou Williams, whom he joined for a club engagement at Kelly's Stables in New York. The following year he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, where he stayed until joining Billy Eckstine's modern jazz big band in 1944. A subsequent trip to Africa, ostensibly to immerse himself in Islam, revealed to him that jazz was truly an American music, which he preached from the bandstand thereafter. He adopted the Muslim name of Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, but continued to record under Art Blakey.
In the early 1950s, he worked with such greats as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Horace Silver, and Clifford Brown. The latter two became members of the Jazz Messengers, which was originally a cooperative unit. Brown, then Silver, left to form their own bands and Blakey became the leader of the Jazz Messengers. The Messengers went on to play in a style that critics called hard bop, a logical progression on the bebop style that was more hard-driving and blues-oriented. The Messengers made a concerted effort at rekindling the black audience for jazz that had begun to erode when the ballroom era of jazz declined.
Blakey powered his bands with a distinctive, take-noprisoners style of drumming that recalled the thunderous and communicative drum traditions of Africa. Though his drumming became among the most easily recognized sounds in jazz, Blakey always played for the band, prodding on his immensely talented colleagues' solos.
From the first Jazz Messengers band he formed, Blakey has welcomed generations of exceptional young musicians who have evolved into prominent bandleaders and contributors themselves. That list, reading like a Who's Who of jazz, includes Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Woody Shaw, Joanne Brackeen, Bobby Watson, James Williams, and three of the Marsalis brothers (Wynton, Branford, and Delfeayo). His mentoring of these musicians, helping them to hone their skills and preparing them to lead their own bands, has helped keep the jazz tradition alive and thriving. For the remainder of his career, Blakey continued to take the Jazz Messengers message across the globe.
A Night at Birdland, Vols. 1-2, Blue Note, 1954
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal