SA’s Hard Bop Project brings the music of Art Blakey to Artpace

Courtesy photo

Indulge me for a moment, and imagine the jazz snob: turtleneck, horn-rimmed specs, that goddamned snapping and a nasally tone of condescension for anything but the most difficult of musical forms. It’s a stigma that jazz circles have been suffering for years, giving the genre a bad rap as a deadly serious, no-fun thing.

For Artpace and KRTU’s Rooftop Jazz summer series, the nonprofits have left that stigma on the ground for their raucous skyline gigs. Led by the Hard Bop Project, Friday’s tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers features jazz that’s riveting to both newcomers and experienced heads.

“Having fun is a big thing with Blakey, if you listen to his live recordings,” said Darren Kuper, the drummer on the bill. “Any of the stuff from the 1950s and ’60s, there’ll always be some audio in there with Blakey saying, ‘Pat your feet and have a ball.’”

Born in 1919, Art Blakey helped define the modern role of the jazz drummer. Light on the front edge of the beat with synapse-quick command, Blakey lit a fire under the asses of his horn players, opening up for salvos of thunder in the solo section.

In the late ’50s, as Miles Davis dropped chord changes for modal music and Ornette Coleman initiated the avant-garde, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers championed the style of hard bop. With a focus on rhythmic groove and memorable melodic phrases, hard bop allowed musicians to strut their skills while remaining crowd accessible.

“The thing you’re listening for when you’re listening to hard bop is a certain catchiness, a relaxing thing, to have fun and smile,” said pianist Barry Brake. “And the complexity is there for anyone who wants to hear it. The best artists have always been very aware that they are entertainers and there’s no conflict.”



Along with bassist Greg Norris, Brake and Kuper operate as the Jazz Protagonists, the finest in SA trios since 1990. For the Artpace concert, the Protagonists picked up trumpeter Logan Keese and saxophonist Rich Oppenheim to form the Hard Bop Project.

Speaking with Kuper and Brake, the pair was torn over which Art Blakey lineup the Hard Bop Project resembled most. Kuper was down for the mid-’60s lineup featuring the horns of Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan while Brake was partial to the original ’55 lineup with pianist Horace Silver.

For most jazz nerds, it’s hard to choose their favorite Blakey band. With an eagle’s eye for rising talent, Blakey took on young musicians with virtuosic promise, establishing his band as an onstage school for future jazz visionaries. From the trumpet of Clifford Brown to Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz Messengers represented the pinnacle of the music for most of its post-war history, all with the steady, churning presence of Blakey.

Behind the kit on Friday, Kuper explained Blakey’s clout within the Jazz Messengers material: “He’s got this heavy shuffle thing, there’s a very distinct backbeat in a lot of the stuff he does. There’s certain ways he plays grooves that are important components to the songs. You know the Beatles tune ‘I Feel Fine?’ You have to play the tune like that, the drum part, or else it doesn’t sound right.” 

With video artist Chris Jackson projecting tripped-out visions of jazz’s halcyon days—think Ken Burns’ Jazz on acid—the Hard Bop Project’s tribute channels the good time, better music feel of Blakey’s live dates.

“At any level you want to meet the music, it’s there for you,” said Brake.

The Hard Bop Project tribute to Art Blakey

$15 (free for KRTU and Artpace members)
8pm Fri, July 18
445 N Main
(210) 212-4900

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