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Art Blakey

Orphan from the Hill became world-famous jazz legend

When most people think of jazz drummer Art Blakey, they might think of his unique and influential style of playing, or his years spent with his wildly popular band the Jazz Messengers. What often goes unnoticed are his roots in the Hill.

Blakey was born on October 11, 1919 in Pittsburgh to a single mother who died soon after he was born. He was raised by a family friend, not learning until years later that his foster mother was not his biological mother. Growing up in a home on Chauncey Street, he received some piano lessons in school, and gained musical experience in his foster family’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His uncle, Rubi Blakey, was a well known choir director in the area - in the late 1930s the elder Blakey put on several concerts with his group at venues like the Warren Methodist United Church in the Hill and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall. 

As a young teen, Art worked in the Carnegie steel mills, an experience he later described as one he “would like to forget.” His talent for music soon gave him a route out of the rough, industrial work that was common in Pittsburgh, and by the time he was 14, Art was making money playing at clubs in the Hill. He started with piano, but soon switched to the drums when fellow Pittsburgh jazz legend Errol Garner needed a drummer for a gig. 

While gaining a variety of experience in Pittsburgh nightclubs, Blakey was still working other jobs to make ends meet. At 18, he married his first wife, Clarice Stewart and began a family. The 1940 U.S. Census locates the Blakey family, including two young daughters, living in the Hill at 613 Boone Way (a location eventually demolished as part of the 1950s Lower Hill redevelopment project), and lists Art’s primary occupation as a road construction laborer for the Works Progress Administration.  The census record also identifies 3 of Clarice’s siblings and an unrelated lodger at the same address, suggesting the young family’s straitened circumstances. 

In the early 1940s, however, Art began to gain steadier employment as a musician, securing a residency with Alyce Brooks in a group called the “Rhythm Maniacs” at the Coobus Club (later renamed the Celebrity) on Centre Avenue. He also toured with Mary Lou Williams, a jazz pianist and composer from East Liberty. By 1943, he began to work in Fletcher Henderson’s big band, though he would soon move on the next year to play with Billy Eckstine, another Pittsburgh native. Art would later drum for the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and in the mid-50s he formed his own band, the Jazz Messengers. 

Art’s drumming was intense and passionate. His playing provided every tune with a raw bed of energy which fed into the solos of other band members. He was also an innovator; contemporaries of his credit Art with being among the first to master complex musical stylings like polyrhythms, and he was said to be a master of maintaining independence between all four limbs while drumming. Critics have labeled his music as “hard bop”, a faster, more aggressive variant of be-bop which was reminiscent of jazz’s roots in the blues. In a time when jazz audiences were becoming increasingly white, Art’s music managed to captivate a mostly Black audience. His bluesy style of playing was a return to the beginnings of jazz, and can be considered a revival of the Black ballroom scene.

While his playing style was distinctive and influential, Blakey’s role as a bandleader and mentor was an equally important legacy.

Even when I was playing with Miles Davis, Art was the strength of the band.
-Jackie McLean, saxophonist

  His keen eye for talent led him to invest in so many young jazz musicians who would go on to become legends in their own right. Folks like Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, and Joanne Brackeen were all shaped by Art over the years as part of his band. Wynton Marsalis credited his time playing with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as influential in his choice to pursue jazz instead of classical music. The musicians Blakey worked with saw him as the core of any group he was a part of; as saxophonist Jackie McLean put it, “Even when I was with Miles Davis, Art was the strength of the band.” In addition to developing the members of his band as musicians, Art became almost like a father figure to many. Javon Jackson, a member of the Jazz Messengers in the late 80’s, told the New York Times that Art “taught [him] to be a man, how to stand up and be accounted for.” 

For Meredith Soeder, a historian of jazz, the culture of mentorship that Art created was a reflection of his Pittsburgh roots. She writes in the Western Pennsylvania History journal that the “warmth and fraternity that was so easily found in Pittsburgh” was spread throughout the jazz world by “its famous musicians who never forgot their home.” His natural talent as a drummer and a bandleader certainly helped him carve out for himself a distinguished place in jazz history, but it was his beginnings in the Hill that started Art Blakey on his journey to become an icon of modern jazz drumming.

Images

Jazz Messengers in concert at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. Amsterdam's Concertgebouw is regarded as one of the finest concert halls in the world for the quality of its acoustics; numerous jazz legends have played and recorded live performances in the venue. Source: International Institute of Social History (Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis/IISG) via Wikimedia Commons Creator: Ben van Meerendonk / AHF, collectie IISG, Amsterdam Date: December 17, 1960
Cover of Moanin' (1959) Moanin', released on Blue Note in 1959, stands as the defining studio album of Art Blakey's career, and is generally regarded as one of the essential examples of the "hard bop" style of jazz.  In addition to Blakey, the album features trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt Source: Blue Note Records Date: 1959
Gretsch drums advertisement Blakey played and endorsed Gretsch drums from 1954-1966. The ad proclaims that "the hard driving Blakey style comes through solid and strong" on the company's drums. Source: Gretsch Drums website Date: c. 1966
Art Blakey touring in 1973 as part of the "Giants of Jazz" bill in the Musikhalle, Hamburg While jazz declined in popularity with US audiences by the mid-1960s, it remained widely celebrated in Europe. Blakey and other jazz musicians regularly played to large audiences at European jazz festivals throughout the 1970s and beyond Source: Wikimedia Commons Creator: Heinrich Klaffs Date: 1973
Art Blakey at the Umeå Jazz Festival, Sweden Source: Wikimedia Commons Creator: Pål-Nils Nilsson Date: October 1979
Art Blakey at radio interview, KJAZ, Alameda CA Source: Wikimedia Commons Creator: Brian McMillen Date: November 10, 1982

Location

617 Chauncey St, Pittsburgh Pa | Address is approximate; PHMC marker appears at this location, the site of Blakey's childhood home (now demolished)

Metadata

Nolan Cowan, “Art Blakey,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/50.