Art Blakey, the late jazz drummer and band leader would have been 90 years old this year had he lived. He was born in October 11, 1919. He died on October 16, 1990. October also happened to be the month that I met him and his Jazz Messengers 30 years ago when I was a young writer.The following reflections are a tribute to one of my favorite musicians.
Impressions of Art
The man on stage peered at me from behind his drums. He sent rhythms to my table – a beat not intended for the rest of the crowd. We had never met, but something about him seemed so familiar. It was like his spirit knew mine. My friends Janet and Desda, seated next to me, noticed our exchange. Was it déjà vu, they wondered. So did I. It was October, 1980. We were at Bubba’s, Ft. Lauderdale’s place for jazz and a social oasis for me and my collective of sister friends who often joined me on my frequent forays into the night.
On this night, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were the club headliners. It was Art who sent me the gaze from the stage. I had seen most of the jazz groups at Bubba’s during the year that I moved to South Florida from North Carolina. They were all class acts, but this group was different. Four young, hot, be-bopping sidemen led by a dynamic and high-spirited elder on drums.
Their music was frenetic and electrifying. They projected so much energy and appeared to be having so much fun.
Charles Fambrough the workhorse walked all over the bottom with his upright bass.
Wynton Marsalis, New Orleans born and bred. Trumpeter extraordinaire. Nineteen years old and cocky. His solo generated deafening applause. With hand to stomach, trumpet pulled close to his side, he bows low, eases up, steps back to his place and nods confidently as if he is agreeing with what the audience knows about this young lion. He is cool.
Bashful Bobby Watson on alto sax worked like a woodpecker, rapidly and relentlessly pecking his listeners with hard driving riffs that made them shout. After his unmerciful solo, that grown man blushed and giggled when the audience showed their appreciation with wild applause. Billy Pierce, the tenor saxophonist and pianist James Williams, were the low profile Messengers. Their stage presence was subdued, but their sound was solid and tight.
Then there was Art. Ebony Art. Mouth wide open, eyes rolled back, growling, flirting and drumming himself into ecstasy. Somewhere along the way Art invited me into the fold. He approached our table during a break. Short and slightly bow-legged, there was a swagger in his stride. His dark skin was set off by a natty white suit and hair of salt and pepper gray.
“Are you a drummer?” he said to me in a deep, gravely voice that growled. I would rather have been mistaken for a singer or dancer. But even though his opening line suggested that playing percussion was my pastime, I was still charmed and intrigued by this squat little man who was leader of the band.
When the show was over and we prepared to leave, Art took my hand and asked me to stay. “I love you so much,” he said. I disengaged my hand and laughed at his open lie. But days later I took him up on his offer to meet him for coffee that I don’t even drink.
We spent an engaging afternoon of musing about music, storytelling and sharing particulars about our lives. I gave him a sketch of my life as a 20-something neophyte news reporter, originally from Ohio, most recently from North Carolina, by way of D.C. I shared an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale suburb with a reporter who worked for the competition. She was my professional enemy but personal friend I talked about being in self-imposed exile from the delightfully distracting social life of the Chocolate City to focus on developing my career. I shared how I loved the South Florida weather, access to the islands and Bubbas. I hated the racism, was tolerating my job and biding my time.
Art shared snippets about his life, his music and his politics. He was raised in Pittsburgh and grew up in foster care. His first musical training was on piano, but he switched to drums. He was married several times, fathered several children and adopted several more. He ranted about lack of appreciation for the richness of black culture and lamented the disrespect for jazz. He brimmed with worldly wisdom.
October 11, 1980. It was Art Blakey’s birthday and a party at my place was in the works. We cooked by committee. Desda called in from work to give us her recipe for pigeon peas and rice. Beverly made her sweet golden cornbread and Pat prepared the fried chicken and cabbage. My pecan pie was sticky but my carrot cake, sublime.
“You’re rare,” said bassman Fambrough, marveling over how we interacted as friends and extended our friendship to them. “You’re real good sistahs.”
I told him that it was an even exchange; our thanks for bringing us the music that we greatly appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed.
When we set the food out, I blew a chord on my blues harp and we all sang Happy Birthday to Art.
Art was 61 years old in age and 17 years young in spirit. He was cunning and comical. He kept his Messengers laughing and also drove them mad.
They called their beloved band leader a “triflin’ nigga with three Cadillacs and a van.” Their colorful stories about Art were endless and hilarious.
Fambrough hated the nights when Art made the otherwise impeccably-dressed Messengers dress in identical blue denim overalls. Art made it difficult for them to maintain any semblance of cool when they were dressed like refugees from the 1960's Poor Peoples March and had to watch him roam the stage sermonizing about black consciousness and his love of jazz.
Wynton’s story about his Blakey moment was punctuated with profanity and funny as hell. Wynton told us how he once got fed up with having to travel to their long distance gigs by bus. He claimed that the log and rocky rides were giving him hemorrhoids and decided to confront Art with his complaint. He went to his hotel room one night and demanded that he let them fly. Art listened patiently to Wynton’s tirade. When Wynton finished, Art gave him a great big hug. “I love you guys.” he said, growling softly in Wynton's ear.
Wynton claimed that Art held him so close that he could feel his “Johnson” pressing up against his leg. For that fleeting, affectionate moment, Wynton thought that Art was going to give his Messengers a break and let them travel to their next gig by plane. But the hug was only a momentary pacifier. As soon as the embrace was over, Art nonchalantly announced the travel plans for the next day.
“The bus leaves at 12:30,” he deadpanned. Wynton left the room angry and with no hope or help for his hemorrhoids.
The Messengers had a field day talking about Art’s prehistoric way with women. They called him the "Neanderthal Man," one who tactlessly pounced on his female prey and growled opening lines that were weak and obsolete. “Grrr, Hey Angel, when did you fall from Heaven? Rrr Hey Sweetness, is your husband married? Rrrr You have a great future 'behind' you.
To the Messengers envy, Art’s dated approach worked. The Messengers said that Art was never one to let his drumming get in the way of his flirting. He was skilled at playing patterns that gave him space to throw kisses to the women without missing a beat. Fambrough recalled how Art acted once when he noticed a woman getting all worked up over his performance. In the middle of the set, Art signaled Jimmy to play a solo on piano, bolted from the stage, bolted toward the woman’s table and launched into his Neanderthal act. Grrrr.
Art’s comical antics forced Fambrough to frequently play with his eyes closed in order to keep the beat.
During the final days of the Art Blakey experience, I struggled to keep my eyes open, so I could keep my job. I didn’t want to miss a moment of the Jazz Messenger’s last days at Bubba’s, so I got very little sleep. On Sunday morning following their last performance on Saturday night, I dragged into the newsroom and was was grateful that my assignments for the day were light. But I was also sad. I had gotten used to the fun and positive rhythms that Art and his Messengers bought into my life and I wasn’t ready to accept that they had taken their music and their madness to another place.
Postscript. October 2009.
I never got a chance to tell Art that the lame opening line he used on me when I first met him, turned out to be somewhat prophetic. I still make my living as a writer, but over the years I developed a passion for African drumming and became skilled enough to hold my own.
I also never got a chance to help Art produce the memoir that he had entertained notions of writing. After hearing his rich stories, I urged him to write a book about his life. I was unsure about my own abilities at the time, but was willing to record everything that he had to say and worry about editing later. Regrettably that time never came.
In my last conversation with Art, I asked him how he liked New York, the city that he had adopted as his home.
“I wouldn’t leave New York to go to heaven,” he told me.
Art died of lung cancer on October 16, 1990 in the same month that I met him nearly 30 years ago.
As as it turned out, Art ultimately did leave New York, and went to perform on a higher stage. My guess is that he is seated behind his cymbals, in the rhythm section of heaven, growling and flirting with a choir of angels, and drumming the demons out of hell.