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Hard Boppin’ Jazz Messages: The Music of Art Blakey and friends
By Walter Patton

Jazz is a musical form of many sub genres. Just as rock and roll has its progressive, classic, art and alternative classifications and blues possesses Delta, Chicago and Texas styles, jazz music also is characterized by multiple phases. From its earliest forms as New Orleans Traditional Jazz at the turn of the century right up to its funk overtones at the turn of the Millenium, jazz has been a constantly redefining idiom. Even though every single stage of development had its highlighted performances, jazz’s golden era arrived with the institution of hard bop. This sub genre was an extension of bebop, which first came about during the 1940s in New York City. Hard bop continued with the extended solos that Dizzy Gillepsie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk introduced but also added outside influences. Hard Bop also provided better examples of the players’ abilities – the solos were more technical, the tempos changes were fast and furious and the rhythmic drive was unrelenting. At the same time, hard bop looked to simpler music forms such as such as gospel, soul and the blues. The result was a very accessible sound that appealed to broad swath of the mainstream but at the same time, the music displayed the high skill level of the players. It was a golden time for jazz – everybody was listening, venues were filled to the brim and records were selling. Simultaneous, the musicians were pushing their own skill levels to the outer reaches. This would be one of the few instances where popularity and artistic endeavor went hand in hand. Following the hard bop era, jazz styles like free bop, fusion, free jazz and contemporary did not enjoy this duality.

Drummer Art Blakey can be attributed to for single handedly leading the hard bop movement. Not only did he create upbeat swinging and soulful tunes but his band served as a farm system for all the major players of the hard bop era. Just as Miles Davis nurtured both the free-bop and fusion jazz players of the late 1960s and early 1970s, pretty much all of the hot players of the late 1950s-early 1960s passed through Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at one time.

Although Art Blakey was a star drummer, he made sure that his front line players were top notch, and the 1957 version of the Jazz Messengers was no exception. For Reflections of Buhaina (Savoy Jazz, 1957, 2000), saxophonist Jackie McLean and trumpeter Bill Hardman handled the melody lines. While Hardman had established himself with Charles Mingus, McLean was a relative newcomer to the scene who had already recorded his own solo album but had spent little time in other bands. The rhythm section consisted of the relatively unknown pianist Sam Dockery and bassist Spanky Debrest. Although a mixture of unknowns, rising stars and future legends, a Blakey recording guaranteed a swinging well-polished recording. This version of the Jazz Messengers recorded nine albums during the productive 1956-1957 recording season. With so many recordings and live performances under their belt, the band played like a veteran outfit. Reflections of Buhaina opens up with "Casino" which was penned by former Jazz Messenger Gigi Gryce while three of the albums tunes, "The Biddie Griddies", "Ugh!" and the title track, were written by the great Tuba player Ray Draper. Draper wrote "Reflections of Buhaina" in honor of Blakey (Buhaina was part of Blakey’s Muslim name). The final cut, "Study in Rhythm", is Blakey all alone on the drums showing us that the fascination with Afro-Cuban jazz did not begin with Ry Cooder’s "Buena Vista Social Club" – people like Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie were making their experiments when Cooder was still just a lad. This re-release also contains four cuts from the Savoy album, The Bill Hardman Quintet(1961), which was the trumpeter’s only release as a leader.

As aforementioned, Art Blakey hired some of the best soloists in the business. Three such players were Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley. Trumpeter Lee Morgan was a member of the Jazz Messengers from 1958-1961, saxophonist Hank Mobley was a founding member that served in the band from 1954 to 1956 while Donald Byrd played with Blakey on numerous instances during the 1950s. Besides their stints with Blakey, they also recorded archetypical hard bop tunes on their own. The new compilation The Birth of Hard Bop Featuring Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley (Savoy, 2000) takes some of the best work from these three soloists early performances. The first three songs, "Budo", "I Married An Angel" and the "Jazz Message", was recorded during the first month of 1956 with founding Jazz Messenger, pianist Horace Silver (often considered the father of hard bop along with Blakey). A month later, Byrd joined up with Mobley to record the rip roarin’ "There Will Never Be another You" and "Cattin’" as well as the beautiful ballads, "Madeline" and "When I Fall in Love". By the summer’s arrival, Mobley and Byrd met up again to record a whole slew of tracks for a Mobley recording. Three of the tracks from theses sessions, alternate versions of "Space Flight", "Blues in #2" and "B for BB" , find there way on a recording for the first time. The final seven tunes on the CD feature Mobley and Lee Morgan teaming up.

These songs are a great overview of these three soloists early work. During the winter and summer of 1956, Mobley, Morgan and Byrd were the young lions of the jazz scene. Mobley was twenty-six , Byrd was twenty-four and Morgan was a mere eighteen years old. This trio was just at the beginning of their impressive careers. Before his untimely death in 1972, Morgan became one of the funkiest horn players in New York City, while Byrd experimented with gospel, funk and disco. Mobley never strayed far from the Hard Bop idiom but he was one of the best leaders of the era.

After these sessions with Mobley and Byrd, Morgan returned to Art Blakey. Between February and May of 1961, jazz drummer Art Blakey took his Jazz Messengers into Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio to record two legendary albums for Blue Note Records. It was a busy year for the band and Blue Note as they would record six albums together. For this incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, the talented saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, joined Morgan and Blakey. Throughout these sessions, Morgan and Shorter proved to be competent soloists but their lasting contribution is evident through their compositions. On The Witch Doctor( Blue Note Records 1961,1999) the two contributed two songs each (including Morgan’s title track) while all nine songs on the re-released version of Roots and Herbs ( Blue Note Records, 1961, 1999) were written by Shorter. It was Shorter’s ability to craft a melodic tune that eventually landed him in Miles Davis’ famous quintet of the mid-1960s. While with Davis, Shorter became a synonymous with subtle compositions while his work is much funkier and uptempo. This is evident with "Joelle" and "Those Who Sit and Wait" from The Witch Doctor and "Ping Pong", "United" and the title track from Roots and Herbs. As for the rhythm section, Blakey and his innovative style was always reliable yet progressive with bassist Jymie Merrit keeping perfect pace. Although Merrit never was a bandleader himself, his work should not be overlooked. Besides being a mainstay for Blakey during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Merrit also played Pianist Bobby Timmons, who loved to play the funky blues, was perfect for this session. Give one listen to his contribution to The Witch Doctor sessions, "A Little Busy", and you will here a song that lives up to its name as both Blakey and Timmons maintain a busy but catchy rhythm. What really shines in this track is Blakey’s uncanny ability to carry a tune from soft to aggressive through either steady escalating patterns or sudden eruptions. It was through his skill of changing moods, speeds and beats that Blakey single-handedly changed the sound of jazz. Unfortunately, it was also through this aggressive style of hi-hatting and snare drumming that Blakey also lost his hearing but this never deterred him from his passion and he continued to play right up till his death in 1992. Both re-releases feature the original notes plus some recently resurrected alternate takes from the original sessions.

Lee Morgan first skyrocketed to fame playing with Dizzy Gillepsie and then Art Blakey; but like fellow musicians Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Morgan had drug dependency problems. After playing on Messenger albums such as The Witch Doctor and African and Herbs, Morgan took a self-imposed sabbatical from music in order to combat drug addiction. Upon his return from his recuperation, he briefly joined Blakey but he really focussed his efforts on recording as a bandleader. When Morgan started playing, it seemed to that he wanted to try to play all styles available to him. His sessions ranged from the avant-garde with pianist Andrew Hill to funked out jazz with Hammond B3 organist Rueben Wilson. As a bandleader, his diversity followed a similar path. His 1964-1965 output featured funky albums like The Sidewinder and Cornbread and then he moved onto more modal/free-bop explorations like 1967’s The Sixth Sense (Blue Note, 1967, 2000) . Due to the success of rock and roll, The Sixth Sense is a relatively obscure session in the grand scheme of Morgan things, but it does feature great Morgan originals such as "Psychedelic" and "Anti Climax". Pianist Cedar Walton also contributes a fine composition, "Afreaka."

These albums and musicians are just the tip of the hard boppin’ iceberg, Look to the catalogs of Blue Note, Prestige, Savoy, Verve and Columbia and you will find all the great names that defined the era: Hancock, Davis, Coltrane, Silver, Blakey and many more.