Thirty-five years ago this month, the Atlanta music community paid tribute to a great and under-sung jazz hero: Ed Blackwell.
The drummer was no stranger to jazz listeners in 1987, of course. He had been playing professionally for more than thirty years, most famously as an integral part of Ornette Coleman's quintet in the late 1950s and early 60's and with groups like the American Jazz Quintet, which was comprised of fellow New Orleans natives pianist Ellis Marsalis and clarinetist Alvin Baptiste.
Still, Ed Blackwell never seemed to get the credit his ebullient, sui generis talent deserved.
Ornette Coleman memorably described that talent during the Blackwell festival in an interview with a University of Florida student interviewer:
Blackwell plays the drums as if he's playing a wind instrument. Actually, he sounds more like a talking drum. He's speaking a certain language that I find is very valid in rhythm instruments. Very seldom in rhythm instruments do you hear rhythm sounding like a language. I think that's a very old tradition, because the drums, in the beginning, used to be like the telephone--to carry the message. I never really relied upon (Blackwell) to keep time or rhythm for me. In fact, I always prefer musicians that play with me to play independent of myself but with me.
The Ed Blackwell Festival, a brainchild of promoter Rob Gibson and his Quantum Productions, sought to present the many facets of Blackwell's career over three nights. As Gibson recalled in a 2020 interview with Atlanta Jazz Notes, the idea for this festival had been percolating for years. "I presented Ed Blackwell before, and he had become a bit of a friend of mine," Gibson explained. "We had brought him through Quantum Productions to do a duet with Don Cherry one time, that was cool. I want to say it was 1983 when we had that duo, we also had Ornette and Primetime...god they were amazing!"
"What happened is (with the Ed Blackwell Festival) I had been in contact with Ornette. I wrote and said 'I want to do this Ed Blackwell festival,' and he said 'I love Ed Blackwell." And I said, would it be possible to get you to come to this? When Ornette committed and said he would do it, then I just needed to round up the other guys."
The festival opened on Thursday, November 5th, 1987 with an exhibition of film footage featuring Blackwell in performance and continued on Friday, November 6th, 1987 with a performance that featured Blackwell reunited with the American Jazz Quintet featuring Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Harold Batiste, Earl Turbinton, and Richard Payne.
As Rob Gibson recalled, (beginning on November 6th, 1987), "we did the two nights of concerts. And the first night was the American Jazz Quintet featuring Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Baptiste and group of guys that Blackwell had played with in the 60s in New Orleans. I wanted it to be that. They were all super cool, and I loved Ellis Marsalis." (Note: when I conducted this phone interview with Gibson on June 6th, 2020, Ellis Marsalis had recently passed away from Covid-19 complications and much of our conversation focused on the pianist and Gibson's working relationship with him and his son, Wynton Marsalis).
The second night would feature the original Ornette Coleman Quartet and a performance by Old and New Dreams, featuring Dewey Redman in place of Coleman.
The musical performances for the Ed Blackwell Festival took place in the Rich Auditorium, a theater that is part of the Woodruff Arts Center and sits adjacent to the High Museum of Art in Midtown Atlanta.
"The room, the Rich Auditorium at the High Museum, it is a very kind of cold feeling room. We did sell a couple hundred tickets for the first night and for the night with Ornette, we sold it out," Rob Gibson recalled, before continuing with an interesting story about the struggles of arranging a music festival. "Ornette was on tour in Europe and Denardo (Ornette's son, business manager, and sometime drummer) told me, 'look man, we’ll come back over (to the US) but you're going to have to come up with the flight tickets for four of us and you’re going to have to come up with the money.' And he threw this on me in September, after I had already started marketing (the festival) and I said, 'man I can’t do that.' I would have paid the price for New York tickets, but those are only a couple hundred dollars each and these are like $800 each, and we don’t have that much money. So he said, ok, I will get back with you. And he called me back and said, ok, that’s cool, we’ll do it. Ornette will pick it up. So that was really Ornette. That’s the kind of guy (he was)...he did it for Ed Blackwell. He totally did it for Blackwell. He knew what that meant (for Blackwell)."
Both nights of music were thankfully recorded by William Kinnally, who came to Atlanta for the festival with a team of students from the University of Florida to record the weekend's proceedings and conduct interviews with as many of the participants as possible. "We were doing it (the recordings) primarily for broadcast,"Kinnally explained in a 2020 Atlanta Jazz Notes interview, "At the time, we were able to provide the recording for WBGO (in Newark, NJ) to broadcast. (Alvin) Batiste had the connections with the Italian guy who owned Black Saint (Records) at the time. There obviously was some interest and money behind it and he was interested in getting as much work out of this as he could, and they were willing to take it as it is, because it was all done mixed straight to two track so it’s not like we did a multitrack thing and then redid it."
The recording, released by Black Saint Records in 1991 as The American Jazz Quintet: From Bad to Badder is firmly in the vein of the group's releases from their heyday in the late 1950s and early 60s, with occasional excursions into freer territory. On tracks like "To Brownie" (a tribute to trumpeter Clifford Brown) Harold Battiste and Alvin Batiste deliver discursive bop-infused solos on tenor sax and clarinet respectively that draw appreciative applause from the audience in the Rich Auditorium.
Another highlight is entitled simply "Ed Blackwell" and features the drummer in a two-minute unaccompanied solo of explosive, polyrhythmic drum and cymbal patterns that transitions to "Imp'n Perry Too," a tour de force for Alvin Batiste on clarinet, evoking John Coltrane both melodically and harmonically.
According to Rob Gibson, The American Jazz Quintet held a number of rehearsals before the show at the Blackwell festival. "You can’t just throw musicians together on the stage," Gibson remarked in his 2020 interview with Atlanta Jazz Notes. "A lot of musicians are used to just showing up and playing on a gig. But Alvin Batiste was really cool. He said 'I want to rehearse!'"
This preparation is apparent throughout the hour-plus of freewheeling but sophisticated music captured on From Bad To Badder.
The next night, November 7th, 1987, was the main event: a reunion of both the original Ornette Coleman Quartet featuring Coleman along with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell on drums and Old and New Dreams featuring the same musicians with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman taking Coleman's place.
The Old and New Dream set brims with improvisational risk taking after the band plays the head to Coleman's composition "Happy House." Redman solos first, delivering a solo that veers from one impromptu melodic strain to another linked together by fragments of the original melody. He ends his solo by quoting the Happy House theme again before turning it over to Cherry's frenetic trumpet. Throughout the performance, Blackwell delivers a masterclass in understated, conversational, propulsive percussive accompaniment. Once Haden takes the spotlight as soloist, Blackwell pares his accompaniment down to a driving rhythm on the hi-hat before dropping out altogether for the bulk of the bassist's solo only to emerge on hi-hat again leading into a group improvisation and drum solo that precedes the return of the head.
"I thought the show was just stunning," saxophonist Jeff Crompton recalled during a 2020 interview with Atlanta Jazz Notes. Crompton missed the first night of the festival because of a gig he had, but was able to make the Saturday double-bill of Old and New Dreams and the Ornette Coleman Quartet. "I remember it being well-attended. The auditorium was full. Rob Gibson was good at publicizing things," Crompton recalled.
The Ornette Coleman Quartet performance opens with an extended version of "Lonely Woman" featuring a striking improvisation by Coleman. Pinballing off the shifting foundation of Haden's bass and Blackwell's propulsive interjections, Coleman's alto saxophone alternately wails, pleads, and soothes before transitioning to Haden whose extended solo slowly brings the group back to earth and raucous applause.
"The truth is, it was awesome," William Kinnally who recorded the entire festival recalled of the Saturday performance by the Ornette Coleman Quartet. "I was blown away, to be honest with you. It was a great performance and a great recording. I thought the group played so well."
The rest of the set by the Coleman Quartet is (thankfully) available on YouTube in the videos posted above and below. The performances feature inspired and inventive improvisations and near-telepathic ensemble playing by all involved.
Thirty-five years after the fact, the music recorded by William Kinnally and his team over three nights in the fall of 1987 sounds as vibrant and adventurous as it must have to those lucky enough to be there in person for the Ed Blackwell festival. By 1987, Blackwell's health was in decline (he died in 1992) but his musicality never faltered. As the drummer Allison Miller explained to journalist Willard Jenkins about Blackwell in a 2013 interview, "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."