Art Blakey: The Big Band Jazz Drumming Legend

Art Blakey playing the drums
Art Blakey in action.

Arthur Blakey (1919-1990) is a jazz drumming legend—his fame grew in the 1940s when working in big bands. And he was bloody good.

Art Blakey

Blakey reminds us of Jo Jones a little—the showmanship, sense of joy in his playing, and natural ability.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania of the USA, his single mother died after his birth. Subsequently, his siblings helped to raise him as a surrogate mother.

Switching from piano to drums in his formative years, from 1939-1944 he performed with jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams whilst touring with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

Touring was stressful so, as was sort of the norm at the time, he and his band members indulged regularly in heroin use.

However, he eventually focussed on a clean-living lifestyle—although continued to smoke like a chimney for the rest of his life.

But he was soon at the top of the drumming world and, like Buddy Rich, could fashion a band around him.

And so, in late 1947, his act became Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. Whilst normally touring America, he also came over to England for a London performance (naturally).

However, on May 6th 1961 the band played in our very own Manchester at the Free Trade Hall (these days it’s a Radisson hotel).

The set opened with this chilled out little number. We’re not massive jazz music fans, but we like this one a lot.

As drummers, our interest in jazz lies with the guys behind the kit. And Blakey was versatile, dexterous, and flamboyant.

He’d often play looking up with an ecstatic expression on his face—the more religious than us have suggested he was looking up to thank God for his abilities.

Well, whatever, we just think he was having a great time. As once you’re in the groove there’s something pretty exhilarating about being behind a kit.

Also, we don’t see many drummers using them these days, but he was also happy to experiment around with swizzle drumsticks. Nice!

For us, Blakey had all the qualities the very best drummers possess. Natural flair, daunting limb independence, perfect timing, and the capacity to make it all look easy.

As drumming isn’t easy. It’s bloody difficult—to reach the level where you’re fronting a jazz banding as a lead drummer, that’s a mighty fine talent right there.

And he was drumming right up until his final years, his last live show a mere three months before his death in October 1990 of lung cancer.

Of his style, we see an aggressive approach with big dollops of bebop. And his limb independence was startling—something most drummers can only dream of and have to spend decades working on it.

Kind of a larger than life personality, his loud drumming style was matched away from music with four marriages, 10 children, and a voracious appetite for food.

Well, what’s left 30 years after his death is this outstanding legacy. We dig his drumming, man. And he’s more than worthy of joining our list of all time greats.

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