Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers have been on my mind, and my CD player, the last couple weeks as I've been reading Alan Goldsher's "Hard Bop Academy," which I finished this week. Goldsher didn't write a book about Blakey, although there's plenty about the legendary drummer and band leader in it. He focused instead on the Messengers' sidemen over the decades, a list which, of course, reads like a who's who of jazz luminaries. (On trumpet, take your pick of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis or Terence Blanchard, among others. Sax Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison and more. Piano, Horace Silver, Keith Jarrett, Bobby Timmons, Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton ... you get the idea.)
Goldsher basically acted as a facilitator to get these guys to talk about each other, the Messengers legacy and playing for Blakey. It makes for a quick, enjoyable read that reminds me of "Loose Balls," Terry Pluto's fun book about the wild and crazy days of the American Basketball Association.
Among the things I found interesting, Blakey wanted talented guys young, or at least not yet big names, and when they got old enough or big enough, he booted them out, sometimes even if they wanted to stay, and brought in somebody new. Part of it was to keep salaries in line, sure, but part of it was his conception of the Messengers as a training ground for great jazz musicians, composer-arrangers and band leaders. Part of it also was that a steady infusion of new guys (and for awhile a gal, Joanne Brackeen on piano, which in my mind says a lot about Art Blakey) kept him challenged and kept the band constantly fresh.
I was listening to a couple prime examples as I wrote this, "Album of the Year," Timeless Records, and "Keystone 3," Concord. These are 1981 and '82 dates with guys like the Marsalis brothers, Blanchard, Harrison and Bobby Watson and I swear the music is just as vibrant as a classic like "Moanin'" with Morgan, Golson and Timmons in 1958. "Duck Soup" and "Soulful Mr. Timmons" on "Album of the Year" are, like so much Messenger stuff, loaded with incredible ensemble play and memorable solos and I think "In Walked Bud" and "In a Sentimental Mood" on "Keystone 3" rate with any version of either standard that I've heard. "In a Sentimental Mood," in fact, is an extremely clever recasting of the song, no less so than Archie Shepp's avant-garde version on "Live in San Francisco," Impulse, a favorite of mine. "Waterfalls" on Keystone 3 makes you understand why Wynton Marsalis created such a stir when he came on the scene.
My buddy Carl Abernathy will tell you there's no such thing as a bad Jazz Messengers album and I'm inclined to agree. Art Blakey, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina to his friends, made sure of that.