CULT CLASSIC: ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS-JUST COOLIN’.
Cult: Classic: Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers-Just Coolin’.
Although Philly-born tenor saxophonist Benny Golson’s tenure with The Jazz Messengers was short-lived, he still played an important part in the development and history of the group. He joined in 1958, and during the summer, helped Art Blakey recruit three new Messengers.
They were all from Philly, and included bassist Jymie Merritt, pianist Bobby Timmons and trumpeter Lee Morgan who joined Benny Golson in the front line. This latest lineup of The Messengers made their recording debut on what would become a classic album, Moanin’.
On the ‘30th’ of October 1958, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers journeyed to the original Van Gelder Studio, at 25 Prospect Avenue in Hackensack, New Jersey. By then, Benny Golson was The Jazz Messengers’ musical director and chief composer. He wrote Are You Real, Along Came Betty, The Drum Thunder Suite and Blues March. These compositions plus Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’ and a cover of Come Rain or Come Shine were recorded with producer Alfred Lion and eventually, became Moanin’.
After the recording of Moanin, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers embarked upon a European tour. During November and December 1958, they wowed and won over audiences across Europe with a series of spellbinding performances. However, all wasn’t well behind the scenes and there were personality clashes during the tour. When Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers retuned home, Benny Golson left the group.
Although he had only been a Messenger for a few months, he had played on a future jazz classic and ensured the band stayed relevant in spite of the growing popularity of the soul-jazz movement. However, Benny Golson wanted to be part of a more structured band, and in 1959 formed The Jazztet with Art Farmer. By then, Moanin’ had been released and a Messenger had returned.
Moanin’ was released to widespread critical acclaim in January 1959. Critics said the album featured some of his finest music, played by what they considered to be the greatest lineup of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Nowadays, Moanin’ is considered a jazz classic and one of the greatest hard bop albums ever released. Sadly, by the time the album was released, the Messengers’ lineup had changed.
Hank Mobley who had already served one tour of duty with The Messengers between 1954 and 1956. He returned in 1959 to fill the void left by by the departure of Benny Golson.
Hank Mobley joined up with the latest lineup of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers on the ‘8th’ of March 1959 when they traveled to Van Gelder Studio, in New Jersey. The lineup featured drummer Art Blakey, bassist Jymie Merrit, pianist Bobby Timmons, trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley.They were scheduled to record a new album with recordist Rudy Van Gelder and producer Alfred Lion. That album would eventually became Just Coolin’.
Although Hank Mobley had just returned to the Messengers’ fold, he wrote three of the six tracks on Coolin’. This included Hipsippy Blues, M&M and Just Coolin’. They were joined by Jimerick, Bernice Petkere’s Close Your Eyes and the Bobby Timmons’ composition Quick Trick. These six tracks were recorded by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers during a one day session.
By then, the material on Just Coolin’ was still relatively new to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. They weren’t as tight as they had hoped to be when they entered the studio. However, what they lacked in tightness and precision they made up for with passion. Just Coolin’ featured a series of impassioned performances and showcased the band’s trademark hard bop sound.
On the album opener Hipsippy Blues, Art Blakey plays a shuffle as the horns unite and play their part in the languid, swinging theme. Then it’s time for Hank Mobley’s lengthy solo and he’s at his most soulful as he’s accompanied by pianist Bobby Timmons and a crisp backbeat. Later, Lee Morgan’s solo is ruminative and impassioned before the baton passes to Bobby Timmons. He picks up where he left off on Moanin’ with a flawless solo where his fingers dance across the keyboards. Then the band join forces one last time on this laidback and swinging blues.
As the horns combines with the piano on Close Your Eyes there’s an understated, wistful sound, as Lee Morgan’s expressive trumpet takes centrestage before the tempo increases and the arrangement unfolds. He plays with power and passion as Art Blakey’s thunderous drums punctuate the arrangement. Meanwhile, Bobby Timmons adds a steadying influence before Hank Mobley takes inspiration from the cool school as he combines with Art Blakey who later switches to brushes. Before that, Bobby Timmons’ solo is understated, spartan and flawless, and is followed by a trio section. However, the highlights of this captivating track are the solos of Bobby Timmons and the frontline of Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley who play starring roles.
Jimerick bursts into life with Bobby Timmons’ fingers flying across the keyboard. He’s joined by the horns, with Lee Morgan matching the piano and rhythm section every step of the way. Art Blakey plays the percussion with a ferocity and powers the arrangement along. Meanwhile, Bobby Timmons’ caresses the keyboard, while Hank Mobley plays with power and purity at bebop speed. Not to be outdone, Art Blakey unleashes one of his best solos pounding, thumping and almost slashing at his kit on one of the album’s highlights.
Quick Trick swings from the get-go. Subtle horns pepper and punctuate the arrangement and combine with Bobby Timmons understated piano. Lee Morgan steps forward and unleashes bursts of high kicking trumpet. Hank Mobley’s braying, rasping solo is shorter, coherent and considered. He never puts a foot wrong, and when he’s reunited with Lee Morgan the front line play a starring role ensuring the track swings and then some.
The tempo rises on M & M with horns and piano to the fore as the rhythm section propel the arrangement. First to breakout is Bobby Timmons’ slinky piano before Hank Mobley unleashes a breathtaking and expressive solo at breakneck speed. Art Blakey adds thunderous drum rolls before Lee Morgan steps forward and plays with speed, power, passion and is always in control as he unleashes sheets of sound. When the baton passes to Bobby Timmons his fingers dart across the keyboard. By then, everyone is in the groove and feeding off each other. Everyone raises their game and there’s even some showboating on what’s the highlight of Just Coolin’.
Closing Just Coolin’ is the title-track where the band enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs on what’s a more complex and upbeat composition. The band play as one before Hank Mobley steps forward and plays a lengthy solo, and his playing is impassioned, inventive and fluid. Lee Morgan takes over and plays with speed and power his trumpet soaring above the arrangement. Later, Bobby Timmons fingers dance across the keyboards as he plays a sparkling solo. He passes the baton to Jymie Merrit who plays a flawless solo that is one of his finest solos on the album. Then bandleader Art Blakey powers his way round the kit one last time during a showboating solo where he plays a variety of different rhythms. The band then head for the finishing line on this irresistible and joyous track that closes this album of hard bop on a high.
After the session was over, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers must have thought that Just Coolin’ would be released as the followup to Moanin’. However, it didn’t turn out that way.
Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers were booked to play at a Canadian jazz festival and Hank Mobley failed to turn up. Art Blakey called Wayne Shorter who was part of Maynard Ferguson’s big band and asked him to stand in for his missing tenor saxophonist. Wayne Shorter agreed and was meant to become a Messenger for a one-off performance.
When Art Blakey heard Wayne Shorter play at the Canadian jazz festival he liked the way the twenty-five year old played. Despite Hank Mobley having recently played a starring role in the sound of Just Coolin’, Art Blakey decided to replace him with Wayne Shorter who later, became The Messengers’ musical director. Sadly, Hank Mobley’s return to The Messengers’ fold was short-lived, although he remained on good terms with Art Blakey.
When The Big Beat was recorded at Van Gelder Studio, on March the ‘6th’ 1960, Wayne Shorter had been installed as the tenor saxophonist in The Messengers. The album was released to plaudits and praise later in 1960.
By then, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had played at Birdland on the ’15th’ of April 1950 where the tapes were rolling and enough material for two live albums was recorded. This included four tracks of the tracks that they recorded during the Just Coolin’ session. Since then, they had regularly played Hipsippy Blues, Close Your Eyes, Just Coolin’ and M & M live and smoothed out some of the rough edges which featured on the album. That was the case that night at Birdland.
When Alfred Lion listened to the recording of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers at Birdland he felt they were superior to the recordings on Just Coolin’. He demanded and expected exactitude which was missing on the album. This resulted in Alfred Lion deciding to postpone the release of Just Coolin’ and instead, he released At The Jazz Corner Of The World Volumes 1 and 2.
Later in 1959, At The Jazz Corner Of The World Volumes 1 and 2 were released by Blue Note Records. When critics heard the two album they were hailed as among the best live jazz albums ever released, and essential listening for jazz fans. Alfred Lion’s decision had been vindicated.
Since then, Just Coolin’ has languished in the Blue Note Records’ vaults until recently, when it was belatedly released in 2020. At last, jazz fans young and old are able to hear this short-lived lineup of The Messengers on what was their only album, Just Coolin’. It’s an album that has lain unreleased for forty-one years because of Alfred Lion’s high standards.
When the album was recorded, The Messengers hadn’t enough time to familiarise themselves with the new material. Then Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had only one day to the six tracks that became Just Coolin’. That was the Blue Note Records’ way. However, if Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had the chance to rerecord some of the tracks they may have been able to smooth away the few rough edges on the album and it would’ve met Alfred Lion’s high standards. Sadly, the exactitude he demanded and expected was missing from Just Coolin’ and this was enough for him to shelf the project.
The sad thing is that neither Art Blakey nor any of The Messengers lived to see the release of Just Coolin’. Jymie Merritt passed away on the ‘10th’ of April 2020, aged eighty-four knowing that Just Coolin’ would be released later in the year. Sadly, he never lived to see this hard bop hidden gem released which Alfred Lion felt lacked the exactitude he expected, but since its belated release has been embraced by jazz fans, and is a welcome reminder of this short-lived but multitalented and versatile lineup of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers on a spring day in 1959.
Cult: Classic: Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers-Just Coolin’.
- Posted in: Hard Bop ♦ Jazz
- Tagged: Alfred Lion, Art Blakey, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, At The Jazz Corner Of The World Volume 1, At The Jazz Corner Of The World Volume 2, Benny Golson, Blue Note Records, Bobby Timmons, Hank Mobley, Just Coolin', Jymie Merritt, Lee Morgan, Moanin’, Rudy Van Gelder, The Big Beat, Van Gelder Studio