Art Blakey On  How to Build a Band

You’re in your birthday suit up there. People can see clean through you. And your music, your actions and the vibes you bring forth to the audience come out. You cannot hide that.

Ben Sidran

Interview by

January 4, 1985. New York City.

Extended piece aired on NPR's Jazz Alive

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David Gerlach: This is Blank on Blank. Where lost interviews come to life. Distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. I’m David Gerlach, and have you ever heard Art Blakey play drums?
[Art Blakey drumming]

David Gerlach: Art Blakey, who died in 1990, was one of the most influential musicians in jazz. And he did it from the back of stage, on drums, leading a band called the Jazz Messengers. For over four decades, he groomed greats like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard and Lou Donaldson.  He was a bandleader.

[Blakey’s drumming continues]

David Gerlach: In the mid 1980s, Blakely was interviewed by pianist Ben Sidran for a show on NPR. It was called Jazz Alive. Ben talked to all the legends of jazz. And he allowed us to dig into this particular interview. And what we pulled out is Art Blakely explaining how you assemble and lead a team. It’s really good stuff. Roll the tape.

[Music: Art Blakey “Free For All”]

Ben Sidran: You’ve been referred to as a one-man university for young jazz musicians. What do you look for in a young player? How do you find them and how do you bring them along?

Art Blakey: Well, I think one begets another. One musician brings on another. And what we do is I meet him, and the musicians talk about them, and I get to hear them and you hear their potentials. A lot of musicians I hear I’d like to have in the band, but they won’t fit.  Their personalities won’t fit. You have to find out about their backgrounds and their dislikes to bring about a cohesion in the band and to the music, you know. Because if it’s up there and it’s a dislike among the different personalities on the bandstand, it certainly comes through the music. I teach musicians to look at it like this: you’re in the nude. You’re in your birthday suit up there. People can see clean through you. Your music, your actions and your vibes that you bring forth to the audience come out. You cannot hide that. It’s got to be right. In the matter of a few months, playing together every night you begin to know each other, begin to trust each other. The band begins to come together. You begin to know a person so well, and you like him so well, you look and the eyes are the windows of the soul, you see. And when we look at each other, if I look at them in a certain way, they know just what to do. Split second.

[Music: Art Blakey “A Night In Tunisia”]
Ben Sidran: You’ve had virtually every great trumpet player and tenor player, and half of the piano players that have been around come through your band. Tell me a little bit about the formation of this band.

Art Blakey: Well it’s just a continuation from the other band, because we always have understudies. All these trumpet players and saxophone players, they know the whole book. Oh, they can read. All of them can read. They have good sound. They know how it goes. It makes it so much easier for me. You don’t have to teach them because they got the idea of how it’s supposed to go. They come out on the bandstand look professional. Be sharp. They see you before they hear you. And don’t come up there looking like something that jumped out of the garbage can or you’re going to give somebody a grease job, because I don’t go for that. So therefore most of the musicians that come out of the band, that’s what we train them for: to become leaders. All of them won’t, because all of them don’t have that quality. But a lot of them do.

[Music: Art Blakey “Fuller Love”]

Art Blakey: I like to be known as an innovator. That’s what I am.  I like to find new things on the drums. I like to hear drummers playing things, that, you know, I tried out like 15, 20, 30 years ago. Because there’s— All to be played on that instrument’s not been played. You see you’ve got four extremities: you got left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot. You ain’t supposed to let your right hand know what your left hand is doing or your left foot know what your right foot is doing. Everything’s supposed to go in a different direction but still keep the swing. Keep the swing.

[Music: “Fuller Love” continues]

Art Blakey: You can play loud when you play loud, and when you play soft, don’t lose the intensity of the beat. Once you lose the intensity, all is lost.

[Music: “Fuller Love” continues]

David Gerlach: Special thanks to Ben Sidran for allowing us to bring you his interview. Ben has played with everyone from Van Morison and Diana Ross to Steve Miller, the Rolling Stones. He’s also a great interviewer. So hear the rest of this conversation plus many more talks with jazz legends at Support for Blank on Blank comes from TinyLetter—email for people with something to say. It’s a simple way to send an email newsletter from the people behind MailChimp. Amy Drozdowska produced this Blank on Blank with me. Our sound logo comes to us from Jeffrey Alan Jones. And for all the journalists listening: we want to hear your lost interviews. So drop us a line to Blank on Blank is distributed by the Public Radio Exchange. That’s all for now. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.

Music: Art Blakey “Free For All” “A Night In Tunisia” “Fuller Love”
Photo: Serge Corrieras via Flickr | Drummerworld