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Art Blakey's students pay tribute to their late, great teacher by keeping the Jazz Messengers alive. 

Spreading the Message

Jazz Messengers
VCU's Siegel Center,
1200 W. Broad St.
8 p.m.
Thursday, June 10
$15
828-7267 or 828-1726

The Jazz Messengers are a living tribute to the third of the late Art Blakey's three great legacies.

Blakey's first two legacies, as a musician and leader, survive in dozens of recordings. His innovative drum playing — press rolls and explosions — echoed through the playing of two generations of jazz drumming. His "Jazz Messengers" bands virtually define hard bop — a durable combination of bebop's experimental virtuosity with traditional African-American music forms.

Blakey's third legacy is as a teacher. He was responsible for launching or shaping the careers of some of the greatest postwar jazz musicians: Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Curtis Fuller, Keith Jarrett, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Terence Blanchard, Robin Eubanks, Wallace Roney and Benny Golson.

The latest incarnation of the Messengers, organized by tenor saxophonist Golson, will appear at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center June 10 to benefit VCU's School of International Studies.

In a recent telephone conversation, Golson recalled being a young musician in Blakey's New York-based band. "It was a complete learning experience for me, since I was one of the new guys in town," he says.

Golson was a young composer/arranger in Dizzy Gillespie's' big band when Blakey asked him to be music director of the 1958 Messengers. The band that Golson assembled recorded the Blue Note album "Moanin,'" an album that was both an artistic milestone and a major commercial success.

"Playing with Art Blakey over the year that I was with him was one of the most thrilling times in my career," Golson says. "His style of playing drums impacted my musical personality so much that when I left I had great difficulty playing with any other drummer."

Golson left to lead his own group in 1959, but played guest-star gigs with the Messengers during the next three decades. With Blakey's death in 1990, the group's long history seemed to be at an end — until Golson brought former members together to pay tribute to their departed friend and mentor.

"My motivation for doing this is to keep the memory of him and what he did in the music alive," Golson explains. "Sustaining the memory of his talent as a drummer, as a leader, and metaphorically as the dean of a unique musical university.

"Art Blakey carried around a wealth of experience in his back pocket and drum cases. We were like young chirping chicks in a nest with our mouths open; he was feeding us even if we didn't know it. Only in retrospect did we realize that this had happened. We imbibed all kinds of things and were nourished by them. We are who we are today as a result.

"The man was not afraid to take musical chances. He was not a daredevil because he had the powers of reason and intuition to make sound decisions and to carry the music indefatigably forward."

Most of The Messengers' music was written by young sidemen, many of whom came into their own as composers under Blakey's tutelage. Golson, who had a genius for writing standards ("Stablemates," "I Remember Clifford," "Whisper Not") reflects on Blakey's contribution to the creative process.

"He didn't write, but he permitted, no, he encouraged those songs to be written," Golson says. "He gave everyone an opportunity to create. He knew how things should sound. And," he adds with a laugh, "no one ever heard the ones he didn't like."

Those songs and their original arrangements form the 1999 Messenger's repertoire. The lineup of the band changes, except for Golson, but everyone in it knows the material intimately and knows how Blakey thought it should sound. "We draw upon former members," Golson says, "people who played with the man."

Among the graduates of "the school of Art" appearing with Golson in Richmond are three well-established players: trumpeter Randy Brecker, pianist Mulgrew Miller and trombone player Steve Turre. Bassist Buster Williams and young drumming phenomenon Carl Allen complete the sextet.

Together, Golson promises, they will "tap into the memory of all those things that make the spirit become effervescent. We want people to come out, enjoy the music that we enjoy."

The audience will also hear the living lessons of a great teacher. Golson, at 70 a senior statesman of the music, still has the tinge of youthful awe in his voice when he talks of Blakey. "The man," he says, "did not know how not to
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