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The “Jazz Messengers”, the ensemble created by the drummer Art Blakey, has been described as the true university, the post-graduate college of jazz. For if Blakey ever began repeating himself, he would shuffle the musicians in his band around, replacing experienced players with highly talented novices. It was a strategy that kept him young – while everyone else grew old. The man known as the Jazz Tiger for his attacking style, was also the great vampire of jazz: not unlike the much less transparent bandleader Miles Davis, the drummer was constantly in search of “fresh blood”. If everyone who had ever played with the Messengers had turned up to play the same gig, they would without doubt have created the best big band of all time. And if they had posed for a group portrait, then it would have had to hang alongside the existing and definitive jazz group portrait, Art Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem from 1958. Kane’s picture captures 57 of the leading jazz musicians of their day (possibly of any day), posing outside a house in Harlem. Among them, naturally, is Art Blakey. But our focus is on a Great Day in Stuttgart: Saturday, 15 July 1978. The 58-year-old Blakey, a man of cheerful extravagance and a convivial host, gave a guest performance at the Sängerhalle in Untertürkheim, the suburb of Stuttgart better known for its wine and car production. The ambience was fantastic. And having just undergone a blood replacement, Blakey’s ensemble was rejuvenated: Blakey was joined on stage by Russian-born trumpeter, now US citizen, Valery Ponomarev, David Schnitter (tenor), Bobby Watson (alto), James Williams (piano) and Dennis Irwin (bass). Max Roach, another jazz drum legend, once said that Art Blakey’s style of drumming had been labelled “thunder” for good reason, and the recording of the Stuttgart concert reveals why: the thunder happens whenever one of his limbs begins to move independently and completely unfettered, as if serving a higher, magical precision: “that polyrhythmic thing,” Roach used to call it.


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