NYC Jazz Record, June 2019 issue
Lest We Forget ED BLACKWELL
By John Pietaro
With his 1960 recording This is our Music, Ornette Coleman introduced his revolutionary quartet’s latest addition. In the liner notes he wrote of Ed Blackwell: “This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other’s places”. Not only did this landmark album demonstrate uncanny advancement in free jazz, it was the first recorded evidence of the drumset’s near total liberation. Blackwell’s path out, however, was not through the rejection of his instrument’s heritage, but its embrace.
Born in New Orleans, 1929, Edward Joseph Blackwell had ample access to tradition even as the music developed in new directions. During high school, he became a marching band staple, playing snare or tenor drum. In a 1981 Modern Drummer interview, Blackwell spoke of the pioneering drummer Paul Barbarin, a local hero who’d propelled the music’s development with Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone. Blackwell cited Barbarin’s influence: “He used to…talk to me a lot about the drums and drum rolls; how he played and how he learned to play”.
Such defined focus rudiments offered the drummer that second line foundation unique to the Crescent City. The roots are easily evidenced by the drag and ratamacue flourishes he’d later spread to the entire kit. Ironically, Blackwell only began playing drumset in 1949, learning on the job. Studying with a local drummer (but simultaneously an ardent disciple of Max Roach), he adapted quickly and purchased his initial drumset from the all-female big band, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, after their break-up. Blackwell, along with Ellis Marsalis, joined clarinetist Alvin Batisste’s band, then in 1951 relocated to California, fatefully meeting Coleman. The pair established a musical partnership, shedding light on the sounds to come, but shunned by LA’s post-bop scene, Blackwell returned to New Orleans. Ornette moved to New York, bringing the youthful Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins along with the infamy of brutish naysayers.
Higgins’ departure in 1960 saw Blackwell’s noted return, resulting in the recordings This is Our Music and Free Jazz which affirmed Coleman’s legend. The quartet, sans leader, famously collaborated with John Coltrane for the Avant Garde, and reunited, released Ornette (1961), further expanding the free concept. From the opening track “W.R.U.”, Blackwell’s melodic vision was cast, and he carried that to the Five Spot for the historic sessions with the Eric Dolphy-Booker Little band. The drummer, by the mid-1960s, left Coleman but returned to the fold for Friends and Neighbors, Broken Shadows and Science Fiction, as well as a track with a Coleman quintet on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Into the 1970s, his work with Karl Berger (their duos are especially poignant) at the Creative Music Studio, and then with Dewey Redman, Cherry and Haden in the band Old and New Dreams solidified him as an invaluable Harmolodic force.
Blackwell also spent a year in Africa studying and by 1976 began a long period teaching at Wesleyan University. Highly active throughout the 1970s and ‘80s though afflicted with kidney disease, Blackwell worked often with Cherry as well as Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Joanne Brackeen, David Murray, Steve Coleman and many more. He died in 1992. Recalling Blackwell, Ornette Coleman later stated that he played drums like a wind instrument, offering a direct line of communication to musicians and listeners alike.