One For All: A Guide To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers aren’t only a serious contender for the greatest jazz band of all time, they functioned as an unofficial jazz university.

Under the authority of diminutive drum-clobberer Blakey, many of the genre’s most influential young hotshots — pianist Horace Silver, saxophonists Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie McLean, trumpeters Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, and Donald Byrd — forged their chops and became who they were meant to be.

And there was nary a feeling as sweet, Blakey’s sidemen said later on, as pleasing their tempestuous headmaster.

“Whenever Art would enter a room, the ions in the air would change,” alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, who played in the Messengers in the 1970s and the 1980s, said in Alan Goldsher’s 2002 book Hard Bop Academy: The Sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “He commanded respect and gave you respect when you respected yourself… at some point, you could expect a brutally honest assessment of your musicianship and human strengths and weaknesses.”

On August 7, Just Coolin’, a previously unreleased Messengers album recorded in 1959, will be released via Blue Note Records. The date captures Blakey, Morgan, Mobley, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt running through swinging material, most of which would be rerecorded at Birdland Jazz Club in New York and released as 1959’s At the Jazz Corner of the World.

Sure, these are five hallowed figures doing their thing at the peak of hard bop. But what about the other lineups of this institution, which spanned 36 years and had more than 60 players pass through its ranks?

From late nights in the Village to the Messengers’ epic, guest-packed 1989 blowout, here’s Discogs’ guide to the group that swung nearly all others into the ground.

The Definitive Guide to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Note: This list focuses on official releases by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and does not include some live members and those of Blakey’s other ensembles.

The Charter Membership (1955-1956)

Art Blakey (drums)
Kenny Dorham (trumpet)
Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone)
Horace Silver (piano)
Doug Watkins (bass)

Back in 1955, Blakey was a 35-year-old Pittsburgh drummer who’d burned through Fletcher Henderson’s and Billy Eckstine’s big bands and false-started in the big band Seventeen Messengers.

In was actually Horace Silver, not Blakey, who originally led the Jazz Messengers. Sensing Blakey’s larger-than-life presence and his killer instinct, Silver changed their band name by one word and groomed him to be its leader.

Although a regime change in the Messengers was imminent, this early program of seven Silver compositions (including “Creepin’ In,” “Stop Time” and “The Preacher”) and one of Mobley’s (“Hankerin’”) is quintessential mid-1950s hard bop.

“It first started out being a cooperative thing,” Blakey told Cadence magazine in 1981, “[but] I had the weight and it had to go my way.”

Before Silver departed in 1956, though, they recorded these brilliant volumes of inventive bop workouts (“Soft Winds,” “Minor’s Holiday,” “Sportin’ Crowd”) and sumptuous ballads (“Alone Together,” “What’s New,” “Yesterdays”) at Cafe Bohemia in the West Village.

Enter Byrd… (1956)

Donald Byrd (trumpet)
Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone)
Horace Silver (piano)
Doug Watkins (bass)

Although Byrd was only a Messenger for about seven months, his mark on the band’s history is indelible.

“[Byrd’s] playing and writing always was undergoing changes,” later Messengers trumpeter Brian Lynch said in Hard Bop Academy. “He utilized more modern and angular melodic formations.”

The Jazz Messengers, their sole album Byrd graced with his presence, benefits from his tough, sophisticated blowing — a notable shift from his predecessor Dorham’s airier approach.

(Byrd would later reappear with Blakey on 1957’s Art Blakey’s Big Band and 1958’s Holiday For Skins, both sans the Messengers)

Reshuffling The Lineup (1956-1958)

Bill Hardman (trumpet)
Jackie McLean (alto saxophone)
Johnny Griffin / Ira Sullivan (tenor saxophone)
Sam Dockery / Kenny Drew / Junior Mance (piano)
Spanky DeBrest / Wilbur Ware (bass)

For two months, the band (still simply called the Jazz Messengers, sans Blakey’s name) included Sullivan, Drew, and Ware, but that lineup didn’t stick. Then, a 25-year-old Jackie McLean pulled a knife on Charles Mingus, an event that diverted him into the Messengers.

According to 2016’s Better Git It In Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charlie Parker, while recording Mingus’s 1956 album Pithecanthropus Erectus, McLean put in his two-weeks notice and got two teeth knocked out for his trouble.

In return, McLean gave Mingus a minor flesh wound and was summarily fired. (The two would reconcile and he rejoined for two weeks before quitting again.) With several key Messengers having gone their separate ways, McLean, Hardman, Dockery, and DeBrest joined the group.

While this transitional lineup doesn’t get as much ink as the ones before and after it, there’s plenty of must-haves to be found from this period.

Hard Bop is exactly what it is — a paradigm of the subgenre featuring one enthused Hardman original (“Cranky Spanky”), two McLeans (“Stanley’s Stiff Chickens,” “Little Melonae”) and a revved-up version of the standard “Stella By Starlight.”

With guest Monk on piano in lieu of Dockery, the Messengers got heavier and bluesier, and his off-center melodic stabs gave their sound an extra layer of grit.

This set of five Monk standards (“Evidence,” “In Walked Bud,” “Blue Monk,” “I Mean You,” “Rhythm-a-Ning”) and one Griffin original (“Purple Shades”) hints at the elephantine swing of the next — and best — Messengers iteration.

The Classic Messengers (1958-1959)

Lee Morgan (trumpet)
Benny Golson / Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone)
Bobby Timmons (piano)
Jymie Merritt (bass)

Renaming the group Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blakey turned over the lineup once more, this time with four Philly hotshots: Morgan, Golson, Timmons, and Merritt.

“Bill Hardman was the one who got Lee Morgan,” Blakey later explained in a 1979 interview with journalist Mike Hennessey. “Bill said, ‘I think he’s better for the band than I am. He’s young and he’s gonna be great.’”

Indeed, the 20-year-old phenom had just played on John Coltrane’s classic 1958 Blue Train, and his dazzling performances as a Messenger would rise his star ever further.

Tenor firebrand Golson was invited into the band for a more menial reason: McLean couldn’t get a cabaret card from the cops — hence, he couldn’t legally play in nightclubs.

“[One day] in 1958, [the phone rang] and it was my hero,” Golson told journalist Doug Ramsey in 1989. “Art Blakey was on the phone.”

“Swing them to death,” Blakey used to tell his players before they walked onstage. Moanin’, their only studio album with Morgan and Golson at the helm, takes this edict as a sworn oath.

By now, it’s jazz law: Out of any Messengers album by any version of the band, Moanin’ is the most deserving of being toted onto a desert island.

From Timmons’ swaggering title track to Golson’s elegant “Along Came Betty” to Blakey’s hands-of-Zeus showcase “The Drum Thunder Suite,” hard bop doesn’t get better than this. Message received.

After Moanin’, Mobley briefly returned in Golson’s stead, bringing his refined, melodic approach back into the Messengers’ sound.

At the Jazz Corner of the World, a two-volume set culled from a single night at Birdland, is the greatest document of this short-lived yet divinely confident version of the group.

Truly, highlights are everywhere, from Blakey’s steamrolling intro to Monk’s “Justice” (an early version of “Evidence”) to the raucous foxtrot “Just Coolin’” to a razzing run-through of Ray Bryant’s “Chicken An’ Dumplings.”

For fans who can’t get enough Mobley, Just Coolin’ is a godsend — a previously unheard date at Van Gelder Studios in Hackensack, New Jersey, while the group was still burning brightest.

Four of Just Coolin’s tunes (“Hipsippy Blues,” “M & M,” the title track and Bernice Petkere’s “Close Your Eyes”) were revisited on At the Jazz Corner of the World, but its two never-before-heard originals (“Quick Trick” and “Jimerick”) alone make it worth the price of admission.

While it’s understandable why the live version came out instead — multivolume live albums sold well for Blue Note and these takes are a touch rushed and ragged — the fact that prime Morgan and Mobley was shelved for so long is shocking.

Enter Shorter… (1959-1964)

Lee Morgan / Freddie Hubbard (trumpet)
Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone)
Curtis Fuller (trombone)
Bobby Timmons / Cedar Walton / Walter Davis, Jr. (piano)
Jymie Merritt / Reggie Workman (bass)

Mobley’s tenure as a Messenger ended when he didn’t accompany the band to the Canadian Jazz Festival in 1959. Shorter was there as part of Maynard Ferguson’s big band and noticed Blakey’s band hitting the stage without a tenor player.

“Lee Morgan saw me from the bandstand,” Shorter remembered to DownBeat in 1977. “After the set, he came running over and said, ‘Hey, Wayne, you want to play with us?’ And I said, ‘Shit, yeah!’”

Thus began an intrepid phase of the Messengers defined by the dynamic saxophonist — as well as trombonist Fuller and bassist Workman.

From its opening moments, A Night in Tunisia (not to be confused with the band’s 1957 album of the same name) is a spectacle: Blakey pulverizes Dizzy Gillespie’s titular mambo with maniacal percussion while Morgan slashes through Shorter’s eerie trills.

While no other track rivals its intensity, Tunisia gives each young player the chance to make their mark, from Shorter’s hard-driving “Sincerely Diana” to Timmons’ bossa-blues “So Tired” to Morgan’s moonlit ballad “Yama.”

In 1962, Merritt was replaced by Workman, an associate of John Coltrane who played on his 1961 albums Africa/Brass and Olé Coltrane.

Perhaps by osmosis, Free For All bears the mystical, border-erasing qualities of both those albums and adds some serious destruction from Fuller, Shorter, and Morgan. (To say nothing of Blakey, who on the title track plays the kit than bashes it to smithereens.)

The melee does let up with the bossa-flavored closer “Pensavita,” but if you prefer the more intense end of 1960s hard bop, skip the Dorham and Mobley albums and spring directly for Free For All.

Splitting the difference between Tunisia’s mixed bag and Free For All’s blitzkrieg, The Freedom Rider simply offers more great bop from the Shorter period.

Here, the Messengers mostly stick to strutting blues-based material, like Shorter’s “Tell It Like It Is” and “El Toro” and Morgan’s “Petty Larceny” and “Blue Lace.”

Don’t call it more of the same, though: its title track features Blakey’s most astonishing drum solo on record and vaults The Freedom Rider to the upper echelon of Messengers albums.

Old And New Messengers (1965)

Lee Morgan / Freddie Hubbard (trumpet)
John Gilmore / Gary Bartz (tenor saxophone)
Lucky Thompson (soprano saxophone)
Curtis Fuller (trombone)
John Hicks (piano)
Victor Sproles (bass)

Unfortunately, the Messengers’ last record with Shorter, 1966’s Indestructible, marks the end of their hot streak.

After the entire group left sans Fuller, Blakey enlisted John Gilmore from Sun Ra’s band to replace Shorter. Given Ra’s avant-garde streak and Blakey’s devotion to the bop tradition, this proved to be an artistic mismatch.

The pretty-good ‘S Make It is the only document of Gilmore as a Messenger, briefly opening a portal into a potential reality where hard bop stalwarts go the way of the Arkestra. (Fat chance.)

The “New” Jazz Messengers (1966)

Chuck Mangione (trumpet)
Frank Mitchell (tenor saxophone)
Keith Jarrett (piano)
Reggie Johnson (bass)

In a strange intersection of musical spheres, the Jazz Messengers (then with “New” in their name) once included trumpeter Chuck Mangione, who would be later famous for his 1977 smooth-jazz smash hit “Feels So Good,” and pianist Keith Jarrett, who would go on to pioneer new age with his 1975 free-improvisational classic The Köln Concert.

The only document of the Mangione-Jarrett lineup is Buttercorn Lady, a lo-fi recording of a gig at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. While this version of the band could have gone places, Buttercorn — despite being an interesting curio — falls short of being an essential listen.

More Reshuffling… Plus a Female Messenger (1970-1975)

Bill Hardman, Woody Shaw (trumpet)
Carlos Garnett, Ramon Morris (tenor saxophone)
Buddy Terry (soprano saxophone)
Carter Jefferson (tenor/soprano saxophone)
Manny Boyd (flute)
JoAnne Brackeen, George Cables, John Hicks, Cedar Walton (piano)
Jan Arnet, Mickey Bass, Stanley Clarke (bass)
Ray Mantilla, Emanuel Rahim, Tony Waters (percussion)

By 1970, Coltrane was dead, Miles Davis had released the scorched-earth Bitches Brew, and the Messengers’ brand of jazz was seen as passé. As the band ventured further into obscurity, their lineup became an erratic mishmash, with a parade of talented players yet little great music to chew on.

One thing to note about this Messengers dry spell: after decades of running a boys’ club, Blakey had finally hired a woman, pianist JoAnne Brackeen. As she told it in Hard Bop Academy, she was living near Slug’s Saloon on East 3rd Street when she heard music wafting into her apartment.

“I had four kids, so for me to go out was a big deal,” Brackeen remembered. “I was just kind of spacing out one night.” Full of gumption, she headed over to Slug’s, walked up to the stage and simply asked the Messengers if she could jam.

Released in Japan, long out of print, yet floating around in the Discogs marketplace, Jazz Messengers ‘70 features Brackeen on the piano bench as the Messengers revisit well-worn material like “Moanin’,” “Blues March,” and “Politely.”

“Every Chair in Flux” (1975-1977)

Bill Hardman (trumpet)
David Schnitter (tenor saxophone)
Ladji Camara (flute)
Walter Davis, Jr. (piano)
Yoshio Suzuki (bass)

“[By 1975], every chair was pretty much in flux,” saxophonist David Schnitter, who joined the group a year prior, said in Hard Bop Academy. “I don’t really think [Art] really had a steady band or steady work at that time. But the band was still going.”

Schnitter’s state-of-the-Messengers address aside, Blakey did hold on to the same quintet for two albums during this period — even if one of them was 1976’s lackluster Backgammon.

If you love these transitional periods, though, seek out the hard-to-find In Walked Sonny, a collaboration with tenor saxophone great Sonny Stitt, which (at press time) has 50 copies floating around the Discogs marketplace.

A Russian Expatriate (1977-1981)

Valery Ponomarev (trumpet)
Bobby Watson (alto saxophone)
David Schnitter (tenor saxophone)
Curtis Fuller (trombone)
Walter Davis, Jr., James Williams (piano)
Dennis Irwin (bass)
Ray Mantilla (percussion)

Valery Ponomarev was a 30-year-old Russian immigrant obsessed with jazz when he first jammed with Blakey at the Five Spot Café in Manhattan.

“When I stepped off the bandstand that night, Art hugged me so hard I couldn’t break away from him,” Ponomarev said in Hard Bop Academy. “He sweated like a boxer [while playing] and when he hugged me, my new shirt got covered with his sweat and was totally ruined.”

This baptism-by-perspiration meant Ponomarev was in, and he’d play with the Messengers nearly until Blakey’s death.

While the two-volume In My Prime doesn’t reach a hair-raising fever pitch like the Messengers’ best albums, it sparked an artistic rejuvenation after a very inconsistent decade for the group.

Judging by the obvious enthusiasm of “Jodie,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Reflections in Blue,” it’s clear Ponomarev helped right the Messengers’ ship when it needed righting.

Marsalises and Eubankses (1981-1988)

Valery Ponomarev / Wynton Marsalis / Terence Blanchard / Wallace Roney / Philip Harper (trumpet)
Bill Pierce / Jean Toussaint / Javon Jackson (tenor saxophone)
Bobby Watson / Donald Harrison / Kenny Garrett (alto saxophone)
Branford Marsalis (alto and baritone saxophone)
Robin Eubanks / Tim Williams (trombone)
Kevin Eubanks (guitar)
James Williams / Donald Brown / Mulgrew Miller / Benny Green (piano)
Charles Fambrough / Lonnie Plaxico / Peter Washington (bass)
John Ramsey (second drum kit)

If Ponomarev helped the Messengers brand back on its feet, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, then 18 years old, made them creatively robust again.

“When Wynton joined Art, he revitalized the Jazz Messengers,” Mangione said in Hard Bop Academy, placing him in the lineage of pivotal members Silver and Shorter. “The stamp that he’s put on everything he’s done came to the front.”

This excellent live album from the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland shows a peculiar collision: Marsalis, his saxophonist brother Branford, Tonight Show Band guitarist Kevin Eubanks, and his trombonist brother Robin.

After two solid albums with the group, 1981’s Album of the Year and Straight Ahead, Wynton would be joined by Branford again on 1982’s Keystone 3.

…And All For One (1989-1990)

Brian Lynch (trumpet)
Javon Jackson, Dale Barlow (tenor saxophone)
Frank Lacy, Steve Davis (trombone)
Geoff Keezer (piano)
Esseit Esseit (bass)

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ final years are arguably defined by the presence of Brian Lynch, a seasoned trumpeter who’d put in time with luminaries such as organist Brother Jack McDuff; pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi; and Silver, who got the Messengers rolling in the first place.

“Most of us when we joined the band, we were still kids,” his predecessor Terence Blanchard said in Hard Bop Academy. “[Brian had] already been out there, and he was an older guy, so when he joined the band, he already had his own thing together.”

In 1989, to celebrate Blakey’s 70th birthday, Lynch, as well as a gaggle of Messengers old and new, took the stage together at Leverkusen Jazz Festival in Germany.

For one time only, veterans like Golson, Hubbard, and McLean took the stage with new blood like saxophonist Javon Jackson, trombonist Frank Lacy, and bassist Esseit Esseit. Of course, they played the immortal “Moanin’.”

Almost exactly a year after the concert, Blakey died of lung cancer at 71 in Manhattan. When McLean heard the tragic news, he uttered the only six words appropriate in the moment.

“The school is closed for good,” he said.

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