Jazz at 100 Hour 90: Art Blakey and the Young Lions (1981 – 1991)

Wynton Marsalis

As the 1970s came to a close, many musicians searching for alternatives to jazz-rock fusion or free jazz found a home in straight-ahead acoustic jazz. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, whose Blue Note contract was not renewed in 1964, had spent a decade in relative obscurity, when he came roaring back with a series of legendary ensembles that fueled this return to jazz classicism. The alumni of this revived band became the core of The Young Lions, as they were known – well-trained, well-behaved, well-dressed virtuoso players with a conservative approach to the jazz canon. The Jazz Messengers and its progeny, the Young Lions in this hour of Jazz at 100.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
“Art Blakey and his diverse Jazz Messengers acted as the backbone of new mainstream jazz. Although never essentially changing his hard-bop concept throughout the seventies and eighties, Blakey gave young musicians so much freedom that his Jazz Messengers became a real springboard for the groups that refined and extended bop-oriented playing multistylistically: the Wynton Marsalis Band, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, the Terence Blanchard-Donald Harrison Quintet, the Mulgrew Miller Band, [and] the Wallace Roney Group… Strikingly, all these groups put the emphasis—as a deliberate countermovement to the hypertrophied results of jazz-rock and fusion—on the concept of musical integration.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Soulful Mister Timmons. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
(Wynton Marsalis-tp, Bobby Watson-as, Billy Pierce-ts, James Williams-p, Charles Fambrough-b, Art Blakey-d). From Album Of The Year. 4/12/1981
Composed by James Williams.

Controversy. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
(Terence Blanchard-tp, Donald Harrison-as, Jean Toussaint-ts, Mulgrew Miller-p, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Art Blakey-d). From New York Scene. 5/1984
Composed by Donald Harrison, Jr.

Wynton and Branford Marsalis.
“… it would be wrong to claim that the mainstream acoustic jazz tradition was dormant before the arrival of Wynton Marsalis at the start of the 1980s. Rather than being its cause, Marsalis’s success was very much a product of [an] emerging historical consciousness. Even so, Marsalis must be seen as the key figure who, more than anyone else, vehemently asserted the centrality of this tradition in the face of fusion and free styles, and aimed to be its preserver, propagator, promoter, and publicist all rolled into one. His efforts often ignited controversy, yet even the heated disputes that flamed around him can be read as signs of the growing importance of jazz’s inheritance from past generations in the way the art form would be conceptualized and commoditized by both insiders and outsiders. At times ideological and aesthetic issues have gotten muddled in these debates, and one suspects that it will take many years before Marsalis the musician can be dispassionately assessed, without being lost in discussions of the personal or political trappings of his art.” – Ted Gioia

Wynton Marsalis’s eponymous first release in 1982 “… was more of a hodgepodge than a unified artistic statement, but many of its individual moments were compelling: ‘Hesitation‘ found the Marsalis brothers evoking Ornette Coleman’s early style in a playful workout over ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes; the shifting rhythmic moods of Wynton’s piece ‘Father Time’ prefigured the trumpeter’s later concern with complex compositional structures; on ‘Sister Cheryl’ Branford made his mark with an ingenious soprano sax solo that even outshined his brother’s formidable contribution; Wynton’s solo on ‘Who Can I Turn To’ was a simple affair, but his trumpet sound was riveting in its depth and purity.” – Ted Gioia

Regarding Branford Marsalis’s first recording, Scenes In The City, Morton and Cook wrote, “Branford seemed to put most of what he knew and cared about into his first record. Borrowing a Charles Mingus theme for the title and one of the tracks, he stated ambitions over and beyond the usual hard-bop range. His own compositions are more workmanlike and he wisely leans on Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Kirkland for additional material… this debut is a high-point in the decade.”

Hesitation. Wynton Marsalis Quartet
(Wynton Marsalis-tp, Branford Marsalis-ss/ts, Ron Carter-b, Tony Williams-d). From Wynton Marsalis. 1982
Composed by Wynton Marsalis.

Parable. Branford Marsalis Quartet
(Branford Marsalis-ss, Kenny Kirkland-p, Phil Bowler-b, Jeff Watts-d). From Scenes In The City. 4/18 – 4/19/1983.
Composed by Kenny Kirkland.

“Looking to [Wynton] Marsalis for deep feelings is as pointless as looking to Miles Davis for easy laughs. The nature of his virtuosity is to stand slightly above the chords and rhythmic changeups, alighting in an expression of kinetic display. [In the 1986 release, Live at Blues Alley], he appeared with just piano, bass, and drums, and revealed a lean, aspirate timbre that recalled Kenny Dorham rather than Miles, with whom he was widely compared. Even with a tune [‘Autumn Leaves’] and speedy gait closely associated with Davis, he revealed a resolute inventiveness and stylish approach to time.” – Gary Giddins

Autumn Leaves. Wynton Marsalis Quartet
(Wynton Marsalis-tp, Marcus Roberts-p, Robert Hurst-b, Jeff “Tain” Watts-d). From Live at Blues Alley. 12/19 – 12/20/1986

Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison.
Even while still performing and recording with the Jazz Messengers, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and altoist Donald Harrison, Jr. both of New Orleans, formed their own quintet that recorded from 1983 – 1988. “Like the early Marsalis groups, the Terence Blanchard-Donald Harrison Quintet refined and differentiated in its own particular way the ‘message’ transmitted by the celebrated second Miles Davis Quintet. It played ‘controlled freedom’ on a bop foundation but, unlike the Miles group, added a powerful shot of New Orleans tradition whose African, Spanish, and French tinge very much came to life.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

“Before Katrina struck, New Orleans had regained its centrality in American jazz. Much of the credit goes to Ellis Marsalis, who was one of [Terence Blanchard and Donald] Harrison’s teachers at NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts]. Like many of the younger generation, Harrison has tried to fuse traditional idiom – he has a hereditary role in one of the leading New Orleans ‘tribes’, the marching bands of Mardi Gras – with a thoroughly contemporary style honed during his stint with the Jazz Messengers … Hard bop is still the basic language here, but Harrison has also tried to combine the Blakey sound with that of his real father. Donald Harrison Sr has been leader of the Guardians Of The Flame, who also feature on the album … His own ‘Indian Blues’ and ‘Uptown Ruler’ reflect a decision in 1989 to ‘mask Indian’ again and join the feathered throngs that march on Mardi Gras. In touching his roots, he’s brought them right up to date.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Duck’s Revenge. Harrison / Blanchard
(Terence Blanchard-tp, Donald Harrison-as/ts/ss, Cyrus Chestnut-p, Reginald Veal-b, Carl Allen-d). From Crystal Stair. 4/1 – 4/3/1987
Composed by Donald Harrison, Jr.

Indian Blues. Donald Harrison Jr Sextet
(Donald Harrison-as/ts/tamb, Cyrus Chestnut-p, Phil Bowler-b, Carl Allen-d, Howard “Smiley” Ricks-per, Bruce Cox-tamb). From Indian Blues. 5/22 – 5/23/1991
Composed by Donald Harrison, Jr.

Bobby Watson.
“Over a late-night malt whisky in 2006, the authors of the [Penguin] Guide decided that [Bobby Watson’s Love Remains] was probably our favourite modern jazz album of all. It is absolutely reliable, delivering musical intelligence, fantastic group interplay, high emotion and an almost unearthly beauty. From the Parker-tinged but by no means slavish ‘Mystery Of Ebop’ to the solemnly funky ‘Dark Days’ (originally an apartheid protest but retasked as a tribute to Nelson Mandela), it has a complete unity of purpose and tone … Retrospect and repetition have never dulled this one. We’ve no hesitation in hailing it as a modern masterpiece.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Dark Days (For Nelson Mandela). Bobby Watson Quartet
(Bobby Watson-as, John Hicks-p, Curtis Lundy-b, Marvin “Smitty” Smith-d). From Love Remains. 11/13/1988
Composed by Bobby Watson

Art Blakey died at 71 in 1990, leaving a profound legacy as a finishing school for generations of players. In the 1980’s, in addition to Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Jr and Bobby Watson, he nurtured trumpeters Phil Harper, Wallace Roney, and Brian Lynch; trombonists Robin Eubanks, Steve Davis, and Frank Lacy; saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Javon Jackson; pianists Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green, and Geoff Keezer; bass players Dennis Irwin, Lonnie Plaxico, Peter Washington and Essiet Okon Essiet. Through them Blakey’s legacy lives on.

In the 1980s, the avant-garde, although still home to many fine free jazz players, increasingly adopted an ecumenical approach to historical styles. Freedom came to include freedom to be “in the tradition.” The broadly-influenced music of alto saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Henry Threadgill, clarinetist John Carter and pianist Don Pullen illustrate this trend – in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Album Of The Year. Timeless SJP 155
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. New York Scene. Concord Jazz CJ 256
Wynton Marsalis. Wynton Marsalis. Columbia CK 37574
Branford Marsalis. Scenes In The City. Columbia CK 38951
The Wynton Marsalis Quartet Live At Blues Alley. Columbia G2K 40675
Harrison / Blanchard. Crystal Stair. CBS 460164
Donald Harrison, Jr. Indian Blues. Candid CCD 79814
Bobby Watson. Love Remains. Red CD 123212

Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. 2009. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. Chicago, IL. Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.
The Styles of Jazz: The Eighties
Giddins, Gary. 2004. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 118. Postwar Jazz: An Arbitrary Roadmap (1945 – 2001)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 9. Traditionalists and Postmodernists
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Branford Marsalis. Scenes In The City
Donald Harrison, Jr. Indian Blues
Bobby Watson. Love Remains.
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
89. Wynton Marsalis: Live at Blues Alley (1986)

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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