Ed Blackwell died a few days shy of his 63rd birthday in 1992. He was eulogized around the world. His obituary ran in hundreds of papers, mostly because of his groundbreaking work with Ornette Coleman. But Blackwell had long been credited with introducing a subtlety to the fervent jazz sides he played on. His work drumming for Ray Charles built a basis for much of the funk drumming that followed in his wake, even though he never recorded with that band. Blackwell so impressed Charles that he continued to offer Blackwell a place in his band well after he stopped playing R&B. But Blackwell had heard a new thing, and for the rest of his life he followed after it.
As a kid, Blackwell banged on borrowed or homemade kits, bashing out parade songs and brushing somber dirges, sometimes finding gigs sitting in with local R&B acts. He took lessons from the legendary drummer Paul Barbarin, the composer of “Bourbon Street Parade.” Barbarin introduced Blackwell to the martial beat of parades, and throughout his career he returned to it, giving even the most skronkiest of sessions a tight underpinning that still allowed soloists the room to breathe.
Bop was blossoming around him, and he searched out like minds, finding them in lifelong friends and band-mates Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Alvin Batiste. They formed a band and had some success, even recording with Cosimo Matassa. They went out west, and Blackwell thought he had it made. Sunny California. In Los Angeles, he started playing with Ornette Coleman, and it was Ornette who gifted him with another key to drumming. The two had such an immediate affinity they moved in together. Blackwell’s second line-infused beat enraptured Coleman, but one night during an impromptu jam, Coleman blew through a particularly intricate piece. Blackwell counted the bars, gave a press roll, and began driving the song back toward beginning. Coleman stopped and issued Blackwell a cutting look. “Why did you end my phrase?” This was new music, he told Blackwell. They weren’t following the rules anymore; they were making their own. It set Blackwell’s concept of music on its ear. In the meantime he became a lifelong devotee of drummer Max Roach, who gained fame for eschewing the typical 4/4 time.
Back in New Orleans, he took odd jobs with R&B bands, but it wasn’t the same anymore. His sense of time erupted in California. Stoppering that knowledge in the regimented bottle of R&B wasn’t happening. In his prime in his hometown, Blackwell struggled.
Luck was with him. Coleman called from New York City, and by 1960 Blackwell found himself firmly ensconced in the jazz capital of the world, family in tow. He became a part of the town’s musical royalty, gigging and recording with John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Dewey Redman and Don Cherry, all of whom helped break down the boundaries of post-bop as it slid into this new free jazz.
Still, Blackwell was more than willing to let his work speak for him, riding on reputation rather than cult of personality. Jazz writer Val Wilmer noted in her obituary of Blackwell, “I discovered his shyness was an act; Blackwell was a deeply serious artist who, whatever his circumstances, put the music first and 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.’”
In the mid-1960s, Blackwell accompanied Randy Weston to Africa, and the experience affected his playing. “If you sing with the drums, then you really get it to happen…and that’s what I try to do. And in Africa that’s the way the drummers play. They really sing with their drum, and it’s phenomenal.” Blackwell’s skills were taking him around the globe when he took ill. He was diagnosed with kidney disease and would need dialysis for the rest of his life. His energy was so completely drained after a session of dialysis that touring became impossible.
With a family to care for, Blackwell took a position with Wesleyan University as artist-in-residence. He didn’t stop playing, though, and as the ’80s rolled along, Blackwell took part in reunions with the American Jazz Quintet and members of Coleman’s band. Just 11 months before his death, he played a vital part in Dewey Redman’s 1991 return at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. And then, he was gone.
Blackwell’s drumming influenced hundreds if not thousands of musicians, whether they know it or not. It is his ghostly beat that haunts everything from Zigaboo Modeliste’s boom bip to Johnny Vidacovich’s pregnant fills. Blackwell even surfaces in hip-hop producer Mannie Fresh’s treasure chest. It’s high time people remembered Ed Blackwell.