Art Blakey Biography

Art Blakey
Name: Art Blakey Drums: Gretsch
Born: October 11, 1919 Cymbals: Zildjian
Origin: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Sticks: Gretsch
Official Website

Who Is Art Blakey?

A son of the early jazz and swing eras, Art Blakey was pivotal in the early developments of modern bebop that took place in the 1940s, as well as of the careers of countless influential jazz musicians through his groundbreaking and award-winning Jazz Messengers. Born to Bertram Blakey, a barber, and Marie Roddericker, Arthur William “Art” Blakey’s life was rocky even before he was born.

Bertram abandoned Marie shortly after their shotgun wedding. Art Blakey’s broken home would collapse six months after his birth, when his mother’s untimely death left him as an orphan. This series of misfortunes would ultimately lead Art Blakey to the path of music.

Fostered by her mother’s first cousin, Sarah Oliver Parran, Art Blakey grew up learning to play music. The house he was raised in had a piano where one of Sarah’s kids played and practiced. Listening to the piano sparked Art Blakey’s curiosity. With his foster brother as a blueprint, Art Blakey learned as much as he could entirely by ear. At school, he took part in the school-band directed by one Mr. Kelly, who forced him to play the tuba instead of his instrument of choice, the trumpet.

Art Blakey’s formal education was troubled. Pennsylvania’s integrated school-system at the time was packed with bigots who hindered his learning experience, hailing constant conflict between him and the school authorities. The school-band was just one of those many examples and the one that ultimately led him to quit school and start working. Unfortunately, things would get even worse before getting better. While growing up in Sarah’s house, Art Blakey never suspected he had been adopted. He was around 13 years old when he found out.

She had two kids of her own, and you know how kids are jealous. When they told me she wasn’t my mother, that just tore me up. When I found that out, I didn’t say nothing. I just split.” – Art Blakey in “Art Blakey” by Chip Stern, Modern Drummer Magazine, September, 1984.

Alone in the world for the second time, Art Blakey found in a Jones & Laughlin steel mill in Pittsburgh a place where he could make a living. Child labor was allowed at the time, so he made the best out of that situation. However, working in a mill was a very dangerous and demanding job. Fearing for his life and dreaming of a brighter future, Art Blakey put together a band where he was pianist and musical director and landed a steady gig at the Ritz club in Pittsburgh.

I call ours the music of survival. I’m a Depression baby. I was orphaned in Pittsburgh—I didn’t know my dad, and my mother died when I was six months old, so I played jazz on account of survival because I didn’t like to work in the mines.” – Art Blakey in a Steve Voce’s article for the London Independent Newspaper.

Art Blakey’s career on the piano would end abruptly at the hands of the Ritz’s owner, a gangster, after two years of performing in his club. Unable to play a song on the piano, Art Blakey allowed fellow jazz-pianist Erroll Garner, who had been siting on a corner, to take a stab at it. Erroll lacked music-reading skills but had an incredible ear for music. He sat down on the piano and was able to play the piece instantly. Impressed by Garner’s performance, the club owner ordered Art Blakey to move over to the drum set if he wanted to keep his job. Art accepted the offer on the spot but had a small hindrance: he lacked a drum set. Seeing this was actually an issue, the club owner took care of it after having a talk with Art Blakey’s drummer about his drum set. Surprisingly, Art Blakey was able to sit on the drum set that night and play well enough to keep his band going. He further developed his playing technique by performing constantly.

When we’d get through playing at night, it was daybreak: 6:00. Then we’d play the breakfast show. After that we’d have a jam session which would go on until like 2:00 in the
afternoon. So maybe by 3:00 I’d get to bed, and be back in the club again at 8:30. So I never stopped, really. I was playing all the time so I didn’t have to worry about practicing. At home, I didn’t have much time, but when I did, I’d usually just practice on a pillow. I’d never practice on a pad because a pillow would make me pick up my sticks (…) So I’d practice on the pillow, stretch my wrists and then go off and play.
” – Art Blakey in “Art Blakey” by Chip Stern, Modern Drummer Magazine, September, 1984.

When not performing or practicing, Art Blakey found in Pittsburgh clubs a great way to keep furthering his knowledge on the drum set. Watching guys like Kenny Clarke, Jimmy Peck and Sammy Carter play live taught Art Blakey a lot about the instrument. Nonetheless, it was through James “Honey Boy” Minor that Art learned the most about drums, in Pittsburgh, especially in regard to showmanship and live performances.

Art Blakey’s next mentor was non-other than Chick Webb, one of the greatest swing drummers to ever live. They met during one of Art Blakey’s performances, and Chick Webb began mentoring him immediately.

Art Blakey’s first big gig was with pianist Mary Lou Williams’s band at Kelly’s Stable, New York City in 1942. The following year he began playing in Fletcher Henderson’s band. During a tour in the South with that band, Art Blakey was severely beaten by the police. He recovered in Boston, Massachusetts where he was invited to join singer Billy Eckstine’s big band in 1944, one of the first to play bebop-influenced arrangements. Legendary jazz musicians and bebop trailblazers like Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker were musicians in that band as well.

In 1947, and after Billy Eckstine’s big-band disbanded, Art Blakey formed a 17-piece big band he christened as the 17 Messengers. The band played around New York for a while before disbanding due to its inability to earn enough money to keep going. Curiously, Art Blakey’s first recording as a leader was done with a stripped-down version of the 17 Messengers, featuring eight of its musicians. The band was called the Art Blakey’s Messengers. In 1948, Art Blakey traveled to Africa to study philosophy and the Islamic religion. He returned to the United States as Abdullah ibn Buhaina, the name he adopted after converting to Islam.

I didn’t go to Africa to study drums – somebody wrote that – I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion. When I was growing up I had no choice, I was just thrown into a church and told this is what I was going to be. I didn’t want to be their Christian. I didn’t like it. You could study politics in this country, but I didn’t have access to the religions of the world. That’s why I went to Africa. When I got back people got the idea I went there to learn about music.” – Art Blakey, quoted by Herb Nolan in DownBeat Magazine, November, 1979.

After his return, Art Blakey worked with many of the greatest jazz musicians of the time. However, it was through one of his personal endeavors that he became known as one of the biggest names in jazz-music history. Art Blakey’s career-spanning band, the Jazz Messengers, began in 1954 as a group he co-led with pianist Horace Silver. Their seminal recording A Night at Birdland (1954) served as the launching pad for the hard-bop style of jazz. Hard bop is an extension of bebop that incorporates elements of rhythm and blues, blues and gospel music. Art Blakey took over the group’s name when Horace Silver left with all the other musicians from the Jazz Messengers, one year after the band’s inception. From there on the band became known as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Career Highlights & Musical Projects

For over 30 years, Art Blakey used the Jazz Messengers as a proving ground for young musicians. He allowed them to fine tune their concepts and distinctive styles so they could become leaders on their own right. Through the Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey became way more than one of the best jazz drummers of all-time, he became one of the greatest bandleaders.

I don’t want nobody in my band too long, because this ain’t no Modern Jazz Quartet. When cats stay too long, they get complacent, get big heads, and then it’s time to get out, buddy, because
there are no stars in this band: The band is the star. When you keep cats too long, they start to get a little too relaxed. Besides, I like to hear different interpretations.
” – Art Blakey in “Art Blakey” by Chip Stern, Modern Drummer Magazine, September, 1984.

Guys like Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Bill Pierce, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Freddi Hubbard, Doug Watkins, Donald Harrison, Curtis Fuller, Jackie McLean, Valery Ponomarev, James Williams, Benny Golson, Bobby Watson and Kenny Garrett are just a few of the many musicians that graduated from the Jazz Messenger’s academy with flying colors. Some of them were responsible for most of the Jazz Messengers’ original compositions, seeing Art Blakey almost never composed any. For a more detailed look on the work Art Blakey developed with his Jazz Messengers, click on this link.

Aside from his many recordings with the Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey was able to play and record with some of the greatest names in jazz-music history. In 1947, Genius Of Modern Music Volume 1 brought together Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey. Blakey’s drumming fit Monk’s music so well that they repeated this partnership for Genius Of Modern Music Volume 2 (1951), The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956) and Monk’s Music (1957).

In 1950 Art Blakey performed alongside Charlie Parker, a leading figure in the development of bebop, at Birdland in New York. This once in a lifetime performance was recorded and released as One Night At Birdland. The following year saw the paring of Art Blakey with Miles Davis for the recording sessions of Blue Period. In 1952 Art Blakey was once again hired to play on a Miles Davis record. The end result was Dig, considered one of Art’s finest recordings during this period. Art Blakey and Miles Davis would work on three more albums: Miles Davis (1952), Blue Haze (1953), and Conception (1956).

Art Blakey’s long list of awards includes Newport Jazz Festival Hall of Fame (1976), DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame Reader’s Choice Award (1981), Smithsonian Performing Arts Certificate of Appreciation (1982), Jazz Hall of Fame Induction (1982), Grammy Award for best jazz instrumental performance in a group setting for the album New York Scene (1984) and Doctorate of Music for the Berklee College of Music (1987).

Art Blakey left us on October 16, 1990; he was 71 years old when he fell victim to lung cancer. Art Blakey worked fiercely to make sure the Jazz Messengers delivered spot-on performances and great recordings for well over 35 years. His dedication to jazz music, and especially to hard bop, enabled the establishment of one of the greatest legacies in jazz music.

What Can We Learn From Art Blakey?

Art Blakey’s drumming was heavily influenced by drummers from the swing era as he was starting out. Guys like Chick Webb, Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett made a huge impact in the way he developed his musicality and chops on the drum set. The recordings Art Blakey was a part of during his stint with Billy Eckstine are a great example of how influential these drummers were in his playing.

Art Blakey’s drum set sounded pretty much like Webb’s and the way he played accents were reminiscent of Big Sid. His attitude on the drums and his swing feel were all Papa Jo Jones. It’s important to keep in mind that at that point in time Art Blakey was playing for about ten years. In a time where drummers focus heavily on developing their own style, Art Blakey’s growth comes to show how long it can take for one to get a voice of their own. Stylistic development takes time and can’t be rushed. Whenever you feel discouraged with the way your own style is developing, relax and remember that even a legendary drummer like Art Blakey had to work years on end to have a unique voice on the drum set.

Once he was able to create a distinguishable style of his own, Art Blakey became one of the major influences in the way jazz was played. One of Art Blakey’s greatest trademarks was his intense time-feel. This was accomplished by playing a bit ahead of the beat, without rushing, while keeping heavily accentuated strokes on counts 2 and 4 with his right hand on the ride cymbal and left foot on the hi-hat pedal. Although jazz drumming is usually based on playing lightly, Art Blakey’s approach is a great example of how to use a louder style of playing without disrupting the music, while enhancing the overall feel and intensity.

Art Blakey’s trademark heavy-hi-hat stomping was often interrupted to incorporate polyrhythms within his regular time-keeping. This was accomplished by stomping quarter note triplets over 4/4 time, creating 3-over-2 polyrhythms. Art Blakey was one of the first drummers to incorporate this type of concept into jazz music.

We couldn’t talk about Art Blakey’s playing without mentioning the utterly powerful and dynamic way in which he performed multiple bounce rolls, or press rolls, on the snare drum. He played them everywhere. By placing multiple bounce rolls at the end of a phrase or as a lead-in to a soloist, he was able to attain a very dramatic and musical effect by moving from a soft to a deafening drum roll using a crescendo. Drum rudiments are great for creating all types of textures and creative musical statements. We hope the way Art Blakey spiced up his drumming with multiple bounce rolls serves as a great example to what one can do when using drum rudiments creatively.




  • Carl says:

    thanks a lot for this article. i was moved to listen to Dig just now after having heard It’s Only A Paper Moon on the radio the other nite. doesn’t Blakey use only a snare and bass drum on this recording?

  • Justin says:

    Love the way Art Blakey played the drum kit. Art’s band is such an amazing introduction to jazz for anyone who wants to learn the jazz language. Great article.

  • charlie casey says:

    always admired art and his drum style i learned much from just listening and using some of his riffs in my style