Art Blakey at Jacob's Pillow
The two most memorable experiences I had hearing Art Blakey, whose 94th birthday anniversary is today, occurred in Western Massachusetts. The first took place at the Pines Theater Jazz Festival in Northampton in 1981 when Wynton Marsalis made his area debut with the Jazz Messengers. (Here's the Messengers at the Smithsonian in 1982 with the Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Billy Pierce, Donald Brown, and Charles Fambrough.)
The second was almost more memorable, but not so much for the music as for the circumstances. This involved Blakey’s appearance at Jacob's Pillow in 1986. The renowned dance theater in Becket presented a jazz series for several years in the mid-80’s at which Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Susannah McCorkle, and other jazz greats appeared.
The Blakey concert took place on a Sunday afternoon in September; I’m certain of the month because it was hurricane season and on that day everything about the weather felt ominous. At one point while sitting at a traffic light on Route 20 in Westfield, we were in dry sunshine while the car directly behind us was clearing rain from its windshield, the only time I've experienced that strange phenomenon. When we arrived at the Pillow, the scene was unpromising. Power was out on the grounds, and the theater, even with its wide front and back doors opened, was completely dark. Becket Fire Department officials arrived to get a backup generator operating, and after awhile there was enough current to power the stage lights and a bass amp, but the sound system was out for the afternoon.
Art Blakey was undeterred. After all, he was the ultimate Jazz Messenger. When he took the stage he thanked us for coming out and for our patience, then in his inimitably gruff way said, “Max Roach and Buddy Rich wouldn’t put up with this, but we’ve got a message to deliver.” Blakey introduced his sidemen, which on that occasion included pianist Mulgrew Miller, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint, and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. For the next hour and a half, the Messengers made us forget about the weather.
Here's that same Messengers lineup a year earlier at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy.
As I recalled in a memorial tribute to Mulgrew Miller in May, I first saw the pianist in 1978 when he was at UMass with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under Mercer Ellington's leadership, and two years later with Betty Carter. But it wasn't until his appearance with Blakey in Becket that I really took notice of this powerhouse pianist with a lyrical touch. Over the next 25 years, I never missed a chance to see Grew in person. Here he is recalling how "blessed" he felt to work with Blakey and the "significance of being called a messenger" who made music "for the betterment of mankind."
Speaking of Western Mass, John Ramsay attended UMass in the 70's before joining Blakey as a second drummer and road manager. Ramsay has been the Chair of the Percussion Department at Berklee for many years. In this interview, he recalls a "huge lesson" he learned from Blakey. Unbeknownst to Ramsay, Art heard him sitting in one night at the 1369 Jazz Club in Cambridge and afterward told him, "John, when you're on the bandstand, you don't have to prove nothin'. All you have to do is swing."