Interview 3: More Messages From The Messenger

Topic: Art Blakey discusses his views on being a ‘Jazz Messenger’.

Copyright © 1987 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.

Interview Date: 1987


It was almost three years between the November engagement at Ronnie’s and the one before, but sure, the club was crowded every night. Well, I expect that—after fifty years. Everywhere it’s happening like that now.

Okay, I got a trombone in the frontline now—you can get the same thing out of a trumpet and a tenor saxophone, I feel. I’m out here trying to keep the young musicians working—and you can experiment. I like to experiment, and that’s what the whole thing’s about—trying to do something different in jazz, as far as I can. That’s why I have a different instrumentation.

How do I keep finding the right musicians? They find me. They come, and one gets another as it goes along. I don’t go around looking—I don’t have time.

When they come in, they’re good enough to go out on their own. I don’t hire no stars—they come in and have a chance to develop their art. Don’t need stars—I can’t afford it. They can become stars, if they get an opportunity—and this is the place where they get it. That’s why they’re there.

I don’t expect a standard—that’s impossible. They try to learn, and build to that. They can’t come up to the level… say, for instance, when Freddie Hubbard left, you couldn’t expect nobody else to come in and be up to the level of Freddie Hubbard—they have to hone their art and get to that level. I look for the character of a person mostly—his talent, and that’s it. If his character ain’t right, I don’t have anything to do with him. It’s like anything else. I don’t care where he comes from, or what he looks like—if he’s got the talent, and good character, he can work with me.

We try to work together—because they do most of the work on developing themselves, by being out here and having the chance. And they’re all going to sound like the Jazz Messengers anyway—because I’m the Jazz Messenger, it’s my band, and that’s what it’s supposed to sound like—Art Blakey’s band—not anybody else’s. No trying to get this or that—this is the way I play, and I’m directing the traffic. When they come in, they write that way.

They have to write—I demand that. But they learn how to write—they make time.

The deportment is something I insist on too—the way they look on the stage. Because people pay to see you, and they see you before they hear you. When cats are on the bandstand they better not look like they’re going to give somebody a grease job—people don’t pay for that. I think they should have a great respect for the audience—because if the audience ain’t there… I don’t care how great they are, or how great they think they are, if people don’t come to admire what you have, you’re in a world of trouble. So you have to learn how to respect them. The audiences are a part of the music in jazz—the great part of it.

It’s the spirit of the thing. Music only washes away the dust of everyday life—that’s what it’s supposed to do.

If you don’t make ‘em happy, so they forget about what’s going on out there, you have failed. That’s your job, to do that. They didn’t come in to be taught about it; they came for the feeling—that’s what counts. Not the notes of anything—it’s the feeling of the music that is the most important thing. If you can make the people feel good, then that’s it.

No, I don’t hear musicians while travelling around that I’d consider for the band—I wish I did. We just don’t have time for that… I’m only a human being, you know. I am my own booking agent; I run my own corporation; I have too much time to be a listener—I don’t listen to my own records. Simply because: if I listen, I have big ears, and if I liked something, I’d be copying it, unconsciously.

So then that stops my creativity. I like to be looked at as an innovator, finding new things—the music is changing every day. If I listen, that’ll hold me up.

Because I’m self-taught—I had no kind of training at all—I’ve been in music a long time. Before drums, I played piano—and I was just lucky. I had it in my mind and in my heart that what I wanted to do was play jazz—luckily, that’s what I did. As for having a natural gift—I’m glad it was, because I had to eat in those times! I’m a Depression baby, and it was much easier for me than it is for the young people today. They have so many choices, but I was told what to do—and it’s much easier to do something when you’re told to do it than it is to make a choice. When there are no alternatives, you just get in there and do it.

Sure, I was with Dizzy, Bird, Monk. And before that I was with Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, Buddy De Franco—I’ve always been lucky like that. It helped that they were great, but the idea of it was to be flexible enough to play with different people. You play over here with Duke Ellington—you play this way; over here with Count Basie, you play different; with Billy Eckstine, you play different. I always say: let the punishment fit the crime—that’s what I try to do. I don’t go over in Duke Ellington’s band and try to play Art Blakey. I just play Duke Ellington. But most of the time through my career I had my own band—so I didn’t have to worry.

Like everybody else, I learned as I went along. It’s the idea of knowing your instrument, mastering it, and when you get up onstage the public is involved too—from the creator to the artist direct to the audience. So there’s no music like that. Your audience can make you play very good—what we call over the top. We don’t even know what we’re playing. It’s so fantastic—you can improvise because of the feeling that they give you. It’s a rapport back and forth.

Schooling doesn’t make a jazz musician either—you have to get it together. It’s like, you go to the university and they give you a diploma in whatever—now you’re equipped to go out and get an education. That’s what it’s all about. They come out and learn how to play jazz. If knowledge gained is not applied, it’s not knowledge at all; so they have to apply what they have learned.

But it’s true there have been some who didn’t do their homework! So they have been successful, as far as making money? That don’t mean nothing—there will come a time when you separate the sheep from the goats.

That’s what’s gonna happen to ‘em. The idea of it is: you don’t have to pay no attention to what they’re trying to do. You have a lot of stuff out they call jazz—it’s not jazz, because it doesn’t swing. You gotta swing. A lot of times, a lot of kids are looking for a short route—they want to start at the top, or three fourths of the way to the top, instead of starting at the bottom. You can’t do that—you have to start like everybody else, and learn, and get out there. But they come out and just play—and want to play anything. It’s just gimmicks—they fade away. If they want to waste their time like that, it’s all right—that’s their life and that’s their time. They don’t realize.

If they fool the public when they label it jazz, it’s because the critics and everything turn the people’s heads.

They come and say: “Soandso is this”, but they don’t know that critics don’t make musicians—musicians make musicians. All they know is what they hear the musicians say. Some critics are good and straight ahead—they tell the truth. Because you can’t come with a tonguein–the cheek idea; if a person is doing something, you call a spade a spade. Very few of ’em come with the truth; they want to make controversy, or this guy said this about another musician—it doesn’t make sense. If one musician puts down another, he’s putting himself down—but they always get up into that trap.

I don’t care what they say, as long as they spell my name right! Time will tell, you know. They’re entitled to their opinion—if that’s their opinion. If they’re saying it because they heard somebody else say it, that’s hearsay.

And when they take that and use it, and that changes the people’s heads toward jazz—that’s what makes it so hard.

The truth is stranger than fiction, and people are afraid of the truth.

You’re born, your destination is death—it’s what you did in between. I don’t know if I did everything right, but I did the best I possibly could—I have no fear about anything. I can’t set the world on fire—all I do is just try to light a candle where I am; I just go about my life. I try to play the right way, do the best I can and present it, because it’s music.

The kids today, though, are something else. We come to the UK, but I hadn’t been to Ronnie Scott’s for that long time, because we’ve been playing discos. People used to claim they couldn’t dance to jazz—and they said that because they couldn’t dance themselves, to any kind of music. The drum is the most important thing—and they dance. Kids get put down for what they do, just like we get put down for jazz—the way they dress, act, dance, communicate. Well, we did some strange things when we were young—I know I did. Sure—that’s part of being young. A lot of ‘em are creative—I think they’re just wonderful. To go to these places and see them kids out there dancing to that music—that’s something else! So they’re more sophisticated than those old fogeys back there who said they can’t dance to it. And by having so many children of my own, I have a better chance to see that. With different generations coming along, I notice, with my children, that each one that comes along later is smarter than the other generation. Much smarter, and it always has been. Girls mature much faster than boys… so you watch this thing, and you watch the growth.

Now, my two year old, who’s doing so well on Sesame Street, is really sophisticated. He knows about music—how to play the drums—just by watching me. You can’t do nothing before him—he’ll get you. I never taught him a thing—he gets up there and he dances.

His name is Akira that’s the name of my corporation too. He’s got a Japanese name, because my son before him is part Japanese—his name is Takashi. Their name is Buhaina, as mine is; I gave ‘em their own identity—I don’t call ‘em Blakey. I asked my son of seventeen: “Do you want to be a musician?” He said: “Hell no, pop—I don’t want to be in your shadow. I want to be an architect.

That’s your thing; you got it—I want my thing over here.” That makes a lot of sense to me, and I’m gonna break my neck to get him in the best schools to be an architect. I’m not going to push him to be a musician.

But the baby’s got that sign of natural talent—if he wants to be in show business, go ahead. They’re so smart now, and they’ve got such a hell of a memory. I sit down and say: “I couldn’t do that when I was a kid.” Well, these kids got television, records—things I never had—they know exactly what they want to do. I learned a lot about ‘em—I had fourteen of ‘em. I raised fourteen—I didn’t have ‘em. I wasn’t the putative father, but I adopted a lot of kids, because I love ‘em. I was an orphan, and I guess that works up here; I just like a family—it makes me push harder. It gives me something to live for. I learn from ‘em—I really can learn from kids. And when the young guys come in the band, I learn things from them.

As far as I have seen, jazz is the highest level of performance on a musical instrument. It’s a spiritual music—there’s no music like it. And people don’t realize… they go up there—they don’t see no music up there. We don’t know what we’re going to play; when they hit, everything is: “Bam! bam!” just like that, on time, like they were reading music up there. And you never hear the same arrangement twice. We make so many mistakes—I do, because I’m changing things around. But they’re professional enough to cover it. If they make a mistake, I teach ‘em: go back, make that same mistake, and make something out of it. Because that’s the way jazz was born—somebody goofed! So you just go ahead; it’s not a mistake—you just build.

So the young musicians are beginning to get the idea. Don’t get the idea that you wrote the book, and you know this is right; it isn’t right—you can’t say that. All you’re doing is: you’re striving to reach out and learn.

The longer I play and the older I get—every time I get up on the drums, I find out what a dum–dum I really am.

You never know it all. Sometimes I get off the stage, and I think I played pretty good; I know I give my heart every time—I say: “Wow, that sounded good to me.” Then I look back up at that stand, and look at the drums, and the drums say: “Come on back up here—you think you’re so smart… . That’s what keeps you going. There’s always something new—and somebody will come up with something else. It’s always changing. Music is like a river: it’s got to flow, and it must change—and if it doesn’t flow, it becomes stagnant, and kills everybody around it.

You know what I really believe… there’s no country like the United States—there’s so many diversities, so many factions… what has to happen is going to be difficult, and it’s going to take time. We have jazz in colleges now, but it’s all gotten so political that the teachers they have in there teaching jazz don’t know anything about it.

And they’ve got these eighteen–and twenty–piece jazz bands in there. I think this is very wrong, because if the blind lead the blind they all fall in the ditch. They have to have musicians out there in the field—artists in residence, to play there and teach those kids. As it’s going now in the States—Florida University, Indiana, all the places we play out there—they’re going to get tired of it, and there won’t be no interest, because the kids know that the teachers don’t know what they’re talking about.

We did a concert, after a week of working with the kids out there; we did a ballad—Terence Blanchard played “I Thought About You”. This teacher thought it was something Wayne Shorter wrote—it’s a pop tune.

And he’d never heard “Blues March” before. Now, he’s teaching a twenty–piece orchestra.

Then you’ve got other places right there in New York, all in so–called ‘black neighborhoods’. They’ve got a school there in Brownsville, with a black principal, a black assistant principal—but down in the basement they’ve got a big cellar full of slightly used instruments, and they’re locked up and the kids don’t even use ‘em; they don’t even have a band. How stupid can you get? So I told the Board of Education: “You got all this stuff down here—why don’t you let these kids play it? If he blows a horn he’ll never blow a safe!” But they don’t do that.

Now these principals, with their ‘black this’ and ‘black that’—they’re sitting around on their behinds, waiting for their pensions. And I don’t think that’s fair.

They’ve got to take out all that garbage they try to teach—in Juilliard, everywhere—like, jazz is a nasty word, and really teach them kids jazz, because it’s the American art form. When they learn how to play that, they can bring their symphony orchestras back—boy, you’ll hear something you’ve never heard before. But they ain’t got sense enough to know that. They’re so busy putting down jazz—it’s here to stay, and they can easily see that.

They don’t want to recognize the spirituality of it.

They’ve got the music up there, playing what the masters wrote a hundred years ago. But that’s a note; damn the note—it’s the feeling that counts. You put a note down there—that ain’t what he played. You don’t know how he felt at the time he played it and wrote it—it’s impossible.

So why not go ahead and do it the right way—and let it come from here.

People are sitting up there stiff as a board, and if you were to bring ’em up on the bandstand where jazz is, they would be lost! They’d be swamped; they wouldn’t know what to do. But you can take the jazz musician and put him out there in a symphony orchestra—he’d play the hell out of the music. That’s the difference.

Sure, Wynton is not the only man who can go on both sides, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, all them guys could go on both sides. So could Doug Mettome, who people I’ve never heard of—he’s white; he played with Billy Eckstine. And Charlie Shavers—those men are giants. Yeah—and people like Eddie Daniels today. They can come up and play some jazz; or go over the other side.

And I can’t understand why they can’t see that, and why they’re so ready to put it down. I can’t put their music down—I like some of them composers, man. And what could be done with that music, instead of the guys sitting up there and they think they’re playing it like they did it back then. No—that’s another time, another era.

Music is a hell of a therapy; when kids play it, they love it—and there are no problems with ‘em. I know.

That’s the way it is in Brazil—all them kids know about music, and that holds together; the people have never had uprisings and fighting, because of the music. You get mad about something- they start singing and playing, and you forget all about it. I’m telling you—I know the power of that music down there.

Down in Baia, they kidnapped us one morning, and we were so tired—we’d been up for two days. The mother was in the kitchen cooking; they had a stone floor, and she took some sandpaper, started singing and working this sandpaper on the floor. Each kid ran and got his little drum, the father got the mandolins—and there we sat for the next three hours. They were going up and down with the music, and we forgot about how tired we were. I never heard a family like that—after they played one tune, they’d switch instruments; I never saw nothing like that.

They came to New York—Carnegie Hall. At that time they were under a dictatorship, and they had to pay a thousand dollars apiece to get out, but all that’s over now.

But that music—it’s not jazz; it’s Brazilian, and it’s swinging. Salsa—it swings, and it’s creative. That thing came right out of a family—a great musical organization.

Every child plays—fantastic. That shows what can be done.

Then you’ve got the whole thing that’s been happening in Japan. It’s only through Japan that all these things are coming back on Blue Note. We were the first organized jazz group to enter Japan, years ago—got no publicity whatsoever, and I had the best jazz group in the United States or any place else. I’ve been in Japan fifty times—now, those people are not fools. I’ve just come back from there, and I’m ready to go back next year.

All the big record companies in the States had better watch out—the Japanese are going to swallow ‘em up! They think they know it all—the same thing as manufacturing, tooling and all that stuff. They thought they had it all sewn up, and here comes Japan with them automobiles. In the States now, every automobile you look at is Japanese.

They’re not a creative people, but they sure can take something and copy it and make it go. That’s their thing—they’re very smart. Years ago I was sitting talking to some of their politicians; I said: “The United States kicked your butt—you lost the war!” They said: “Yes, Mr. Blakey—we lost the war, but we won a big peace. A great big peace!” Everybody was putting ‘em down, but now everybody has woke up to what’s going on. General Motors and all the rest of ‘em will have to improve—or they’re going under.

They could even make a change from all that bad music that gets sold in millions and millions. I heard one of these guys playing piano, on such a low level—I said: “What happened to Art Tatum?” Well, the Japanese’ll bring Art Tatum out—watch and see. Because they know.

I used to see Arthur Rubinstein and Leonard Bernstein sitting down there watching this man, partially blind, play the way he did. And Rubinstein was full of praise for the great gift he recognized. Every morning they’d all be uptown jamming—Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson; Fats Waller would be sitting there playing the piano—when Art Tatum hit the door, he’d stop, and say: “Ladies and gentlemen, quiet, please—God is in the house!” We’d play all night, and till twelve noon the next day—just for the love of it. That was nice—I think that’s what’s supposed to happen in the music. But all of a sudden it just disappeared, and all these other people started coming out with strange music. I listened to it, and I said: “Jeez, that’s really mediocrity—I haven’t got time to listen to that. “ “Ah, but he sold an enormous amount… “I don’t care what he sold—that ain’t it. It’s not the way it goes.” I think it’s ridiculous for people to buy that kind of stuff.

But if they give good jazz the opportunity, play it on the air, and propagate it a little bit, I really think it’ll work. Then the people will make the decision on what they want to hear. It just needs to be properly packaged, and it has to be real. They can try to copy it, but they can’t—the people know the difference.

The closest in copying are the Japanese. They copy the right kind of jazz, but they admit they can’t play it.

They go on with that, because it’s an idea, and it’s there for the whole world to utilize. But I think those who bring forth the original idea should be given the credit.

It may seem easy to copy, but all you finish up with is repetition—over and over. The same thing happens with some of the Latin–American or salsa music—as good as that is, the repetition is what holds it back.

Rhythmically they’re advanced, but the repetition of the music is somewhere else. Now, when you hear the Latin bands in New York, and they’re playing bebop tunes of Charlie Parker, say, or Thelonious Monk with that beat of theirs behind it—fine. But that other stuff that they do—it’s so repetitious.

And that’s what happened to rock. They just play one note, or one chord—they call it the drone—and they sing the same… you listen to it, and one group sounds just like the other. Sometimes it sounds like they’re playing in the same key, with the same chords, and just different lyrics. And the lyrics are really horrible—because they’re not lyricists. Really horrible, but they sell—and that’s ridiculous.

They believe in the cash register, and they can fill football stadiums for these rock bands, with the people screaming and carrying on. You couldn’t put a symphony orchestra out there; neither could you put a jazz group out there—it’s too big, and the music is too intimate.

A guy says to me: “Hey, Blakey—you should have a big house, a swimming pool and everything.” I said: “Well, a house ain’t a home.” “You should have money, man.” I said: “I ain’t worried about that—I don’t have to worry about no big taxes or anything.” I can take care of my family; I raised all of ‘em—fourteen children—never had one problem. I never give ‘em money, gifts or anything; when I take time off my work, I go with my kids and I give ‘em me—that’s what they want. Nobody can call me; they can’t reach me—I am with them kids.

As far as the money’s concerned—I’ve never seen an armored car following a hearse! Once you see that, you come and tell me. The only thing that follows you to the cemetery is respect—and you’ve got to earn it. And if you lose it, you can’t regain it. So I don’t know what they’re talking about. I see these kids who left my band and went into rock—they’re so unhappy they don’t know what to do. They’re about to commit suicide. No, the money is not the answer.

The answer is in being yourself, and doing what you want to do—you have the choice. If he chose to work in that bag, that’s his life; I told him better, but if he wants to go that way, let him go that way. You see ‘em years later—the most unhappy people I’ve met. I don’t say “I told you so” or nothing like that, but I know the way they are. Some of ‘em—I’m old enough to be their grandfather, and they look like my father; that’s how that has aged ‘em. Because they don’t know who their friends are.

They have alienated themselves from the people. A big rat–race—that’s what it is—and then they can’t get out.

That’s what’s horrible about it—I don’t want that, you know.

I’m very happy with my life. Even though I was an orphan and self–raised, I think I’ve had a better life than most people. By it happening that way, it made a different and a better person out of me—much better. I know what it means to be poor; I know what it is when I see people struggling. And I’m always in fear of becoming poor. I don’t think I ever will be; I don’t think I’ll ever be rich, either. I don’t want to be rich or poor—I just want to take what I need to take care of me and my family, and that’s all I’m interested in.

Maybe other people need a lot of money—I don’t.

People think I’m very funny. I don’t go to funerals; my best friend, Thelonious Monk passed—I didn’t go to his funeral. They said: “Well, Blakey, why didn’t you go?” I said: “Funerals are for people—not for the dead. Once you’ve shown me a person came back from the dead to say: ‘What a wonderful funeral I had’, then I will go to funerals.” That ain’t what it’s all about—when the spirit leaves the body, it’s gone. This is just where the person dwells; this body is a piece of material by which you hear and you see. My eyes are the windows of the soul, and what you hear and what you see—that’s Art Blakey.

Copyright © 1987 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.