Obituary: Ed Blackwell
Monday 12 October 1992
IN ONE of my clearest memories of the drummer Ed Blackwell, he sat in an Indian restaurant drawing percussion notation on the tablecloth with a felt-tipped pen. The waiters looked on, aghast, as the splodgy black figures spread across their white linen, but Blackwell, rapt in concentration behind his dark glasses, remained oblivious. Music was all that mattered to him, the drums in particular, and there was a particular point he needed to make.
For my part, I was flattered that he was taking such trouble. I am not a musician and Blackwell, one of the most highly regarded of post-war percussionists, did not suffer fools gladly. But he knew I was a drumming devotee; we had a long history of friendship that included hours of 'drumtalk' and correspondence as well as staying with his family in Morocco, and he wanted to make sure I understood what he was saying.
We first met in 1968 when he came to London to play at the Royal Albert Hall with the saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The line-up featured Yoko Ono's voice and two double-bass players from Coleman's earlier and later quartets, Charlie Haden and David Izenzon. Ono's singing was still an unknown quantity, but Blackwell was already a legend. He was the first drummer to understand Coleman's view of the music as a conversation in which the participants, rather than sticking to set time-signatures, keys or bar-lines, should play out a phrase to its logical conclusion.
When I suggested an interview he expressed surprise. In time, I discovered that his shyness was part of an act; Blackwell was a deeply serious artist who, whatever his circumstances, put the music first abnd insisted his associates did likewise. In New York percussion circles he was seen as a teacher. He often quoted the Chinese adage, 'Neglect your art for a day, and it will neglect you for two', and would actively pursue other drummers whom he respected, should he feel they reneged on commitment.
I never saw him without a pair or drumsticks or homemade mallets in his hand; these he would employ constantly as much to accentuate a point as to strengthen his wrists. Some percussionists have made a cabaret act from beating out rhythms on any available surface; Blackwell would do it to fill in gaps in conversation. He played drums like that, too: the perfect listener, who could equally stimulate and inspire with his enviable grasp of polyrhythmic possibilities.
No jazz musician can claim greater authenticity than a New Orleans birth. It is the most African of US cities, where Yoruba religious practice continues and the Second Line that accompanies street-parades moves with an African strut. From the moment he could walk, Blackwell was part of that Second Line and as a child he danced in the street for pennies. That characteristic dancestep and the 'double-clutching' two-beat of the parade bass drum remained features of his playing, securely anchoring his adventurousness in an earlier memory.
Blues music was the staple for New Orleanians of his generation, but eventually he began playing modern jazz, inspired by the lessons of Charlie Parker, with the consummate drummer Max Roach as his model. He co-founded the American Jazz Quintet, then moved to Los Angeles. One summer, the quintet's pianist Ellis Marsalis and two saxophonists accompanied him to California to play with Coleman. The musicians' paths had crossed when the saxophonist was stranded in New Orleans with a carnival band. Now they were eager to experience his new music. Throughout the long car journey, Blackwell beat out the rhythms of Charlie Parker tunes for the others to identify.
For three years Blackwell and Coleman lived together but the drummer had returned home by the time Coleman made his New York debut. Billy Higgins, another Californian associate, was drafted in. When Blackwell did travel north, it was to work with the saxophonist John Coltrane as well as Coleman. He played extensively with Coleman's trumpeter, Don Cherry, and took part in the classic 'live' recordings made by the group co-led by the trumpeter Booker Little and the reedman Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot Cafe in New York.
Blackwell made three journeys to Africa and the Middle East with the pianist Randy Weston, and settled in Morocco for a while with his family. He was back in the United States by 1969, joining Coleman's new group which now had Dewey Redman on saxophone. I was privileged to hear this group on many occasions in the early 1970s and to witness their rehearsals at first hand. Such proximity remains one of the greatest experiences of my listening life, just as days spent with Blackwell in New York and Morocco provided a musical education without equal.
In 1973, shortly after Blackwell had begun teaching at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, his kidneys stopped functioning. Regular renal dialysis became necessary, but with the support of friends and admirers and especially Frances, his wife, he was able to continue to play and to teach.
In 1976 the Mayor of New Orleans presented him with an 'Honored Son' citation. He continued to work with his former Coleman associates Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, in various combinations but most notably in the quartet Old and New Dreams, and with other artists including the saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Joe Lovano and the vibraphonist Karl Berger. A spectacular success was a recreation of the music of the Booker Little/Eric Dolphy group by the original rhythm section: the pianist Mal Waldron and the bassist Richard Davis.
Max Roach remained his lifelong hero. Last year, in a typical about-turn gesture, Blackwell chose the occasion of his own birthday celebrations to present Roach with a gold ring in acknowledgement of his debt. He was planning a European tour with his own group when his final illness sent him into a coma.
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