Like many venerable jazz musicians, the drummer Art Blakey hung on long enough to see his approach to music come back into style.
A leading drummer of the post-World War II bop style epitomized by Charlie Parker, Blakey was better known for his leadership of his Jazz Messengers, one of the longest-running and consistently-excellent groups in jazz. The road to legendary status was winding, however. Eschewing the avant-garde, Blakey was ignored by jazz critics in the experimental 1960s and shunned by American audiences in the 1970s, when rock exerted its hegemonic control over the business of pop music. Unable to land a U.S. recording contract, he released numerous albums for European labels in the 1980s and won belated attention from American critics for his brief association with trumpet prodigy Wynton Marsalis. Ten years ago, Marsalis burst onto the jazz scene as a mature leader of his own tasteful group, and he credited a stint with Blakey"s Messengers for his own poise and artistic direction. By the time of Blakey"s death in 1990, a tour with the peripatetic Messengers was viewed as a sort of pre-requisite for up-and-coming jazz musicians. A quick way to be taken seriously by critics, record producers and audiences was to pass through Blakey"s free-form university. Blakey"s influence on young musicians was always hard to guage. He seemed to imbue in his acolytes an attitude of exuberant professionalism and fidelity to jazz acoustics rather than any particular compositional style.
While a passionate drummer, Blakey almost never composed a song, relying instead on his sidemen for songs. Though his vintage-1950s groups produced solid recordings, filled with impressive solos, they suffered from a shortage of original material. It wasn"t until the early 1960s that Blakey remedied this situation by assembling a series of small groups that rank with the best-ever in jazz. With Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Blakey"s Jazz Messengers had a Hall-of-Fame front-line whose compositional savvy was outstripped only by their extraordinary skills and emotional fire. Wedded to "hard" bop, Blakey"s drumming was predictably swinging and his solos were astonishing for their power, wit and poly-rhythms. Yet he relied heavily on his sidemen to provide an aesthetic for his group; he was an unusually generous leader when it came to passing out assignments (which may well explain the longevity of the Jazz Messengers). Hubbard, Fuller and especially Shorter embraced new jazz idioms even as the rock-steady Blakey clung to more catholic tastes.
Blakey wasn"t standing still, however. In the 1970s, he showed ample signs of absorbing the language of both the so-called "free" jazz and rock-tinged fusion. Blakey"s flirtation with fresh styles would not last long, however. By the end of the decade, he had returned to his roots and essentially spent his remaining years re-creating the hard bop sound, relying on a new generation of musicians who revered him and were obsessed with turning post-War jazz into a kind of American classical music.
In this regard, Wynton Marsalis became Blakey"s most important disciple, a testament to the fiery drummer"s seminal influence. The easy romanticizing of hard bop, and its surprising prominence in the 1990s, elevated in importance the Jazz Messengers"s first early recordings. The emphasis by critics on purity and swing lent a new luster to these tired 1950s records and brought belated-acclaim for Blakey"s stunning early 1960 releases (especially the adroit "Free For All" and the haunting "Freedom Rider" in which Blakey"s extended solo is the paragon of jazz modernism). In this fresh critical light, Blakey"s recordings from the 1980s and early 1990s were viewed as a welcome revival.
His younger-generation Messengers performed jazz standards with verve and, at times, brilliance but contributed few original tunes worth remembering. Still, Blakey was a magnet for young talent, and he showcased such top young players such as Mulgrew Miller, Javon Jackson, Bobby Watson and Donald Harrison. The nostalgia for Blakey"s most fertile period and the renewed appreciation for straight-ahead jazz has meant that music from the 1970s - Blakey"s "down" period in terms of popularity - has been unfairly neglected.
During the decade of the 1970s, American audiences abandoned acoustic jazz, and Blakey struggled to retain first-class musicians and the support of record labels and club owners in the U.S. Setting aside his neo-bop classicism, which he pioneered, Blakey took in band members whose tastes were decidedly more pop than jazz. Chuck Mangione"s little-known stay in the Messengers"s trumpet chair was perhaps the ultimate reflection of the breakdown in the cultural concensus about the elements of authentic jazz. Yet for Blakey afficianados, the 1970s have much to offer, as a new re-issue from Fantasy Records demonstrates. Mission Eternal contains two full albums recorded by a superb Blakey band in March 1973 and originally released by the Prestige label under the titles of "Buhaina" and "Athenagin." A cut below Blakey"s best recordings of the 1960s, these albums nevertheless show an awareness of the avant-garde, a taste for Latin beats and inspired performances by strong sidemen. Cedar Walton anchors the group on piano and contributes some strong compositions, notably Mission Eternal. Carter Jefferson, an inventive saxophonist who deserves wider appreciation, strikes a good balance between fidelity to standards and the inevitable search for new sounds. His solo on "Gertrude"s Bounce" is brutish yet melodic. Vocalist Jon Hendricks, who joins the group on two cuts, is mesmerizing on the jazz standard "Moanin"" and ghostly on "Along Came Betty," an original by Benny Golson that Hendricks put lyrics to. And conga player Tony Waters is steady throughout, no small achievement given Blakey"s commanding presence on drums...