Art Blakey (1919-1990)

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Art Blakey, jazz drummer and band leader, was born Arthur William Blakey in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 11, 1919.  Blakey’s father, Burtrum, who worked as a barber, left his family when Blakey was a newborn.  Blakey lost his mother, Marie Roddericker, before his second birthday.  His cousin, Sarah Oliver Parran, and his extended family raised him until he moved out to work at the local steel mill around 1932.

As a teenager, Blakey began playing piano in Pittsburgh nightclubs. Influenced by the work of Chick Webb, Sid Catlett, and Ray Bauduc, Blakey soon started drumming. Throughout his early career, Blakey played drums for a variety of bands, including Mary Lou Williams’s twelve-piece band, the Henderson band, and the Billy Eckstine orchestra.  He met and collaborated with Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.  Blakey’s early work reflected swing style drumming, but he later popularized hard bop, which drew on bebop, blues, gospel, and African drumming styles.

In 1948, Blakey traveled to Africa.  The trip influenced him to convert to Islam and to change his name to Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.  Soon after his return he created the Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver. In 1956, Blakey became the sole leader of the band, which played and recorded until his death. The Jazz Messengers featured and mentored many upcoming jazz musicians, including Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw, and Lee Morgan among others.

Blakey’s key recordings include The Complete Blue Note Recordings of the 1960 Jazz Messengers and The Best of Art Blakey. Between 1959 and 1972, the Jazz Messengers also collaborated on multiple film soundtracks. In 1981, the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame inducted Blakey. In 1984, the Jazz Messengers won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Group Performance. Blakey also appeared in the documentary Art Blakey: The Jazz Messenger (1988) and video series Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Jazz at the Smithsonian (1982).

Blakey married successively Clarice Stuart, Diana Bates, and Ann Arnold and had at least ten children. Late in life, Blakey lost his hearing, but he still continued to play with the Jazz Messengers. Art Blakey died on October 16, 1990 in New York City.