A main exponent of free-jazz drumming came in the form of one Ed Blackwell. From a solid Louisiana background of jazz, blues, and rhythm & blues, Blackwell would go on to shake up the conservative jazz world with his groundbreaking work with Ornette Coleman. Ask any jazz enthusiast or jazz drummer to name some of their favorite drummers of the last 50 years and Blackwell's name will be high on the list. His friend and fellow Ornette Coleman drummer Billy Higgins relates, "He wasn't a drummer by choice, he was a drummer by design."
A New Orleans native, Blackwell came up surrounded by music and the marching bands (with revelers forming what is known as the second line) he heard in his youth left an indelible impression that would remain with him throughout his life. "My biggest influence in jazz was being able to follow the street parades in New Orleans. The rhythms that they had going with these parades were so beautiful that even now I still feel the rhythmic inspiration that I got just from being able to run along behind the parades coming from the funerals and things. It was such a gas, man! In fact, practically any drummer that’s from New Orleans, you can always hear that type of thing in their playing—parade beats and street beats."
No matter how far outside, how devoid of conventional or traditional rhythm structures his improvisations would take him, the New Orleans blood coursing through his veins kept him grounded and funky. Pianist Randy Weston put it simply, "Blackwell had that special thing New Orleans drummers have—that dance beat; it’s a spiritual thing—and Ed had that— he would do all that polyrhythmic, complex thing but he always had that dance beat." Blackwell concurred. "That’s my main objective; when I play I imagine someone dancing to the rhythms, get a fixed vision of a dancer in my mind. One of the prime requisites to be a good drummer is to know how to dance—that should be the first thing a drummer learns, even before he gets the drums." All of you aspiring drummers out there had better make an appointment at your nearest Arthur Murray dance studio!
Blackwell further acknowledged his blues roots when he stated, "A lot of people think that avant-garde jazz music came out of the blue, but actually it came out of the blues. I’m saying that anyone that came out of the Southern background, as opposed to California or the East, they had to be exposed to the blues because that was a way of life. It’s not remarkable, for instance, that Ornette Coleman came out of that and yet created something very different."
Blackwell's first trip to Africa in 1966 also reinforced these deep roots as he found the African culture and music remarkably similar to his experiences growing up in New Orleans. "When I got to Africa, I would see all these scenes that reminded me of childhood scenes in New Orleans. It was something… It was phenomenal! I just couldn’t get over it. And after coming back… I began to try to retain some of the different rhythms that I’d heard, but there were so many, it was difficult to retain. So I just had some, you know." That some seemed to be enough as Blackwell grew to become one of the prime architects in building the language of free jazz.
Author Valerie Wilmer shares an anecdote in an interview with Ted Panken that is telling of Blackwell's supreme polyrhythmic capabilities. To preface the story she explains that Blackwell had recently (sometime in the late '60s) been in a motorcycle accident and was wearing a cast because of a broken shoulder blade and yet he decided to still play a concert that had been arranged, "So he got up, and in front of an audience of Moroccans and I think a few Americans and other visiting people, he played this amazing solo, this really incredible drum solo, one hand and two feet. And I was sitting next to Frances, Blackwell’s wife, and at the end of it I looked at her, and she had tears in her eyes because of the applause. Everybody stood up and applauded. I said, “Oh, that was something.” She said to me, “Man, Blackwell normally sounds like four men; tonight it just sounded like three.”