Art Blakey - drums; Hank Mobley - tenor sax; Lee Morgan - trumpet; Bobby Timmons - piano; Jymie Merritt - bass
Formed by drummer Art Blakey in 1954, the Jazz Messengers remained a hard bop institution and important training ground for young musicians up until the leader's death in 1990. A dynamic presence and charismatic personality who led his hard-swinging ensembles from the drum set, Blakey was a widely respected figure in jazz for nearly 50 years. A super talent scout as a well as an exciting player on the bandstand, he recruited scores of emerging talents into the ranks of the Jazz Messengers over the years, including trumpeters Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Chuck Mangione, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Wallace Roney and Brian Lynch; saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, Bobby Billy Harper, Watson, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison and Javon Jackson; pianists Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Chick Corea, John Hicks, JoAnne Brackeen, George Cables, James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green and Geoff Keezer, to name just a few. The Messengers introduced such jazz anthems as Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" and "Dat Dere," Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty" and "Blues March" and Wayne Shorter's "Lester Left Town."
The Jazz Messengers lineup that Blakey brought to the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival on July 4th included the stellar young trumpet sensation Lee Morgan (just six days shy of his 21st birthday at the time of this gig), bassist Jymie Merritt, pianist Bobby Timmons and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. They open this July 4th set with a blazing uptempo rendition of Mobley's hard bop romp "M&M," which showcases the tenor saxophonist in full burn-out mode. Trumpeter Morgan responds with a firecracker solo of his own that lights up the bandstand, showing why he was regarded as the heir apparent to Clifford Brown (the great hard bop trumpeter who died in a car crash at age 25 in June, 1956). Timmons follows with a cascading piano solo that matches the surging momentum of Blakey's unerring ride cymbal work. Bassist Merritt also contributes a meaty solo before the leader is turned loose for a typically extroverted showcase on the kit. Next up is a soothing rendition of the popular ballad "Close Your Eyes," a moody, minor key number introduced in 1931 by British bandleader Ray Noble and subsequently covered by everyone from Coleman Hawkins to Lee Konitz, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Keith Jarrett and vocalist Kurt Elling. The Messengers' swinging version, arranged by Lee Morgan, is underscored with a jaunty kind of bounce that enlivens the piece, providing another swinging platform for the superb front line of Morgan and Mobley (the M&Ms referred to in the previous track). Note how Blakey deftly orchestrates the dynamics of the piece by switching from sticks to brushes behind Timmons' solo here, allowing the piano to really speak in soulful, nuanced tones. Blakey maintains his supple brushes pulse behind Merritt's solo before returning to sticks for a dynamic push to the finish line.
They next launch into a soulful rendition of pianist Bobby Timmons' gospel-flavored "Moanin'," a Jazz Messengers staple that Blakey kept in the band book up until his final days. The title track of the Messengers' 1958 Blue Note recording, "Moanin'" has always been an audience favorite and certainly this Newport crowd responds with excited shouts of recognition when Blakey introduces the number. The bandleader sets the tone here with an infectious shuffle beat and the soloists respond in kind, testifying with a kind of loose, earthy feel on their respective instruments. Mobley, in fact, gets so into the downhome groove of the piece that you can almost imagine him walking the bar during his solo.
They close out their set with a highly-charged version of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," which opens with a fusillade from Blakey's drums against a percolating clave groove provided by all the band members on hand percussion. The piece flies by on the strength of Blakey's insistent ride cymbal pulse and is further fueled by his unpredictable polyrhythmic statements on the kit. Morgan erupts here for a bristling trumpet solo before Blakey unleashes a remarkable, show-stopping barrage on the kit that is steeped in African polyrhythms and old school showmanship, again underscored by a battery of hand percussion by all the band members. It's an explosive ending to a most exhilarating set by one of the leading groups on the scene at the time. Just a month after this triumphant gig at Newport, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who played with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra the previous afternoon of July 3 at the 1959 festival, would replace Mobley in the Jazz Messengers lineup, beginning a new fertile period for this institution known as The Jazz Messengers.
Born in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1919, Blakey was a self-taught pianist who led a big band at age 15. He switched to drums after being displaced on piano in his own band by fellow Pittsburgher Erroll Garner. His biggest drumming influences as a teenager were Chick Webb and Big Sid Catlett, both of whom would become important mentors for Blakey in the early stages of his career. In 1942, Art traveled to New York as a member of pianist Mary Lou Williams' band to play at Kelly's Stables on fabled 52nd Street. The following year he toured with Fletcher Henderson's big band and in 1944 joined Billy Eckstine's bebop big band, which included such young lions of the bebop movement as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Leo Parker and also featured vocalist Sarah Vaughan. At the height of the bebop era, his aggressive style on the kit underscored countless recordings for the Blue Note, Savoy and Prestige labels with the likes of Clifford Brown, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver.
In 1949, following a trip to West Africa, Blakey converted to Islam and took the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. That same year he began a two-year stint as house drummer at the famous jazz club, Birdland. From 1951 to 1953, Blakey played in Buddy DeFranco's quartet and in 1954 he and Silver co-led the first edition of the Jazz Messengers which included trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins. When the other four members left the band in 1956, Blakey carried on the band name; the beginning of what would become for the next four decades a kind of jazz school on the bandstand. More than 200 sidemen passed through the ranks of the Jazz Messengers over the years. One of the most potent Jazz Messengers ensembles was the early '60s sextet that included tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton and bassist Reggie Workman (which produced such quintessential hard bop documents as 1963's Ugetsu and 1964's Free For All, both on the Blue Note label).
Blakey continued waving the flag for hard bop through the '70s and '80s and up until his final recording in April, 1990, One For All, cut when the irrepressibly swinging drummer-bandleader was 70. He died later that year, on October 16, 1990, just five days after his 71st birthday. (Milkowski)