The Jazz Messengers: At The Café Bohemia

Live set from 1955 with Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver and Doug Watkins shows the hard bop style in formation


If I had a time machine, I would certainly dial back to the Café Bohemia, NYC, 28 November 1955 to listen to this music live. It is one of the best live jazz performances anywhere in my opinion and it catches the original Jazz Messengers in their prime.

Blakey formed this quintet as a co-operative in 1954, shortly after appearing with a similar quintet at Birdland that year with Silver already on board and trumpet virtuoso Clifford Brown. The drummer was part of a movement that was forming hard bop out of bebop and focusing on putting the drums on the same creative level as the horns and piano. Listening to this music live is like hearing a new variation of bop as it was being created. Along with the work of Miles Davis, Max Roach and a few others this music would set the style of mainstream modern jazz for the next 60 years.

Not that it was all fire and thunder. The band kick off with Soft Winds, the old Benny Goodman staple where Watkins and then Blakey set up a smooth, rhythmic groove for a 12½ minute workout where Dorham and Mobley deliver extended, well-crafted solos. Watkins’ big sound and accurate notes are crucial here to the steady swing and tasty improvised solos that follow. The Theme, the Miles Davis sign-off tune, gets a percussive start from Blakey’s thunderous drums and some high-octane Mobley. Dorham, more delicately lyrical but persuasively swinging, provides highlights. Blakey takes it out in fine cross-rhythmic manner.

Sportin’ Crowd is credited to Mobley, but the theme sounds the same as Sonny Rollins would play on his Tenor Madness LP a year later. Others have used it and claimed composer credit. The ballads – Like Someone In Love and Gillespie’s I Waited For You – are given lyrical readings with some tasty solo work by Dorham, Mobley and Silver. Yesterdays is Dorham’s solo feature, and he plays with warmth and invention. Avila And Tequila is a rhythmic maelstrom with the horns blowing tasty solos at a rapid tempo, although Watkins and Blakey come out on top here.

This package is issued in an attractive gatefold cover with several pictures of the musicians taken by Francis Wolff of Blue Note at the actual session. It was early days for live recording, but Van Gelder’s sound captures every note faithfully.

LP1: Soft Winds; The Theme; Minor’s Holiday; Alone Together (41.16)
LP2: Sportin’ Crowd; Like Someone In Love; Yesterdays; Avila And Tequila; I Waited For You (43.15)
Kenny Dorham (t); Hank Mobley (ts); Horace Silver (p); Doug Watkins (b); Art Blakey (d). NYC, 23 November 1955.
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