The following is s short excerpt from The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective [335-7], by Ingrid Tolia Monson. Monson’s book provides some further insight on the nature of the relation and attraction that Islam held for Blackamerican jazz musicians as well as Blackamericans as a whole who embraced Islam.
Art Blakey’s African Travels
It is clear that its members of the New York jazz community of the 1940’s demonstrated awareness of both the anticolonialist internationalism of Robeson and Du Bois, as well as the more cultuml and spiritual pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism of Islam. Art Blakey emerged in the New York modern jazz scene through his work with the Billy Eckstine band from 1944 — 1947 (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were his bandmates in 1944) and his recordings with Thelonious Monk in 1947. He had come to New York from Pittsburgh with Mary Lou Williams in 1938 and worked with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra from 1939 — 1941. Blakey’s first recordings as a leader were four sides for Blue Note in December 1947 with the 17 Messengers, a band conceived as a training band for young musicians. Its members included Sahib Shihab and Musa Kaleem (Orlando Wright). Blakey, whose Muslim name was Abdullah ibn Buhaina, dated his conversion to Islam at about this time. Blakey never publicly explained his path to conversion to the Ahmadiyya movement, but Dizzy Gillespie reports that a Muslim missionary named Kahlil Ahmed Nasir convened many New York musicians to the faith (Gillespie 1979).
ship. Although Blakey later remembered going to Africa for two years beginning in 1947, he likely spent only one year in Africa.
Blakey consistently denied that he ever played music while in West Africa. In one of the most detailed accounts of his African sojourn, Blakey told two French interviewers in 1963: “For two years, I immersed myself solely in philosophers, religion, and Hebrew and Arab languages. I do not remember havin
Blakey’s choice of the name Messengers for his short-lived group of 1947 and for the more enduring group from 1954 onward signifies in several directions. From an Islamic perspective, the word invokes the Islamic belief in Muhammad as the messenger of Allah; from a more broadly African American cultural context, the word implies the common cultural belief that African American music has a message, that it “says something” of deeper cultural significance. Since the Ahmadiyya movement believed in a continuous prophetic tradition (i.e., that there were prophets after Muhammad), the name of the later group, the Jazz Messengers, implies a prophetic view of the music itself. After the failure of the 17 Messengers in 1947, Blakey was unable to secure regular work and decided to travel to Africa, to pursue religious studies by working his way over on a g played an instrument even one time during that entire period” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963). Blakey’s denials later became even more emphatic: “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums — somebody wrote that — I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t, after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion” (Nolan 1979: 19).
Implying that his religious quest was somehow incompatible with music (a remarkable assertion when considering religion in West Africa), Blakey always stressed that his main inertest in Africa was religion.
Although Orthodox Islam disapproves of music, particularly instrumental music, Islam in West Africa has long blended the celebration of Islamic festivals and beliefs with traditional animist worship practices that are deeply musical. In West Africa Blakey is likely to have encountered Muslim groups who made considerable use of drumming. He is also likely to have encountered Akan, Ewe, and Yoruba religious ideas, practices, and music, as well as secular urban popular music in his travels. In 1963 Blakey explained African American interest in Islam to his French interviewers: “Islam brought the black man what he was looking for, an escape like some found in drugs or drinking: a way of living and thinking he could choose freely. This is the reason we adopted this new religion in such numbers. It was for us, above all, a way of rebelling” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963: 38).
Citations and Further Readings
- Manley, Marc. “The Social Origins of Bebop.” The Manrilla Blog: Academics. 28 Nov. 2008. Web.
- Monson, Ingrid. African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Critical and Cultural Musicology, 3). New York: Routledge, 2003.