Formed by drummer Art Blakey in 1954, the Jazz Messengers remained a hard bop institution and important training ground for young musicians up until the leader's death in 1990. A dynamic presence and charismatic personality who led his hard-swinging ensembles from the drum set, Blakey was a widely respected figure in jazz for nearly 50 years. A super talent scout as a well as an exciting player on the bandstand, he recruited scores of emerging talents into the ranks of the Jazz Messengers over the years. The Messengers introduced such jazz anthems as Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" and "Dat Dere," Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty" and "Blues March" and Wayne Shorter's "Lester Left Town."
Born in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1919, Blakey was a self-taught pianist who led a big band at age 15. He switched to drums after being displaced on piano in his own band by fellow Pittsburgher Erroll Garner. His biggest drumming influences as a teenager were Chick Webb and Big Sid Catlett, both of whom would become important mentors for Blakey in the early stages of his career. In 1942, Art traveled to New York as a member of pianist Mary Lou Williams' band to play at Kelly's Stables on fabled 52nd Street. The following year he toured with Fletcher Henderson's big band and in 1944 joined Billy Eckstine's bebop big band, which included such young lions of the bebop movement as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Leo Parker and also featured vocalist Sarah Vaughan. At the height of the bebop era, his aggressive style on the kit underscored countless recordings for the Blue Note, Savoy and Prestige labels with the likes of Clifford Brown, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver.
In 1949, following a trip to West Africa, Blakey converted to Islam and took the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. That same year he began a two-year stint as house drummer at the famous jazz club, Birdland. From 1951 to 1953, Blakey played in Buddy DeFranco's quartet and in 1954 he and Silver co-led the first edition of the Jazz Messengers which included trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins. When the other four members left the band in 1956, Blakey carried on the band name; the beginning of what would become for the next four decades a kind of jazz school on the bandstand. More than 200 sidemen passed through the ranks of the Jazz Messengers over the years. One of the most potent Jazz Messengers ensembles was the early '60s sextet that included tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton and bassist Reggie Workman (which produced such quintessential hard bop documents as 1963's Ugetsu and 1964's Free For All, both on the Blue Note label).
Blakey continued waving the flag for hard bop through the '70s and '80s and up until his final recording in April, 1990, One For All, cut when the irrepressibly swinging drummer-bandleader was 70. He died later that year, on October 16, 1990, just five days after his 71st birthday.