Remembering the Messenger

Jazz legend Art Blakey and his small town Atlantic County digs

By Jeff Schwachter
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 27, 2005

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Of all of Art's album covers, says Sandy Warren, this is my favorite, of course, because it's my two favorite people.

When Art Blakey, the legendary jazz drummer (and 2005 Grammy lifetime achievement award recipient), lived in Northfield during the late 1970s and early '80s, he could not help running his bicycle into the side of the 507 NJ Transit bus, which, at the time, stopped right in front of the home he shared with his longtime companion, Sandy Warren, and son, Takashi, at the intersection of Mill and Shore roads.

"The bus driver would just sit there and look at him," remembers Warren. "He just never really learned how to ride his bike. But he kept trying because he thought, you know, that's a nice thing that you can do in Northfield--you could ride your bike.

"It's so weird because you think of someone talented enough to be the world's greatest drummer, who can close his eyes and throw the sticks up in the air and catch them with his eyes still closed and never miss a beat - that he should be able to ride a bicycle and do some other things that require a bit of dexterity. He couldn't. Drumming was the only thing that required dexterity that he could do!"

Thank heaven for that. In the decades after the Pittsburgh-born Blakey emerged on the expansive 1940s New York club scene, playing alongside legendary figures like Billy Eckstine, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, he became one of jazz's larger-than-life figures, helping to develop hard bop sound -- a sound that relied heavily on the elements of swing, blues, gospel and creative interpretation.

A dynamic showman in his own right, Blakey's snare drum fills and swift cymbal work are as recognizable on record today as the sound of Miles' trumpet. Blakey's band, the Jazz Messengers, which he founded in the early '50s with pianist Horace Silver and then led on his own through the '80s, helped launch the careers of future jazz masters like Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Billy Harper and later, Branford and Wynton Marsalis. This traveling, ever-changing incubator of talent would play a huge part in keeping jazz alive in the later decades of the 20th century. Even as Blakey began to suffer from hearing loss in the mid-'70s, he continued to perform around the globe and support young talent via his Messengers.


A Night at Slug's

On a hot August night in 1968, Blakey's Jazz Messengers were playing a club called Slug's in New York. Sandy Warren, a 28-year old jazz fan living in Chicago, was vacationing in the Big Apple for a week with a friend. Although the two women had only intended to stay for one set, the time soon slipped way past the midnight hour. Touched by Blakey's band's music, Warren went up to the stage and thanked him after the show.

"And so he said, 'Well, come back and enjoy it again tomorrow night,'" recalls Warren. "He said,'Be my guest!' So, we did come back the next night and then, as they say in the cliché, the rest is history."

At the time, Blakey, as Warren recalls, was "between wives, lovers, new Cadillacs, wardrobes, record contracts, bank accounts and apartments." Warren would return to Slug's at the end of the last set each night for the rest of her vacation to meet up with Blakey, 48 at the time. She had no idea that the two would eventually share a home together at the Jersey Shore, but she did know that there was a strong chemistry right from the beginning.

"We both knew in that initial meeting that we would always be bonded and it changed our lives forever," says Warren. "Especially my life. I can't imagine who or what I would have been had I not met Art because my life changed so drastically."

Soon after meeting in New York, Blakey's band traveled to Japan for a tour. As soon as they got back to the States, Warren went to see Blakey's band play in Detroit.

"I walked into the gig and Art looked up and saw me coming in," says Warren. "I took the front row center table and as soon as the band finished playing the tune that they were playing, he said, 'Now we're going to play 'It's only a Paper Moon' for Sandy, my lady.' And I'll remember that forever and ever."

In October 1968 Warren returned to New York for Blakey's birthday (Oct. 11) helping to arrange a surprise party for him at the club he was playing that particular night. Written on the huge cake were the words 'Love Bu,' which was short for Buhaina, Blakey's muslim name, which he adopted while living in Africa in the 1940s. "A lot of times, good friends would just call him 'Bu,'" says Warren.


The Move to Jersey

Although Blakey grew up poor, and worked as a dishwasher by day and musician by night when he first hit Manhattan as a young man, by the time Warren met him decades later, he was a world traveler, appreciator of fine food and a well-known and respected musician.

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