The history of Gretsch drums is inseparably linked to the history of American music. And never was that more true than during the “Golden Age” of jazz that began at the end of the 1940s and ran through the early 1960s. In those years jazz dominated New York’s legendary 52nd Street club scene, with groups powered by stellar drummers playing on Gretsch drumsets.
“First among equals” in a group that included Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and “Philly Joe” Jones was the inimitable Art Blakey. Art’s unique drumming style combined a primal force and an elemental simplicity. With a driving 2/4 hi-hat pulse, a hissing ride cymbal sound, and loud snare and bass drum accents in triplets or cross-rhythms, Art streamlined the swinging groove of bebop, making it less busy and spasmodic.
Art established himself in the 1940s, working as a sideman for some of the biggest jazz artists of the day. During that same period he visited West Africa—after which he converted to Islam and took the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina (which led to his nickname of “Bu”).
In the early 1950s Art formed the Jazz Messengers, a group based on his belief that a jazz group should be a solid cohesive unit, not just “five guys blowing on the same changes.” Accordingly, the Jazz Messengers rhythm section didn’t just play time behind the horns. Instead they backed up the horn section solidly and would set up the soloist—who, in turn, would listen and pick up cues that would be thrown his way.
For more than thirty years this legendary group served as the launching pad for young players who would influence music for generations to come. Just a short list of Messengers alumni includes Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Wynton Marsalis.
One of the pinnacles of Art’s career was his appearance on the unparalleled jazz classic album Gretsch Drum Night At Birdland. Recorded live at the famous New York City nightclub in 1960, this remarkable album documents performances by four great Gretsch drum artists: Blakey, Charlie Persip, Elvin Jones, and “Philly Joe”Jones.
Long-time Gretsch AR director Phil Grant said of Blakey, “Art was everybody’s all-time drummer. He was an individualist, a soloist. Not the greatest technician, by far. But he made up for that with his ideas and innovations; the way he did things. When he played a roll, it wasn’t the greatest roll, but it did things for you. He was quite a guy.”
Art continued to perform with the Jazz Messengers into the late 1980s. Over the years his force and fury on the drums eventually cost him much of his hearing. At the end of his life he often played strictly by instinct. Art died in 1990, leaving behind an enviable legacy and an approach to jazz that’s still the model for countless hard-bop players.
Enjoying Art Blakey
YouTube has an abundance of clips that showcase Art Blakey in his innovative prime, as well as clips from his later years when he was as much a musical mentor as a bandleader. To begin with, check out a great Blakey drum solo from 1965 here.
Who says jazz can’t groove? Listen to “Moanin’,” performed by Art and The Jazz Messengers live in Belgium in 1958 here.
Art’s dynamic approach is evident on “Dat Dere,” played with the Messengers on a TV appearance in 1961 here.
A trademark drum intro and a dynamic solo by Art spice up a super-cool jazz waltz called—appropriately enough—“Kozo’s Waltz”—from the classic ANight In Tunisia album. A clip from the record can be seen here.
You can see and hear the terrific interplay between Art and the various soloists in the Messengers playing “Close Your Eyes” on another TV clip from the 1960s. The sidemen are Lee Morgan – trumpet, Wayne Shorter – sax, Jymie Merritt – bass, and Walter Davis – piano. The clip can be seen here.
Art Blakey’s discography as a solo artist, as a sideman with other jazz greats, and as the leader of The Jazz Messengers is a study in itself, which you can pursue at WikiPedia or AllMusic.com. Just to get you started, three classic Blakey recordings to check out include The Big Beat (Blue Note, 1960), A Night In Tunisia (Blue Note, 1960), and Ugetsu—Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers At Birdland (Riverside, 1963). They’re available through Amazon, CDUniverse, and other online sources.