Art Blakey’s Ambivalent Relationship With Africa
The Jazz legend’s music reveals a continuous engagement with African drums and percussion that intensified after a trip to Nigeria and Ghana in 1947. Yet, Blakey has also distanced himself from this connection, emphasizing that Jazz was African-American and had nothing to do with Africa.
It was the barrel of a gun that forced Art Blakey to grab his drumsticks and become one of the most iconic drummers in history. As a pre-teen in Pittsburgh, he started playing Piano to earn a living. He ended up playing drums by chance. One night when there were two pianists and no drummer, a club owner allegedly pointed a gun at him to force him to make room for the young and more gifted Erroll Garner. Blakey recalls that he did not immediately seem talented at playing the drum. In the early days, he made up for the technical limitations with an overabundant personality, attaching himself to more experienced musicians and learning from them live like the entirely self-taught artist he had always been.
Yet beyond evocative stories like this one, the biography of Art Blakey (Pittsburgh, October 11, 1919 – New York, October 16, 1990) has always been tricky for historians and enthusiasts. The drummer has often contradicted himself during the course of his life, unleashing confusion and adding to a mythology that has become an integral part of his legend: hard bop hero, “master” of at least two or three generations of jazz legends, underrated innovator. This ambiguity is reflected in one of the most debated issues regarding Blakey: his relationship with the African continent.
In 1957, Blakey recorded Ritual, the Jazz Messengers’s album—a band he founded and led for more than thirty-five years. The record features a song of the same name, introduced by the voice of Blakey himself:
“In 1947 after Eckstine’s band broke up we took a trip to Africa. I was supposed to stay there for three months, but I ended up staying there for two years, because I wanted to live with the people, find out how they lived, and above all, discover their drums. We were in the Nigerian hinterland. There I met the people called Ijaw, a really really interesting community. They live rather primitively. Drums are the most important instrument. Anything good that happens during the day becomes the theme of what they play at night. It particularly caught my ear for the different rhythms they played.” The introduction is quite programmatic. In fact, the song immediately climaxes into a rhythmic Afro-Cuban matrix with drums and loose skins percussion that produce a deep, deliberately ‘tribal’ sound “(1).
The anecdote is historically accurate: after Billy Heckstine’s band break-up late 1947, Blakey lost work and was unsure about the next steps of his career. He decided to go on a trip to Africa, and was among the first African American jazz musicians to do so indipendently and on their own bill. It seems to have been a personal journey, whose motivations have been repeatedly questioned by the drummer himself. Little is known about the trip itself, which some say lasted two years, while others claim it lasted no longer than six months with an itinerary that included Nigeria and Ghana’s capital, Accra. In Ritual, the drummer affirms that the main motivation behind the trip was studying the rhythms and the drums of West Africa. In the following years, he contradicted this version, shifting the focus of the trip to spiritual and philosophical aspects.
“I didn’t go to Africa to study drums, as someone wrote, I went to Africa because there was nothing else for me to do. I couldn’t get a job, I had to work on a ship to get there. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t care about the drums, I wasn’t there for that. I went to see what I could do about religion. Growing up I had no choice, I was just thrown into a church and was told this was who I was supposed to be. I didn’t want to be their Christian. I did not like it. In this country you can study politics, but I have not had access to the religions of the world. That’s why I went to Africa. When I returned, people had the idea that I had gone there to learn something about music.” (2)
One could digress to adress the weight of Blakey’s words about the imposition of Catholicism on African slaves forcibly transported to American territory — a theme that is rarely discussed even in musical terms, although the relationship with the religion of the oppressors has always been a constant in African American music. Yet Blakey claims that he did not touch any instrument while he was in Africa: “for two years I have immersed myself exclusively in the Hebrew and Arabic philosophers, in religion and languages. “I don’t remember playing an instrument even once during this whole period” (3). Such an about-face, given the words he spoke himself, is only partially explainable. It is true that during his African trip Blakey studied and converted to Islam, he was one of the first African American musicians (a trend that would reach the Nation Of Islam, Malcom X, Muhammad Ali and several jazz musicians) to take this path, acquiring the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. In 1963 he named the Jazz Messenger’s new record Buhaina Delight, although Blakey had already abandoned Islam.
Programmatic declarations full of pathos were charachteristic of Blakey: a man dedicated to —at times excessive— entertainment, storytelling and the constant desire to impress everyone. In some interviews, Blakey tried to specify the uniqueness of jazz as an explicitly and exclusively American form of art:
“A lot of people try to connect jazz with Africa and things like that. You can’t connect it. You must have the wisdom to know the difference. They have their thing; we have our thing. The Latins have their things; we have our thing. That’s it. No America; no jazz. That’s it.” (4)
This was his way of underlining the importance of American culture, but above all, of the African American culture and its contribution. Blakey was not a big fan of jazz players and of ‘white’ jazz, which according to him often “lacked fire”. He emphasised the specificity of African-American history, a path that between the fifties and sixties was evolving towards a new phase of its history. Despite all this, it is still difficult to believe Blakey did not dedicate himself to studying, listening to and practicing the drums and percussion instruments during his time in the African continent. This is because on his return, he adopted various African-inspired techniques, including hitting the side of the drum with drumsticks and using the elbow on the tam-tam to alter its intonation.
Coincidentally, the recording of Ritual barely preceded the declaration of independence of Ghana. Blakey felt the need to record an intro like that for a song that was evidently of Afro-Cuban origin. It is likely that the socio-political climate, as well as musical influences, played an important role in this decision. A precedent supports this thesis: the song Message from Kenya, from the 1954 Horace Silver Trio album consists of a duet between Blakey and the percussionist Sabu Martinez, the American born disciple of Chano Pozo (the Cuban percussionist whose collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie ushered in the Cubop movement) and a musician with whom Blakey continued to collaborate extensively.
Although Message from Kenya has a clear Afro-Cuban matrix, between the Caribbean rhythm and the sounds of Blakey’s drums, the title of the song is a specific reference to Kenya. Here too, a historical event had shaken African American artists and society: the revolt of the Mau Mau, a nationalist political movement in Kenya at the end of the Second World War starting in 1952. The Mau Mau was a movement whose symbolic importance inspired other anticolonial movements in Africa and overseas to the point of even impressing the African American public. The fighters, ill-equipped and inexperienced, adopted the guerrilla tactic, managing to stand up to the organized and powerful English army for a long time.
In the first years after his return from Ghana and Nigeria, Blakey collaborated widely with Afro-Cuban musicians, releasing four albums that focussed on drums and percussion between 1957 and 1962: Orgy In Rhythm (1957); Drum Suite (1957); Holiday For Skins (1959); The African Beat (1962). These records reveal Blakey’s desire to connect his drums to Afro-Cuban rhythms, involving musicians from the Cubop world and even African drummers. In these albums, Blakey is in the unusual role of main composer, which he rarely played before and after this moment in his career.
Improvised solos on African-influenced tracks like Tobi Ilu feature specific West African drum phrases. But since his early recordings as the leader, Blakey was keen to use the bass drum and toms to evoke African-inspired music, emphasiszing low tones a distinctive feature. Blakey is largely responsible for the return to the use of African music in jazz which had begun to become fashionable in the late 1940s. Researcher Ingrid Monson writes that: “while 1947 and 1948 saw many collaborations between Machito’s Afro-Cubans and various jazz musicians… These experiments seemed to fade away with the start of the Cold War, not to be revised until the work of Art Blakey with Afro-Cuban drummers at the time of Ghana’s independence in March 1957.” (5)
This coincidence—between Blakey’s journey to Africa at the dawn of a series of independence declarations and the conversion to Islam; between the integration of a drumming style undoubtedly influenced by all of this and its application in drum-heavy albums—creates a personal trace that becomes collective. It brings to mind the words of Toni Morrison, who when describing the birth of jazz, underlines the importance of the sound of drums in forms of protest, both in the symbolic role of marking the march of men and women, as well as in the new musical form:
“But what they really meant came from the drums. […] Songs that once started in the head and filled the heart had slipped further down, down under the bands wrapping their hips and the buckled belts. Down, until the music got so low that you had to close the windows and die of heat while the men looked out of the window in their shortsleeves, or gathered on the rooftops, in the alleys, on the steps of the house and in the homes of the relatives playing that stuff that hit so low announcing the Imminent End. […] Alice thought that the music hitting so low (and in Illinois it was even worse) had something to do with Blacks and Blacks parading silently along Fifth Avenue to express their anger for East St. Louis’ two hundred dead.” (6)
1. Art Blakey, Art Blakey’s Comment On Ritual, Ritual, New York, Blue Note Records, 1957
2. Nolan H., New Message From Art Blakey, in Down Beat 46, no 17, Nov. 1979
3. Clouzet J. E Delorme M., Entretien, Les Confidences de Buhaina, Jazz Magazine 9, no, 6, Giugno 1963
4. Rosenthal D.H., Art Blakey, The Big Beat!, The Black Perspective in Music , Autumn, 1986, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 267-289
5. Monson I., Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa, New York, Oxford University Press (2007), p 333
6. Morrison T., Jazz, Milano, Pickwick (2018)
This post is also available in: it
Classe ‘96, laureato in Lettere, scrivo di musica e cultura in giro, organizzo rassegne, sono DJ, e mi nutro di black music, jazz, elettronica, hip-hop, afrobeat e tanto altro.