Legendary drummer, mentor, and bandleader Art Blakey, born under the name James Edward Blakey on October 11, 1919 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, influenced drumming and jazz communities for many generations. In 1955 Blakey and Horace Silver co-founded the Jazz Messengers; the following year, Silver left the band, leaving it to Blakey, who led the Messengers until his passing on October 16, 1990.
Art Blakey played with Hank Mobley, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Wayne Shorter, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, and many others. He was awarded the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame Readers’ Choice Award in 1981, the Best Instrumental Jazz Performance Grammy in 1984, the 1985 Gold Disc from Japan’s Swing Journal in 2001, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, awarded posthumously. He was inducted into the Newport Jazz Festival Hall of Fame in 1976, the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1991, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and 2001, and the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2014.
This article will discuss Blakey’s influence as a band leader and sideman and his mentorship and influence on drummer Carl Allen and his generation of musicians. Stories and all quotes herein are shared from interviews this author conducted with Blakey’s mentee Carl Allen on November 7, 2021.
Milwaukee-born drummer, bandleader, entrepreneur, and educator Carl Allen is credited with more than 225 recordings. Allen grew up listening to multiple musical genres. After hearing Benny Carter play the saxophone, jazz became his focus. “When I understood how the music communicated and changed, it was jazz for me from then on,” Allen says. “This sense of curiosity has, to a great degree, governed my life.” Allen’s tours have taken him all over the world and he has nearly 70 credits as a producer. Allen’s teaching career includes 12 years at the Juilliard School from 2001–13. The last six of those years he served as the Artistic Director of Jazz Studies. He has given countless masterclasses and clinics at major institutions such as Berklee College of Music, University of Southern California, Northwestern University, Oberlin Conservatory, University of North Texas, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and in Australia, Holland, and New Zealand. Allen received an honorary doctorate in 2012 from Snow College (Ephraim, Utah), and later taught there as Adjunct Faculty. He accepted a faculty position in the Fall of 2021 as the William D. and Mary Grant/Endowed Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
I first met Allen in 2012 at a Juilliard Jazz Workshop in Ephraim, Utah. Allen continued to visit Snow College each semester, teaching and mentoring students during my undergraduate studies until I graduated in 2019. Throughout that time, our friendship grew through performing, teaching, and long drives to and from the airport.
Ryan Bond: Art Blakey had a great sense of humor, and there were always a few mysteries about him. What can you tell us about that?
Carl Allen: First of all, Art was a genius of a musician. There are so many things that are still a mystery about him. Freddie Hubbard and Benny Golson and many others said that nobody really knows when Art was born. On record, it says October 11, 1919. But the reason it was a mystery is because he was adopted. I hate this word, but he was an orphan, and Art used to use that term all the time. There was still some ambiguity about when he was actually born.
RB: You celebrated several of Blakey’s birthdays with him, correct?
CA: I remember hanging out with Art on his birthday at one of the famed clubs in New York called Sweet Basils. I said, “Art, Happy Birthday! So how old are you now?” Art said, “I’m 65 years old.” I said, “Oh man, that’s beautiful.” So, the following year I’m hanging out with Art again on his birthday at Sweet Basils and of course I said, “Art, Happy Birthday! So how old are you now?” Art replied, “I’m 65 years old.” I said, “Hmm, that’s interesting math.” So later I called Freddie Hubbard at home, and I said, “Hey listen man, I was just hanging with Bu, it’s his birthday and he says he’s 65” Freddie responded, “Man, he says 65? He was 65 when I was in the band.” So, who really knows how old Art really was?
Blakey started his musical career as a pianist, and he had to make a quick transition. Art was playing piano at a club in Pittsburgh, and some gangsters entered the club. Erroll Garner came into the club and the gangsters told Art, “Get off the piano so this man can play. You go over and sit behind the drums.” Art wasn't a drummer, but that started his drumming career.
Allen met Blakey for the first time in 1979 at the Jazz Gallery club in Milwaukee. In 1982 when Allen joined Freddie Hubbard’s group, Allen shares “That’s when Art and I really developed a relationship.” At the age of 63, Art began his big influence on Allen, who was 21, and his musical career. Not only was Blakey a role model and a great mentor, he taught life lessons and gave opportunities to many musicians.
CA: Art looks at me and he says, “Come here. Let's see. Yeah, Terrance here tells me you're playing with Freddie now.” I said, “Yeah, I’ve been playing with him for about six months or so.” Art said, “You know, Fred is a former Jazz Messenger.” He kind of looked around, then says, “Well, you know, since he's a former Messenger, and you're playing with him, you're now a Jazz Messenger.” I thought I was going to pass out!
RB: You credit many of your early gigs and first record deal to Blakey?
CA: I was on tour in Japan my very first time, 1987, with Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison. We were in Tokyo after the concert. This gentleman comes to me in the dressing room, introduced himself, and said, “My name is Makoto Kimata. I'm with Alpha records, and I’ve produced records for Art Blakey. I'm friends with Art, and he told me that I should give you a record deal.”
Allen thought that the other band members were playing a joke on him, so he checked the hallway, and no one was there.
CA: I made a deal with Kimata and did five records with him as a leader and produced over 50 more with him.
Blakey didn’t just influence drummers; he also had an influence on many musicians. Allen shares that he feels many musicians such as Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, Jackie McLean, and more tend to have a similar personality to Art. “When you spend significant time around a person, they become a part of you,” Allen says. Other musicians started to dress nicer, learn all the details of the music, and present themselves to be more like Blakey. Most of the musicians in Allen’s generation either played with Art Blakey or they played with someone who played with Art Blakey. Ray Brown once told Allen, “At some point all of the musicians, younger and older, were influenced by Art.”
In Allen’s early years, he would be at the jazz club every night when he wasn’t working. He would see Blakey play all the time, but he wasn’t the only drummer there watching for inspiration.
CA: There would be about 15 to 17 drummers just kind of hanging in the corner. These drummers would often include Cindy Blackman, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Ralph Peterson, Billy Drummond, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash, and more. It wasn't until after Art died that people like Devon Jackson and Donald Harrison and others would tell me, “Yeah, Carl, you were probably one of the more consistent younger drummers who were always there watching Art.”
Blakey is one of the great musical mentors, due to his long leadership of over 30 years with the Jazz Messengers and his influence on musicians. Allen had a great relationship with Blakey and considers Blakey a mentor. The impact of having a great mentor can change someone’s life.
CA: You know, sometimes a mentor is not trying to be your friend. I think younger musicians need mentors. Not only do they need mentors, they need to want to have a mentor. You can't force yourself on someone to be their mentor, and a mentor is not someone who's always going to tell you what you want to hear. They're not someone who's going to be concerned about if your feelings are hurt or not. Art would tell me some stuff sometimes, and I would just look at them like, “I thought you cared for me. How could you talk to me like that?” One of the great lessons that I learned from Art is that this is a community that you have to earn your way into. Art told me, “Just because you play drums, it don't make you one of us.bDon't get it twisted. We're not equal.” I was like, “Whoa.” He said, “You know, you're my competition.” I started laughing. I'm like, “Art, what are you talking about?” He says, “You don't see me as competition because you look up to me and you respect me and blah blah blah, but what do you do for a living?” I said, “I play drums.” Art says, “What do I do?” I said, “You play drums.” He said, “Yeah, essentially at the end of the day, we're both dependent on our phone ringing and for us to be able to work. And we both do the same thing. You're my competition.”
This conversation instilled a sense of urgency in Allen that continued to drive his success in music and in life.
Blakey’s playing has many significant characteristics such as his famous press roll, left-hand shuffle, bossa nova with a boogaloo-like pattern on the ride cymbal, “dropping bombs,” and more. Allen relates the story that “Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece and he wanted Art Blakey to play his press roll in it. I don’t remember what piece it was, but it speaks to how legendary Art’s press roll was. I would liken it to somebody maybe taking the phone book and ripping it in half. That's what it sounded like listening to Art play a press roll, it was that thunderous. I mean, the press roll sometimes would get so loud you would feel the stage shaking. It was unbelievable.”
Blakey’s left-hand shuffle pattern can be heard in many recordings, the most noteworthy being “Blues March.” His shuffle pattern and feel were unlike any drummer before. Benny Golson convinced Blakey to write a blues and that he should play it in a march style. Blakey didn’t think it was going to turn into anything special, but it became one of his most performed pieces. Allen shares, “I was trying to figure out how Art got his left hand to play that shuffle. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Blakey and the Jazz Messengers play a version of the song “Pensativa” by Clare Fischer on their Free for All album. Blakey plays a bossa nova with a boogaloo-like groove pattern on the ride cymbal. “It became so much a part of Art’s signature that people ask drummers to play “Pensativa” like Art. Something as simple as that conceptually is how he created a whole new kind of dance.”
Blakey’s playing style was consistent throughout the years; it didn’t change much with different bandmates. Drummers tend to adapt their playing style to fit the size of group they are playing with. It didn’t matter if Blakey played with a trio or a big band, he was consistent.
CA: Art played in a small group like it was the condensed big band. I'm talking about how he orchestrated and set up the band. Listen to any of those Jazz Messengers records; he wasn't playing like he was with a sextet. He was playing like there was a full trombone section, trumpet section, saxophones; it’s just how he heard the music. As a drummer, there are certain ways that one would typically set up a large ensemble versus a small ensemble. Art played in a small group like it was a big band. He set up a figure three and a half beats before the figure.
Blakey was a colossal influence on jazz and drumming communities and will remain a legend forever. His music, playing, presence, and mentorship affected many people’s lives and continues to do so today. Here are a few songs and albums that Blakey plays on that Carl Allen considers essential listening: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Free for All, Buhaina’s Delight, “Blues March,” Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, Cannonball Adderley’s Something Else, and Meet the Magical Trio with James Williams, Art Blakey, and Ray Brown that was released in the late ‘80s.
Ryan Bond is a percussionist in Las Vegas, Nevada where he is completing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Percussion at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) under the mentorship of Dr. Dean Gronemeier and Dr. Timothy Jones. Prior to completing a Master of Music degree at UNLV, he completed his Bachelor of Music at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah with an emphasis in Commercial Music. Ryan has performed with Opera Las Vegas among other notable ensembles, and with such artists as John Patitucci and Bernie Dressel while serving as the principal percussionist of the Grammy-nominated UNLV Wind Orchestra under the direction of Thomas G. Leslie. Along with his work as a performer, Ryan actively does clinics and teaches privately in the Vegas and Utah valleys. For more information about Ryan, visit his profile at orcid.org/0000-0002-1727-1769.