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Aidan Levy

Aidan Levy

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Art Blakey At The Café Bohemia

November 23 2012

The nondescript brown brick building at 15 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village currently houses the Barrow Street Ale House, but drink at the former home of the Café Bohemia for long enough, and the swish of Art Blakey's ride cymbal might just start emanating from the walls. At this old jazz haunt, the walls have ears, or they did. On November 23, 1955, Blakey and the third incarnation of his then relatively new group, the Jazz Messengers, gathered at the Café Bohemia for a late-night "cooking session" recorded for Blue Note that would immortalize a Greenwich Village of the mind lost to the sands of time.

On At the Café Bohemia, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the Jazz Messengers were cooking hard bop at a time when it was the pièce de résistance at every jazz club in the Village, and Blakey was the master chef who set the standard for a thriving scene. This was the lineup of the Jazz Messengers that paired Blakey with the indomitable pianist Horace Silver, supported by tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and bassist Doug Watkins—a syncopated feast of the senses.

The chef partakes, and the effervescence is palpable; Blakey feeds off the crowd, which listens with rapt attention until the end of a solo or a tune. The Jazz Messengers needed a captive audience to deliver their message in full, and their ferocious intensity was best captured live. Never mind recording difficulties; the diminutive, brick-and-mortar venue only fit 100 at full capacity, and was always packed, but despite its casual atmosphere, no clinking glasses or idle chatter interrupt the cut.

Vol. 1 begins with Blakey's rich baritone: "And at this time, ladies and gentlemen, for those who've come in late, we are now having a little cooking session for Blue Note right here on the scene—putting the pot on in here," Blakey says. "And we'd like for you to join us and have a ball." The two volumes feature some classic tracks, among them "The Theme," "Alone Together," "Like Someone in Love," and the Latin-tinged "Avila and Tequila."

It was an intimate setting for a player of Blakey's stature, but the Cafe Bohemia had long established its jazz pedigree. Previously known as the Pied Piper in the '40s, the club played host to early Dixieland bands led by Max Kaminsky, trumpeter Frankie Newton, New Orleans-style trombonist Wilbur de Paris, and cutting contests between legendary stride pianists James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith.

The Pied Piper became the Café Bohemia in 1949, when it was bought by James Garofolo, who strayed from strict jazz programming until Charlie Parker offered to play a residency there to settle his unpaid tab. Parker had begun frequenting the club—he lived across the street with poet Ted Joans at the time—and was allegedly kicked out one night in early 1955 after drinking too many Brandy Alexanders. Parker died that March, but the club's heightened visibility from promoting the residency was enough to gain the necessary momentum for Garofolo to make the transition to progressive jazz impresario.

Before long, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, and Lennie Tristano were playing there, with Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach often in the audience; Herbie Nichols was hired to play between sets. Jack Kerouac, Larry Rivers, David Amram, and other members of the Beat Generation flocked there for inspiration. The Bohemia had lived up to its name, bearing witness to a microcosm of the broader bohemian zeitgeist on any given night. When Blakey arrived, they were ready for him.

Blakey had a revolving door policy when it came to personnel, and this iteration of the Jazz Messengers is perhaps best appreciated through turning a critical lens on the front line of Mobley and Dorham. Vol. 1 opens with "Soft Winds," a medium-tempo blues in the vein of "Moanin'" that serves as a vehicle for Mobley's lyrical dance through the form that was his hallmark as a player. Dorham and Silver show off their technical mastery here, but the track belongs to Mobley, who could take a simple blues and tell a melodic shaggy dog story that always seemed on the verge of climax without ever getting tedious.

Lacking the fiery bluster of Coltrane or the cavalier swagger of Stan Getz or Zoot Sims, the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone is often shortchanged by critics; he makes it seem too effortless. But Mobley was a consummate craftsman, able to build an improvised solo that paid off every call-and-response riff with a sense of overarching narrative structure. Mobley maintained his own codified style, yet whatever he played cohered with the melody; no easy feat. Tenor players proved their mettle with Blakey through an understated approach that fostered group chemistry—Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson were among the others that meshed with his aggressive drumming style—and Mobley was ideal for the role.

The saxophonist begins his "Soft Winds" solo softly, playing a hair behind the beat on a series of eighth-note lines. By the second chorus, he has introduced triplets and sixteenths into the mix, weaving longer lines that establish rising action. By the third chorus, he stakes out his territory with a stentorian honk at the bottom of the horn that immediately jumps up an octave. He plays with this motif throughout the chorus, always with an air of restraint and a keen awareness of negative space that Blakey peppers with his trademark snare accents over an unerring bass line laid down by Watkins.

When Blakey goes into double time, Mobley doesn't stutter or bleat; his adherence to narrative continuity is impeccable, and he continues developing the same ideas, only twice as fast. He finishes his final chorus in straight time with a quicksilver sixteenth-note flourish and an emphatic half note that propels Dorham into his solo.

The trumpeter shines on the searing ballad "I Waited for You," a choice cut from Vol. 2 that highlights his unvarnished sound. A technical virtuoso, Dorham veers towards a minimalist style; he has a purity that seems to access some sonic truth, especially when playing ballads. Dorham, like Mobley, is too often critically overlooked, and for the same reason—his effortless playing falls somewhere between Clifford Brown and Chet Baker—but he too favors the middle path, the class act of jazz trumpet. His penchant for subtle narrative moves is evident throughout the ballad, with Dorham starting in the lower range before gravitating upwards, sustained notes yielding to accelerating riffs until a tender denouement that elegantly restates the melody. When his testimony is finished, the respectful applause reveals an audience that has just witnessed a kind of spiritual communion.

The critical mass of jazz fans and the excitement of the Village in 1955 that led to this seminal record date justifies its inclusion in the jazz canon, as much a historical artifact as it is a testament to Art Blakey's enduring legacy. More than the sound of surprise that pervades the recording, the sound of applause and the visceral sense of rising body heat on a cozy November night still has the power to instantly transport listeners to the golden age of hard bop.   

Photos courtesy of Mosaic Images