ART BLAKEY: JAZZ MESSENGER

By Leslie Gourse
Schirmer Trade Books

Art Blakey was the hard bop drummer par excellence. The versatile percussionist could accompany anyone from Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver to Dr. John and Billy Eckstine, amplify their ideas and make them sound better. Furthermore legions of promising soloists passed through the ranks of his Jazz Messengers during its more than 30-year existence, honing their skills and being trained as potential leaders. You could almost say that the mainstream, neo-con version of jazz was created and nurtured by Blakey with many of its most prominent figures — definitely including Wynton Marsalis — former Jazz Messengers.

At the same time, the poorly educated, Pittsburgh-born drummer was an inveterate liar, not above telling several versions of a story to anyone who would listen. He was often untrustworthy and treated money haphazardly, always partying and lavishly spending more than he had. His careful placement of accents when he played wasn’t reflected in his driving, which was erratic and sometimes dangerous. And if his habits meant coming up short in the wage department for his sideman, it didn’t seem to bother him. Which may be another reason the Messengers “graduated” so many musicians.

Married — and divorced — four times, with three of the relationships legally constituted, Blakey, the casual bigamist, was also the father of 10 children, most of them legitimate. Additionally he was a junkie for most of his life — favorite kick: heroin — and someone who unlike Miles Davis or Gerry Mulligan, for instance, who both finally went cold turkey, never stayed off the needle for very long.

Trying to traverse the contradictions in Blakey’s chameleon personality would be a major project for anyone. Leslie Gourse, author of 30 books, who made her reputation with best-selling biographies of less mercurial types like singers Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughn and Joe Williams is somewhat out of her depth dealing with Abdullah Ibn Buhaina to use his Muslim name.

You can tell Gourse, who never interviewed Blakey when he was alive, is having trouble when you note that the slim (209-page) volume, begins with three pages of the drummer’s “words of wisdom, mantras and maxims” and eight pages of chronology. Furthermore, the book has no discography, although she frequently interrupts the narrative to run down the personnel of nearly every later Blakey LP and cites contemporary reviews of the sessions.

A proud fighter for jazz — every one of his performances included a plea to the audience to buy more jazz records by anyone, not just the Messengers, Blakey was also a proud African American. Associated with the hard bop genre that was almost exclusively black, his take-no-nonsense attitude left him with a serious head injury after he acted too “uppity” on a Southern tour in the 1940s. Yet he harbored no racial animosity. Two of his wives and many of his sidemen were white, and he always insisted that jazz was an American, rather than an exclusively black contribution to music. His conversion to Islam also seemed a catch-as-can decision, since reconciling a heroin habit with the Koran would take some doing, and his few attempts to follow a proper, no-alcohol Muslim diet and lifestyle were doomed to failure.

That’s the frustration with this book. Although Gourse seems to have done impressive legwork, interviewing as many people who were associated with the drummer and reading as many press accounts as she could, she ends up with factoids rather than insight. Perhaps, as can be expected from someone who has also written a book on Marsalis, she overvalues the tenure with the Messengers of someone she characterizes as “the handsome wunderkind”. Still, readers with the sense of humor Marsalis lacks, will probably the amused by the drummer’s oft-repeated opinion that Marsalis should have stayed longer with his band to learn more about playing jazz.

Other than that, most of the anecdotes that don’t suddenly turn into stories not involving Blakey — a common failing when dealing with someone who was in the centre of the gossipy New York jazz scene for more than 50 years — tend to be of the common hero worship or petty annoyance variety. Sidemen, friends and relatives rely petty grievances, while other sidemen, musicians, journalists and bookers explain what a great player Blakey was and how this or that situation was affected by his attitude and skills.

Gourse is also so unfamiliar with the scene or unintentionally naïve at times. In what might be the understatement of all time at one point she writes that: “If anything put a damper on Blakey’s life during this time — aside from the American public’s lukewarm attitude towards jazz —…” and goes on to describe the murder of Lee Morgan. Cocky Morgan, the Jazz Messengers’ earliest star trumpeter, was spectacularly shot to death on stage at New York’s Slug’s Saloon by his jilted common-law wife. Witnessing the shooting may have affected patrons and other musicians on the stand — many of whom were also former Blakey sidemen — a lot more than the drummer, who was so busy working he didn’t attend the funeral. The incident also (ahem) “put a damper” on Morgan’s life and career.

Because of his important work codifying hard bop and creating one of the most powerful and most instantly identifiable drum styles, Art Blakey obviously should be honored with a serious biography that outlines his achievements. Gourse tries, but unfortunately she seems out of her depth. If you’re an absolute completist when it comes to Blakey or hard bop, then definitely investigate the volume. It has some telling anecdotes and good research

The rest of us can hope that someday someone else can pick up the drummer’s story and tell it as well in prose as Blakey did on his kit.

— Ken Waxman