Written by David Brent Johnson from WFIU-FM
My fellow Americans, jazz fans, and NPR Music browsers around the globe:
There is a U.S. presidential election contest going on, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. But I come to you today on the birthday anniversary of the great drummer and bandleader Art Blakey (born Oct. 11, 1919) to speak of another kind of president: the “class presidents” from Blakey’s long-running Jazz Messengers. The hard-bop ensemble Blakey ran functioned as a veritable school of jazz musicianship from 1954 to 1990.
More than 150 musicians served as Messengers, honing their chops, attitude and professional work ethic under the watchful eyes and ears of their mentor. The list of alumni includes trumpeters Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis; saxophonists Hank Mobley, Branford Marsalis and Javon Jackson; pianists Cedar Walton, Bobby Timmons, Benny Green and Geoffrey Keezer; bassists Doug Watkins, Jymie Merritt and Lonnie Plaxico; and trombonists Curtis Fuller and Robin Eubanks. (Alan Goldsher’s book Hard Bop Academy is an invaluable and comprehensive guide to the history of the sidemen who graced the band throughout its duration.)
Many other musicians have cultivated younger talent in their ensembles, but nobody nurtured it to the extent that Blakey did. (Blakey eventually pushed his fledglings out into a post-Messengers world, both for their own good and to make way for new players, saying, “This isn’t the post office, you know.” ) After Blakey died in 1990, saxophonist and former Messenger Jackie McLean said, “The school is closed.” Its lessons have endured, as have many of its pupils.
Here are five Messenger “class presidents” who helped shape or sustain the sound of the Jazz Messengers over the course of the group’s 36-year history. Happy birthday, Bu!