Ed Blackwell; Influential Jazz Drummer


Ed Blackwell, jazz drummer noted for melding his native New Orleans style with the more improvisational rhythms popularized in the 1960s, has died. He was 62.

Blackwell, who had suffered from kidney disease and required frequent dialysis for the last two decades, died Wednesday in a Hartford, Conn., hospital.

Since 1972, he had taught, performed and recorded as artist-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Blackwell's reliance on dialysis equipment made him a relatively obscure performer, Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Snowden noted after recently observing the Ed Blackwell Project quartet in a rare West Coast appearance. The group was performing to a full house at Oakland's Yoshi nightclub during the third annual Eddie Moore Festival last August.

The quartet aside, Blackwell was better known as a sideman than as a group leader.

"I don't really have a leader feeling," Blackwell told the writer. "I've been a sideman for so long that the only way I feel like a leader is when I have my manager arrange for gigs.

"I try to play along with whomever I'm playing with, not so much as an accompanist but an equal," the drummer said.

Much of Blackwell's material reflected the style of saxophonist Ornette Coleman, with whom he lived and worked in Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

"I didn't make any changes to fit in with his music because what I was doing fit in," Blackwell said after his Oakland performance. "It was almost like we were joined together. And it got to the point where he would play one phrase and I could anticipate what other phrase he was going to do to follow it, and he could almost anticipate the rhythm I would get into. It was eerie the way it used to happen."

With Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Don Cherry, Blackwell formed what many critics considered one of the most influential groups in the history of jazz.

Blackwell said his first drum rhythms were an attempt to duplicate the sound his older sister made when she tap-danced.

Returning periodically to New Orleans and its particular style, Blackwell moved to New York City in 1960, playing clubs such as the Village Vanguard. In the mid-1960s, he toured West Africa, picking up still other rhythm variations.

In recent years, he was the recipient of several fund-raising tributes to support his dialysis treatments.

"My healing force is drums," he recently told Snowden.

"Playing the drums itself is something entirely different than what a lot of people perceive," he said. "You have to think rhythmically and musically. You have to think of each drum as a different instrument in itself. The small tom, the floor tom, the bass drum and snare--they're a family of drums."

Blackwell is survived by his wife, Frances; two sons, a daughter, a brother and five grandchildren.

Memorial services are planned at Wesleyan University, in New York and in New Orleans.

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