Remembering Ed Blackwell

Ed Blackwell

“Ed Blackwell is one of the major drum influences of the twentieth-century. Through his connection to the African diaspora, his so-called avant garde drumming implied all world music, ancient to the future.” Master drummer Billy Hart

In the late 1960s-early 1970s the ancestor Chicago tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan produced a series of recordings as part of his “Dolphy Series.” Those recordings were originally slated for a partnership Clifford forged with a book publishing company called Frontier to release his series. That never happened and Jordan turned to Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver‘s indie imprint Strata-East Records. The crown jewel of the series was Jordan’s long out of print Glass Bead Games date.

A couple of months ago ace record producer Michael Cuscuna asked me to write liner notes for a box set he was planning for his important Mosaic reissue label. When Cuscuna detailed the contents of this proposed Clifford Jordan box set, I was delighted to learn that one of the discs contained a previously unreleased session led by the distinctive, late great drummer Edward Blackwell. Born in 1929 in New Orleans, Blackwell was a true keeper of that distinctive New Orleans drum beat that encompassed such a rich tradition going all the way back to the root source of jazz and including what is popularly known as that distinctive “second line” rhythm; those rhythms which propelled the second line of traditional New Orleans funeral mourners cum revelers who solemnly followed the funeral cortege and brass band to the internment, then joyously danced their way back from the cemetery to celebrate the deceased.

Ed Blackwell was an upholder of that flame of the first order. He along with fellow trapsman James Black propelled a coterie of restless mid-20th century explorers who sought to expand the New Orleans jazz craft from the classic traditional approach to a more advanced sensibility reflecting the developments happening in New York and other environs that ushered in the modern jazz era. Blackwell participated fully in these various developments with players such as saxophonists Harold Battiste and Nat Perrilliat, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and clarinetist Alvin Batiste.

Blackwell, who passed from kidney complications in 1992, became one of the most singular drum stylists on the New York scene after first relocating from NOLA to L.A. then to NYC on the heels of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s auspicious migration in 1959. Billy Higgins held down Coleman’s drum chair when the band first ventured East, but Blackwell took over in 1960. In 1970 Blackwell took up residency at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and throughout that decade well into the 1980s he contributed his formidable rhythm pallet to the bristling Coleman alumni unit known as Old & New Dreams, alongside Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, and Charlie Haden.

Preceding that, in 1967 Ed Blackwell was part of the Randy Weston band that made a historic 18-country State Department-sponsored tour of Africa. Based in part on popular demand for their return following an incredible final tour date performance in the capital city Rabat, in 1969 Ed Blackwell’s family joined Weston and his children in making a home in Morocco. In our many interviews in prep for Weston’s autobiography African Rhythms, Weston recounted several stories about Blackwell. One of the most amusing concerned Langston Hughes’ will, which insisted that Randy Weston play a set at the great writer’s 1967 funeral.

As Randy recounts in our book, “…When [Langston Hughes] died… his secretary called and said, “Randy, in Langston’s will he wants you to play his funeral with a trio,” I thought, “Man, Langston is too much!” They had some kind of religious ceremony someplace else which I was unable to attend. But the ceremony Langston really wanted and had specified in his will was at a funeral home in Harlem. It was a big funeral home that seated over two hundred people with chairs on one side of the place. In the other room was Langston’s body, laid out in a coffin with his arms crossed. The band was Ed Blackwell, Bill Wood [nee Vishnu Wood], and me. They had arranged for us to play in front of the area of the funeral home where the guests sat, surrounded by two big wreaths. Ed Blackwell got very New Orleans, very superstitious about the setting. He said, “Man, I’m not gonna touch those flowers. It’s weird enough we’re here in the first place.” So we had some guys move the flowers so we could set up the band. …We played one hour of all different kinds of blues and in between selections Arna Bontemps read some of Langston’s poetry. …Two weeks later I got a phone call from [Langston’s] secretary, who said, “Randy, I forgot to tell you, Langston said to be sure the musicians are paid union scale.” So despite his superstitious protestations, at least Ed Blackwell got union scale for that unusual gig!

In preparation for the Clifford Jordan/Dolphy Series Mosaic box set liner notes, I spoke with Weston and three drummers – DC-based Peabody Institute drum professor Nasar Abadey, Allison Miller – who had spoken glowingly about Blackwell at a listening session at Tribeca Performing Arts Center last winter alongside Carl Allen – and Lewis Nash – to get their sense of Ed Blackwell’s impact. Look out for the Mosaic box later this fall, but for now I wanted to share Weston, Abadey, Miller, and Nash’s insights on Ed Blackwell.
Ed Blackwell & Charlie Haden
Ed Blackwell & Charlie Haden

What was it about Ed Blackwell’s drumming that worked so well with your music?
Randy Weston: We were the first ones to play opposite Ornette [in quartet w/Cecil Payne on saxophone] at the Five Spot when he first came to NYC; Leonard Bernstein was there that [opening] night and I wanted to punch him out when he said loudly that Ornette was better than Bird! The first time I heard Blackwell was with Ornette. Blackwell had that special thing New Orleans drummers have – that dance beat; it’s a spiritual thing – and Ed had that – he would do all that polyrhythmic, complex thing but he always had that dance beat.

When did Blackwell and his family join you to live in Morocco?
RW: Blackwell brought his wife & children; we wanted to escape that nonsense (drugs, etc.) in New York. He had that unique ability to mix those rhythms smoothly; he still had that New Orleans pocket, that stemmed straight from Baby Dodds.”

Any fond memories of Blackwell from that tour?
RW: When we played in Rabat, Morocco at the Cinema Agdal – the last concert of the whole tour – Ed’s New Orleans beat took the audience out. He shook up the audience; that concert and his drumming is the reason they wanted us to come back!

Nasar Abadey on Blackwell:
Ed Blackwell was a very quiet humble man. Whenever I had the opportunity to watch and to speak with Mr. Blackwell it became clear to me that he was prominent in introducing the New Orleans sensibility to modern jazz drumming. Of course, this was in line with Vernal Fournier and James Black among others.

What I learned from him in my conversations was his intention to relate to the tradition of always relating to a song’s melody and form by playing it on the drums and not only playing time on the cymbals. He would break away from keeping time to embellish the melodic structure with the snare, toms and bass drum and then continue to the cymbals to resume time keeping. Later you would hear the young Tony Williams explore this concept in Miles’ band. But what was so remarkable is that he did this with various drum rudiments and phrases steeped in the New Orleans style of drumming heard in Congo Square located in the French Quarter and in other venues around the city. These rhythms have become known as the New Orleans clave and cadences originated in Africa.

One more very important point; Mr. Blackwell studied with Mr. Max Roach when he got to New York and Mr. Billy Higgins studied with Blackwell when he arrived in New York. Mr. Billy “Jabali” Hart first made me aware of this fact and in was corroborated in my conversations with both of these gentleman. This thereby established the pecking order and importance of Roach’s influence. Listening to Higgins (“Sidewinder”) and Williams (“Freedom Jazz Dance”) you can hear the legacy of Mr. Ed Blackwell!
Ed Blackwell & Don Cherry
Ed Blackwell & Don Cherry made a series of duo recordings

Allison Miller on Blackwell:
I first heard Ed Blackwell with Ornette Coleman on This Is Our Music. I immediately connected to this music. It felt so good! It feels so good. I love the way Ornette, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell sound together. They sound like a true band, a group of exploratory musicians pushing boundaries together, improvising together, trusting each other, and sharing similar values on and off stage. Another element of connection to this music came from a certain Southern affiliation. I am from Texarkana. Coleman is from Fort Worth, Cherry from Oklahoma City, Blackwell from New Orleans, and Haden is from Iowa City but grew up playing country music. We Southerners feel the beat in a unique way. When my southern “green” ears of 18 years first heard This Is Our Music, I heard and described it as Free Country BeBop! It just blew me away and immediately stamped a smile on my face.

Ed Blackwell’s drumming makes me dance. I can feel his News Orleans roots in his entire approach to improvisational music. He has such a propulsive, buoyant, and joyful feel. His ride cymbal melody is wonderfully loose and I love the way he supports Coleman, Cherry, and Haden, while still participating with the melodic and rhythmic interplay being passed around the bandstand.

My second aural adventure on the Blackwell train was The Avant-Garde, with John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Percy Heath, and Ed Blackwell. This is when I really discovered Blackwell’s melodic sensibility. He takes a wonderfully melodic and swinging solo on Monk’s Bemsha Swing. This solo is filled with rudimental prowess and virtuosity but he never strays from the melody, feel, or form. It is true mastery.

As I said before, I then became obsessed with Blackwell and it became a personal journey of mine to procure every single recorded moment of him, as a side musician and leader. Some of my other favorite recorded moments of Blackwell are: Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell’s Red and Black in Willisau, all Old and New Dreams, Cherry’s Complete Communion and El Corazon, Coleman’s The Art of the Improvisers and Beauty is a Rare Thing, Karl Berger’s Just Play and Crystal Fire, Blackwell’s What is Be Like?, [Joe] Lovano‘s Sounds of Joy and From the Soul, Archie Shepp‘s The Magic of Ju-Ju, and Jameel Moondoc‘s Judy’s Bounce.

Blackwell’s musical journey never plateaued or settled. He continued to search and explore new ideas, later incorporating polyrhythmic West African rhythms to the drum set and swing feel. His drumming is vertical yet propulsive. He approaches rhythm from the ground up, layering multiple rhythms, creating a palette of hypnotic, melodic, and percolating ostinatos (vamps). He sounds like an orchestra of drummers. I can only imagine how amazing it must have felt to make music with Blackwell.

Blackwell’s insatiable curiosity and exploratory nature inspire me to continue my creative journey as a jazz drummer and composer. I am moved by his ability to marry tradition and the unknown. His unwavering groove has become the soundtrack to my life. He is my “go to” listening experience. I feel the earth in Blackwell’s music.

Thanks Willard. I enjoyed writing about Blackwell. Now I am going to go listen to him.

Ed Blackwell according to Lewis Nash:
I first became aware of the great Ed Blackwell from his recordings with Ornette Coleman, then on the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little live at The Five Spot sessions. My first encounter with him in person was in Phoenix, AZ during the late 70’s, not long before I moved to New York City. I was playing with a saxophone and drums duo which opened for the group Blackwell had come to Phoenix to play with, Old and New Dreams. I was of course excited to hear him play, and to top it off, he was going to play my drums! In addition, the saxophonist (my friend Allan Chase) and I were asked to pick up Blackwell and company (Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Don Cherry) at the airport and bring them to their hotel. One of my most vivid recollections is that after we had the group in the car and were leaving the airport, Dewey Redman immediately asked if we knew where he could get some barbeque!

Anyway, we had some nice conversation on the way to the hotel, and Blackwell asked about the drums. I assured him they were fine (a nice set of rosewood finish Gretsch) and he seemed happy to know that. Later that night, after he’d heard me play, he was very complimentary about our opening set, and told me that he really enjoyed listening to me play the drums. That was such an awesome thing for me to hear from a great drummer that I greatly admired! I asked about having a lesson, but there really wasn’t enough time the next day before they had to leave.

I heard Blackwell play many times after I moved to New York, but the next time I had an opportunity to really hang out with him was at a jazz festival in Japan during the late 80’s. We finally had a chance to sit down together at a drumset, and he showed me a lot of the things he had worked out and talked about his 4 way independence concepts (hands and feet playing four distinct rhythms simultaneously). He sat down and wrote out several rhythms on a sheet of paper (which I still have) and explained to me what each hand and foot needed to do, then he demonstrated. It was great!! He also talked at length about Max Roach and what a master he was, and how Max was a major influence on his approach to the drums. Billy Higgins said that Blackwell was like a scientist at the drums (Higgins , and I have to agree completely. The way Blackwell combined and executed rhythms was masterful and required a high level of skill, technique and focus. For me he was a perfect balance of scientist and artist, as he not only had the technical skill necessary, but also the artistic sensibility to make the rhythms dance and feel good. Blackwell was one of the most swinging, grooving musicians to ever sit behind the drums!

Ed Blackwell’s other records as a leader:
Ed Blackwell 2
Ed Blackwell 4
Ed Blackwell 5

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