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Hard Bop and Bezos’ Balls

I saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers once. It was in the mid 1980s at a club in Upper Manhattan called Mikkel’s. Blakey was then in his sixties, white-haired, straight-backed, his musical powers undiminished. As he had done over his three-decade career as a bandleader, Blakey had assembled a contingent of young titans, among them trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who would go on to become the composer of Spike Lee’s film scores) and pianist Mulgrew Miller, whose angular improvisations proved a match for anything the drummer could throw at him—the shock waves of cymbal fury, the cajoling banter of his rim clicks, the scalding steam of his drum rolls, the mischievous banter of his floor toms, and the hair-raising thunderbolts from his bass drum. Needless to say, the sum of these and other parts was greater than the whole.

This outpouring of ideas and energy was felt as much as it was heard. One might then have been inclined to wax theological and call Blakey an elemental force—imagination incarnate.

In the relative calm between the succession of searing, swinging Messenger tunes, the indomitable leader harangued his audience on the importance of supporting the music and musicians. He didn’t mind that he was preaching to the choir, some of whom sang back their affirmations during the solos and even during the homilies. It was not just figuratively that Blakey’s actions spoke louder than his words. The drummer’s music is “on the skins” as he was wont to say, and it was therefore when engaged in his stupendous art that he issued his jazz message, one of brimstone and beauty, not mere accompaniment but collaborative revelation.

Blakey died in 1990 a few days after his seventy-first birthday. He would have been one-hundred come October of this year. To mark that milestone one of his legion of protégés, drummer Ralph Petersen has assembled a sextet of fellow Blakey alumni under the banner of the Messenger Legacy. (There are a couple of hundred Jazz Messenger alumni; the number of alumnae can be counted on one hand). The Messenger Legacy is crossing the country and globe commemorating the Blakey centennial, from Manhattan to Melbourne, Half Moon Bay to Beijing.

Petersen and his crew flew into Seattle for shows at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley this past Tuesday and Wednesday before journeying on to Anna Arbor for the weekend, and back east to the Kennedy Center soon after Memorial Day. These are grueling air miles, but the intensity of the playing does not appear to suffer: the Messengers’ resolve was only hardened, bop-wise, on the smoky club trail of yore, and, likewise, in the mercifully smokeless interiors of the present day. As Petersen put it before the band cut loose in full lather: “Put your tray tables in upright and locked position and fasten your seatbelts. We’ll do the smoking.”

Speaking of wisps of the past, I found myself at the intersection 97th Street and Columbus Avenue a couple of years ago. I knew that Mikkel’s had long since closed, but I was surprised—though one never should be in New York—that the building that housed the club had been demolished and replaced by a CapitalOne branch. Across 97th stood a Whole Foods. The glow from the sonic supernova I’d witnessed some thirty years prior still occasionally recharges my system, and I tried to perceive the aural residue of Blakey’s drumming as I watched the organic shoppers stroll past, their reusable bags filled with kale and kombucha. If only the Blakey energy had been harnessed when it was being emitted at its highest capacity …

Any group with Legacy in its name will similarly elicit bouts of nostalgia. Jazz has always been music of place: the Vanguard, the Blackhawk, Massey Hall. On either side of the turn of this millennium Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley deserves to rank in the annals of jazz venues, especially on the West Coast. True, Dimitriou’s cannot fully resist booking easier-to sell, pop-oriented acts, not to mention the likes of Spyro Gyra. These fusion fossils are on the docket for next week.

When I first got into jazz in back in the early 1980s, the club was in a cramped, characterful bistro out in the University District. It then moved to a larger space on 6th Avenue and Lenora Street in the Belltown district between the Seattle Center with its Space Needle and Downtown. Back then the Belltown was low slung and quite run down—parking lots, a couple of movie theatres, dive bars.

I hadn’t been to the club since I heard McCoy Tyner there some years back, and the changes to 6th Avenue and environs is gob-smacking: they make those visited on the corner of 97th and Amsterdam seem like tiny mosquito bites on the urban epidermis.

The Age of Amazon has broken out over to the Seattle skyline—and on its street view, too. The battle group of high rises kitty-corner from Jazz Alley don’t so much scrape the sky as pummel it into submission. Their foreboding is only exacerbated by the goofy streaks of color that try to make these ghoulish monoliths seem carefree: like highlighters, these sprays of red or pink only emphasize the message already projected by the structures themselves: nothing less than world domination.

In the central plaza of the complex is a cluster of geodesic domes. A tight pair fused at the base loiters below one of the giant towers, an erection pretentiously called Day 1, as if Jeff Bezos were God himself conjuring his creations from the void. Why couldn’t he have rested on that day, too? After their unveiling last year, the domes were promptly dubbed Bezos’s Balls by local wags. Thus has this stunt of architectural sexting been forever inscribed in the urban dictionary.

The Seattle Scrotum is filled with tropical plants probably pillaged from what’s left of the real Amazon way down south in Brazil. The Puget Sound amazons scuttle into these testicles to meditate and refocus so that when lifted again to their phallic command posts in the sky they can more efficiently convince as many people in the world below to one-click their way to salvation.

In this New Seattle an alley is an endangered species, but you can still enjoy the pleasure of entering Jazz Alley through a real one. Thus the club remains true to its name, and long may it be so even. A staircase leads down to the main seating area, a broad space with tables for diners and a bar in back. It’s a descent that can’t help but allude to the famed basement that is the Village Vanguard.

Jazz Alley also has gallery with good sightlines down to the bandstand. Sadly, it remained empty for the Legacy’s Tuesday night performance. Still, the main level was packed with people and enthusiasm.

Because of Seattle’s varied topography the stairs bring you down from the back alley to street level, where a high wall of glass windows looks out onto 6th Avenue. The view was masked by thick curtains not so much, I suspect, to keep out the long evening light of Seattle’s spring and summer, but to blot out Bezos’ cocks and balls across the way.

The Messenger Legacy sextet filed in soon after 7:30 for their single ninety-minute set. All graduates of Blakey’s elite academy, these musicians are no longer young, but the music they play remains so. Their retrospect is not that of the museum: the repertoire has never lost its currency and bite. All about the manipulation of time, the irrepressible swing both marks and resists its passing. The mix of straight-ahead grooves with more complicated patterns and ecstatic syncopations makes for an exercise in eternal rejuvenation, the same sustainable force that powered Blakey, and indeed jazz itself. Petersen was the last percussionist to join Blakey in the double drummer big band of his last decade. The younger man, who he told us that he had turned fifty-seven the day before, is no mere epigone: his mastery of the Blakey arsenal cataloged above is complete, but to say that this is mimicry would be to ignore the labor and love that went into building Petersen’s titanic technique and the limitless fancy for which it is the expressive conduit. This guy is a monster of sublimely organized mayhem, friendly and ferocious at the same time. Even behind the sepulchral window treatments, he lights up the night.

Petersen’s parade ground intro to the set’s penultimate number, Bennie Golson’s Blues March would keep even the most wayward recruit in line. There is no more hallowed hymn in the Messenger canon, and the drummer’s big beat is impossible to desert. One of the early Messengers, Golson turned ninety this year and did a stint Jazz Alley in April, proof that, although many of its musicians died too early, jazz can keep one young. How great it would have been if Golson, who recorded the tune with Art Blakey on the timeless Blue Note LP Moanin’ of 1958, could have lingered in Seattle another few weeks and then had risen from the Tuesday-night audience wielding his Selmer saxophone and joined his fellow Messenger graduates in the blues boot camp.

Petersen took the tempo several steps faster than the 1958 version: his was a forced march. Trumpeter Brian Lynch has the deft harmonic sense and canny fleetness to careen skilffuly around the more serpentine tunes. Bluesy and brilliant, his taste for augmented turns has a long Messenger pedigree going back to Lee Morgan, a colleague of Golson’s on that original Blues March Blakey recording. Tenor player Bill Pierce’s tasteful originality echoes with strains of Dexter Gordon and Wayne Shorter (yet another Messenger alum) among others. He has bop agility to complement the preacher’s shout that was always the soul of the hard bop Messenger sound. With elegiac poise and occasionally gruff sweetness, Pierce also delivered the night’s only ballad, My One and Only Love. Bobby Watson wrung prayerful complaints from his alto. He’s also one of the most prolific of the Messenger composers, as in his kaleidoscopic waltz Wheel within a Wheel heard earlier in the set. Called up to the big league as an eighteen-year-old prodigy, last of the Messenger pianists Geoffrey Keezer can sail straight ahead when the winds blow him in that direction, but his playing has expanded since those early days under Blakey. His solo on the Blues March proved the point, his right hand all coruscating arpeggios, while his independent-minded left did what the right used to do—gospel growls and bebop murmurs. Bassist Essiet Essiet likes to play up high on the fingerboard, darting around the same invocations before getting deep and churchy.

Petersen is not only master of the all-encompassing percussion symphony, but also of silence. Arms and feet idle for once, he listened to Pierce for a couple of blues choruses, then began a drumroll whisper that grew inexorably, ecstatically over a twelve-bar crescendo to colossal climax and a bashing reentry into the fray.

Petersen had brought with him the group’s latest CD, Ralph Petersen & the Messenger Legacy (A)Live on which can be heard many of the same tunes as at Jazz Alley. Issued by the artist-owned Onyx Label, the double-disc album is hard to find on-line, but here’s a sampling of their reading of alum Curtis Fuller’s A La Mode which strolled out second on the Tuesday set list in Seattle.

“They charged me excess baggage for these CDs on the way out here, so give a brother a break and take some of these off my hands,” the affable Petersen urged the audience after its standing ovation had waned. In the shadow of the Deep Dark Super State of One-Day Shipping this surcharge seemed a bitter irony, even more so since all of the “innovativeness” in all the floors across 6th Avenue can’t hold a candle to the life-affirming creativity of Petersen and his band ever time the Messenger Legacy


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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