Remembering the night in Manchester when Art Blakey with the Jazz Messengers showed how music can be an eloquent instrument of political struggles
At the Free Trade Hall 1961
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
How many jazz-loving Mancunians remember a night in May 1961 when Art Blakey’s thunderous drums, with one of the most luminous versions of his Jazz Messengers, set on edge the atmospherics of the Free Trade Hall.
The young and fiery Philadelphia trumpeter Lee Morgan, only 22 at the time, a wondrous tenor saxophonist and musical director Wayne Shorter, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933 and still playing now with a long life’s brilliance, the gospel-inspired pianist Bobby Timmons born in 1935 and bassist Jymie Merritt, both Philly boys too, were the other four of the rampaging five-some.
Blakey, an ex-steelworker born in Pittsburgh in 1919 and already a veteran with Mary Lou Williams, Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine, formed the Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver in 1955 and the band became the birthing space of a host of seminal post-bop pathfinders from Freddie Hubbard to Bobby Watson, from Cedar Walton to Wynton Marsalis.
This 1961 European tour climaxed on May 13 with a famous Paris concert at the Olympia, but the Messengers were also building up to cutting one of their epochal Blue Note albums, The Freedom Rider, on May 27.
Its title and theme tune was a direct reference to the civil rights struggle being waged in the south and through their incendiary musical commitment, these musicians were messengers of resistance and racial justice as their sounds carried through the halls and streets of the cities of Europe where black men and women were also deeply engaged in their own struggles against racism — in Manchester too in the brick canyons of Moss Side and Hulme.
The quintet pace themselves with the opening Harold Arlen ballad It’s only a Paper Moon with a clapping and whistling Manchester throng before them.
Morgan is away with the theme, while Shorter’s quizzical tenor takes up the solo message. Morgan’s horn is edgy and defiant before Timmons rolls out his notes with Blakey’s racing beat behind him. And then it’s onto Timmons’s funky classic Dat Dere, which defined the sound of the Messengers and hard bop itself for a generation.
Shorter opens the solos with his enigmatic tone, Morgan’s ear-splitting notes continue the message and the composer relaxes contentedly into his own creation before Blakey’s pounding skins take the tune home.
Next it’s Are You Real? written by a former Messengers tenorist and musical director, Benny Golson. Shorter finds his Manchester groove, Morgan’s notes search out the Pennines, Timmons rocks loosely on his stool and Blakey exchanges fierce rolls with the horns.
Dizzie Gillespie was Morgan’s first maestro when he was a teenager, so the Gillespie-penned A Night in Tunisia held a precious bond for him. Shorter begins the solos with a strange, stuttering chorus before Morgan cracks the theme open and Merritt, a rare soloist, and Blakey share rhythmic pulses. Morgan’s high-rise coda is a tribute to the era-defining Dizzy.
Shorter wrote The Summit and it is he who ploughs a solo tenor furrow to open the track. Morgan follows ardently and Timmons is eloquently laid-back while the horns riff on behind him.
Blakey is in jocular mood as he introduces his bandmates, or “the members of the aggravation” as he calls them, referring to Shorter as a new “star on the jazz horizon” who has been “there for quite some time already and Morgan who has topped the jazz polls in every magazine from Downbeat to the Melody Maker to the Ladies Home Journal!”
A little piece of balladry follows with Like Someone in Love with Morgan’s fluency leading the way, some lyrical Shorter and gentle phrases from Timmons.
Then it is Morgan’s own Kozo’s Waltz, prompted by a Blakey drum-storm, which pounds out of the Free Trade Hall over Ancoats and Ardwick, Longsight and Burnage, Cheetham Hill to Blakley and the Stretford.
1961 it was and the heart of America beat in Manchester that night with the great and eternal drums of Art Blakey and the message of his comrades-in-music.