Song Of The Day: Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers 'Moanin''

Apr 9, 2014

Today we turn our attention to drummer and band leader Art Blakey. Blakey was one of the most powerful and gregarious drummers in jazz, and not many can match his sheer exuberance and communication. However, he is most known for his band, The Jazz Messengers, which he led from the early '50s until his death in 1990.

In that nearly 40-year span, almost every great young jazz musician went through the band. Blakey would hire the best young cats he could find, make them all compose for the band, teach them all he could, and then kick them out to become their own leaders, only to start the process over again. "Jazz University" was what they called the band.

Over the years, The Jazz Messengers amassed a huge amount of original compositions, and each new member of the band was supposed to know them all. Blakey didn't allow the musicians to use sheet music on stage, so when you got the call to join the band you had your work cut out for you!

Brian Lynch is one of the trumpeters who joined the band in the '80s, and a guy I've become friendly with. He told me the story of when he got the call from Blakey. Art told him "be on the next plane to Paris, we have a gig one week from today." Brian spent the next week furiously studying the Messengers' records, trying to learn every song he could. Of course, the first song Art called on his first gig was one he hadn't learned, and Brian had to just hang on and hope for the best! After the gig, Blakey took him aside and told him that better not happen again. How's that for trial by fire?

Today's song is one of the most famous Jazz Messengers tunes, called "Moanin." This is the quintessential "hard bop" song. Hard bop was an extension of be bop, which we talked about early, that was more muscular and bluesy. You'll see what I mean when you listen to this tune, which was written by pianist Bobby Timmons and features Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor sax and Jymie Merritt on bass.

Incidentally, one of my favorite moments in recorded jazz happens on this recording. Listen at the 3:00 mark at the end of Morgan's trumpet solo. He plays a little phrase (called a "lick" in jazz talk), and then Golson starts his solo playing the same lick. This was not planned out; they were both improvising. Morgan didn't know he was going to play that phrase until he played it, and Golson certainly didn't know it was coming. But Golson was listening to what Morgan was playing and answered him, just like in a conversation. Brilliant stuff!

As a bonus, here's a very cool interview with pianist Benny Green about playing with Art. He describes his first time on the bandstand with Art at the drums and how incredibly powerful he was.  

So far I've featured classic jazz tunes by the legends of the music. In the next post, we'll focus on one of the hot new faces on the jazz scene and get a taste of what more modern big band music sounds like, courtesy of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society.

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Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as "the next generation of Seattle jazz." Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com