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Pittsburgh native, Art Blakey (1919-1990) emblazed a trail for jazz hopefuls by creating his own style of drumming that has become world renowned.

Blakey, together with several other luminaries, became the inventors of the modern bebop style of drumming. For more than five decades Blakey and his band, the Jazz Messengers, included many young musicians who went on to become prominent names in jazz. His legacy has stood the test of time, adored by many for the exceptionally outstanding music he produced, as well as providing a proving ground for several generations of jazz musicians.


Notable greats have played with the Jazz Messengers such as Horace Silver, Wynton Marsalis, Donald Byrd, Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and from the popular nationally televised late night talk show, with Jay Leno, former band leader Kevin Ewbanks, from Braddock.

Pittsburgh continues to be the heartbeat of jazz, driven by its rich tradition in jazz drumming led by the two greatest drummers of all time Blakey and Kenny Clarke. What better way to celebrate the life and legacy of the Grammy Award-Winning jazz drummer and bandleader, Art Blakey, than at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in an evening entitled “Our Father, Who Art Blakey.”

On Sept. 17 the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and the August Wilson Center, called its own: well-known jazz drummers Thomas Wendt, James Johnson III, former drummer for jazz legend Ahmad Jamal; jazz legend Roger Humphries, who performed music from his big band repertoire and noted drummer Cecil Brooks III also performed original compositions.

In the tradition of the Messenger’s great music, the big band era came alive again on stage. Trumpeter, extraordinaire, Sean Jones, Artistic Director, Music Initiatives, for the AWC, led the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra’s big band. He shared his knowledge with the audience of the great Art Blakey’s life and musical iniquities of his era. The mostly baby boomers of the ’50s audience were moved by the many compositions and arrangements. Blakey, whom himself told the story many times of how he was forced by gun point by a Pittsburgh night club owner, off the piano and onto the drums, hence forth; launching a career that spanned six decades as the world’s most prolific drummer, was immortalized by the featured drummers of the evening.

First up, Pittsburgh’s own Thomas Wendt on the “skins.” Wendt, a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, has been playing drums professionally since age 14. A graduate of CAPA, he has studied with master drummers Roger Humphries, Joe Harris and Kenny Washington. Wendt, has won an Emmy Award for the soundtrack on the PBS documentary, “Fly Boys” and since 1998, he has been on the faculty at the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood. During his set with the PJO, performing a Thad Jones arraignment entitled “Back Home In Indiana,” Wendt’s, smooth and easy strokes with the “brushes,” left the audience toe tapping.

Young Alto Saxophonist Sisley Barris blew the roof off the house, during her solos. Next up, another of Pittsburgh’s son’s of jazz, James Johnson III. Playing the drums since the age of 5, his early music experiences were centered around family life and shaped by the music of the church. His father, James Johnson Jr. a nationally known pianist and educator, sparked his passion for music. Like Wendt, Johnson III, attended CAPA. By the time he was 15, Johnson became a permanent fixture on the Pittsburgh jazz scene. After graduation he, was invited to tour with jazz legend Ahmad Jamal, which launched a worldwide career. His set, on a tune made popular by the Yellow Jackets, was phenomenal. Johnson currently teaches at the Afro-American Music Institute and conducts workshops and clinics in the public school system. As a composer, his contributions to “Temporary Suspension,” the debut recording of the quartet Metaphor, marks the arrival of a new voice in contemporary jazz.

After a brief intermission, the audience was summoned back to their seats for a standing ovation to the master drummer of our time Roger Humphries.

Humphries, love for music began as early as 4 years old, when he sat in with the Tab Smith Big Band. Introduced by his uncle Frank Humphries, Roger himself began playing professionally at age 14. He led his own group at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh’s Oakland community when he was 16. From the moment that Sean Jones, introduced Humphries on stage, every seat emptied to a rousing 15 minute ovation. Graciously Roger thanked everyone and during his tremendous heart pounding drum rolls on Miles Davis’s, “Milestones,” the audience showed their appreciation for him. Like kindred spirits, the performer and audience were as one. Several moments during the evenings’ performance of the sensational Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, several solo riffs by contemporary legends in jazz like Glen Wayland, on trombone, Alton Merrell, on piano, young CAPA graduate Paul Thompson, on stand-up bass and Grammy Award Winning Guitarist Marty Ashby, sparked loud standing O’s.

Last but in no way least the man who once played on Blakey’s own drums when he was just 10 years old, Brooks III. A contemporary drummer, club owner, producer and clinician, he has worked in the New York City area with many of the greats of jazz. Brooks’ music has roots in the grand traditions of jazz stemming from his father, who was a drummer and a grandfather who was a concert pianist. “Music just flourished through the house,” said Brooks, “It was there to partake anytime I wanted to.” His distinct awesome riffs on the drums mesmerized listeners on the tune “Mother and Child.” Overall it was a fantastic grand opening season for the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra at the AWC.

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