my first time hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in New York was in the early summer of 1982, at the Jazz Forum. the place was jam packed with hipsters and elegantly attired folks who seemed so exclusively ‘inside’. a new arrival amidst such established community, i felt quite alone within myself, but i KNEW that just as with putting on a good record at home, as soon as the band started playing, i’d feel connected and that my soul would instantly feel every bit as welcome here as the insiders and musicians in the audience who all seemed to recognize and acknowledge one another conspicuously, making sure everyone could see that THEY were upper crust, and if not onstage with Art, still somehow ‘important’. you could not help but want Art to think you were cool, or at least have everyone believe you were part of his inner circle. if you knew you didn’t have it goin’ on like that, you’d try to stay in the periphery of this strongest of auras. as always at a Messengers show, there was a buzz of unparalleled anticipation throughout the room. it was ALIVE, it was SO alive and potent, this presence, this wholly Jazz atmosphere. oh boy it was a deep thing to be around Art Blakey. there is nothing else like this; i want to say to anyone reading this who wasn’t around in those days, you can trust what i’m saying, it was just about surreal, the vibe in the room before Art even showed up, every time. now when he got there, well, it was ON, everyone knew this; everyone. somehow, every time Art was playing, there was such an unspeakably strong communal feeling in the room, it was somehow collectively felt, understood, that everyone was in store for some mighty powerful magic. no one in the audience seemed to have a particularly casual attitude — it was an event — i swear, there was this anticipation in the air that you immediately submitted to and became a part of. i can honestly say there was an air of Jazz history about to take place, and we were all going to receive this wave of sunlight and be left with a sense of profundity.
when Art would enter the venue, the smell of his ‘Grey Flannel’ cologne would literally fill the air, but you DUG it, you wanted it to overwhelm you, you were there to FEEL something. and there you are, you’re in the magic. you are in the right place at the right time for Jazz. ‘they see you before they hear you’? well, with Art, you’d smell that Grey Flannel and of course it would draw your attention to Art’s dominant presence, but even more than that, if you were at all hip and therefore it was NOT your first time hearing Art live, sense of smell being such an associative memory catalyst, you’d be awakened and even MORE vividly reminded of the truly timeless, thriving Jazz atmosphere you’d been blessed by through Art and the Messengers before, and believe me it was a continuing saga being represented by the Jazz Messengers; you’d feel Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan in the ROOM, man. Art was SO deep. one could fascinate in his most colorful, charismatic personality there ever was, but the MUSIC — with Art and the Messengers, you felt so utterly connected to the greatness of the past as well as witnessing yourself submitting to the unmistakable sense that THIS, the music played tonight, what the cats WITH Art were puttin’ down, was where Jazz was truly happening on the planet tonight. the Messengers show was the ONLY place to be, or you were kind of a loser, Jazz-wise, at least that’s how it was for THIS messenger. playing with Art, you were driven to reach so much deeper to project your sound than you’d thought you had it in you to do with any other drummer, and all the while Art was giving shape and sweeping, glorious dynamics to the tag-team sequence of one soloist’s closing statement giving way to a clarion entrance of the next cat. Art said that our improvised solos should, as in writing a letter, have a declarative opening statement of some sort; a greeting or salutation, this becomes a main body or the core, and then a strong closing which the next cat gets right up in and takes charge from. the thing is this: you’re SAYING something — it’s a MESSAGE. and dare i explain how it swung? Please listen to a Messengers record, listen to “Free For All”, as Art said on more than one occassion, ‘seeing is believing, but HEARING is a M.F.’
somehow i’d arranged with the club owner, Mark Morganelli, that if i stood and left the seating at tables and what i remember as being a particularly long bar (where i’d eventually be introduced to the man himself by his pianist the great Johnny O’Neal – thank you, dear old friend, for this) open for paying customers, i could attend shows at the Forum for free. and you know what? it was always real Jazz in there, Mark actually had exceptional taste in the real deal he brought in the Jazz Forum; strictly the greatest Jazz musicians he could afford, all i would say were branches of the Thelonious Monk-Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker-Bud Powell tree. i arrived early and took my place, a perfect view of the piano keyboard (my appointed eventual destination, that was where my head was already at). oh yeah i was just a punk kid shabbily dressed with no hairstyle or swagger whatsoever, but i tell you i REALLY, really was committed to the marrow of my bones that i would be a messenger one day. so i was there, with my sony walkman bulging out of my down jacket pocket, ready to check and do my homework — profile was not an issue, i was there to be invisible and receive what was for my own self the gospel truth. in hindsight, i will now say that i was already a messenger in my heart, i felt and was deadly serious, yet i was green as a baby tree frog.
there was space for me just past the far end of the bar from the elevator entrance. the Messengers began to show up, mostly individually, maybe there’d be two cats together, but it was pretty much a ‘One By One’ procession of the best dressed young brothers you ever saw. three piece suits, pocket squares, tie bars, italian shoes… what’s funny now as i write this 30 years later, is that us young folks who were showing up to listen and marveling at the entire oeuvre of the Messengers with Art as the generator of this fire, this sophistication, would speak in hushed tones, ‘those cats have $400 suits; they got it like THAT!’.