Art Blakey: The Jazz Messenger

Two years before his death, this 1988 documentary spotlights one of the world’s greatest drummers and bandleaders. 

Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s fly-on-the-wall style avoids the usual retrospective approach by sticking to the performance and conversation that are the essence of jazz. Capturing Art Blakey’s residency at Camden Jazz Week and his collaborators trading war stories, the film organically creates a picture of the powerhouse drummer and invaluable mentor as leader of The Jazz Messengers. 

For 35 years, the Messengers was a hotbed of young talent. “Name any trumpet player,” remarks Dizzy Gillespie, “he had ’em.” The film suggests that continuing to recruit young musicians keeps the 69-year-old young as he continues his mission to keep the message of jazz alive, his leadership still as strong as his drumming. Once again we see the power of music to transcend cultural and generational boundaries.

The doc is as well put together as its subject, also highlighting the jazz scene of London in the ’80s with local dancers and musicians joining Blakey on stage in Camden. Fontaine and Hartley show these great performances in full, Blakey’s face full of joy and his young band thrilled to be working with the man who exemplifies the generosity of jazz. The focus is his message and not his life, making for an illuminating insight into the art of Blakey.

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