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With 'Passage,' Johnathan Blake toasts his father, and a legacy

Johnathan Blake, whose Blue Note album 'Passage' is dedicated to his father, the late John Blake, Jr.
David Ellis
Johnathan Blake, whose Blue Note album 'Passage' is dedicated to his father, the late John Blake, Jr.

Johnathan Blake is, above all, a family man.

For this Philly-born drummer and second-generation jazz musician, the idea takes on a variety of connotations, all of them relating back to music. With his ex-wife, Rio Sakairi, artistic director of the New York performance space The Jazz Gallery, Blake has raised two children in a richly musical environment. When I spoke with him last month at Birdland, where he was working a weeklong stint with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, his daughter Muna had celebrated her 18th birthday at the club the day before.

Then there is his extended musical family, an interwoven web of collaborators, mentors and peers that have helped forge Blake into the player he is today. Most recently that’s taken the form of his quintet Pentad, which will release its second album for Blue Note Records, Passage, on Aug. 11. The group includes pianist David Virelles and bassist Dezron Douglas (fellow members of Coltrane’s quartet), alongside rising stars Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone and Joel Ross on vibraphone.

In both his personal and musical lives, Blake credits the foundational influence of his late father, violinist John Blake, Jr., best known for his long relationships with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. and pianist McCoy Tyner. Johnathan dedicated Passage to his father, whose previously unrecorded composition serves as a title track. Whatever John Blake meant by that title, in his son’s hands it strongly suggests the passing of torches and traits from one generation to the next.

The tune begins with a bristling head shared by Douglas and Virelles, whose thundering left-hand chords suggest that the piece could have easily found a place in Tyner’s repertoire. The spirit of John Blake, Jr. is also evoked on the album’s closer, “West Berkley St.,” a nod to the family’s Germantown address. That soulful song -- which Johnathan previously recorded on his 2019 trio album Trion, with Chris Potter on saxophone and Linda May Han Oh on bass -- here samples voicemail messages from father to son over a buoyant, Motown-inspired groove.

I interviewed John Blake, Jr. about his career in 2006, at an Asian restaurant near his Germantown home. The philosophical echoes between father and son suggest as strong a family resemblance as their broad, beaming smiles. The violinist celebrated his own parents for instilling a reverence for the arts in their children – both John and his sister, storyteller and librettist Charlotte Blake Alston.

John Blake, Jr. in Saratoga, New York, circa 1981.
Tom Copi/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives
John Blake, Jr. in Saratoga, New York, circa 1981.

“The arts were really a big thing in our family,” Blake, Jr. said. “My father was a writer and a great lover of literature and poetry, particularly the great African-American poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson. We used to perform in church as a family, and he would always [recite] poetry.”

Early in our recent conversation, Johnathan expressed similar sentiments. “I’ve always told my kids that the arts were going to be an important aspect in their lives, but I try not to push it on them,” the drummer explained. “They were chilling in the playpen at The Jazz Gallery at an early age. My father was the same way: he never tried to push music on me, but he definitely made us aware of it.”

At the same time, both men described the balance that they sought to strike between their two passions. The elder Blake said that he’d resisted the urge to leave Philly in part to help maintain the balance between career and family that he so valued. “When I started having kids, I hated going out of town,” he told me. “I think that’s challenging for any musician. I remember one time we drove by the train station and my youngest daughter shouted, ‘Daddy!’ She thought I lived there.”

“My dad was always big on family,” Johnathan recalled when I shared this story with him. “I was maybe a year or two old when he was playing with Grover, who was also a family man. Anytime that they could have the families travel with them, they would. So at a very young age, I was being exposed to music and flying to different places. Now I try to do that as much as possible with my own family. Time passes so fast and those moments are precious.”

Johnathan Blake
David Ellis
Johnathan Blake refers to the members of his band as a brotherhood, taking a page from his father, John Blake, Jr.

Blake often refers to his bandmates in both Pentad and in Coltrane’s band as a brotherhood, again suggesting extended family ties. This, too, he inherited. “My father treated everybody like family,” he said. “Everybody was a son or daughter or a brother or sister. Now this band is like a family to me. I’ve had relationships with David and Dezron for many years now, so they’re like my brothers. Then our little brothers come in with Joel and Immanuel, whom I’ve known since he was seven or eight years old.”

Blake discovered Wilkins through the educational program at the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, where he still returns to teach after studying there with director Lovett Hines, in a class that also included alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, The Roots keyboardist Kamal Gray, and trumpeter Daud El-Bakara. Hines was one of several parental figures that Blake found in Philly besides his actual father, who taught at Settlement Music School. Among those mentors were organists Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts and drummers Mickey Roker, Edgar Bateman and Bobby Durham.

“They were all my uncles, in a way,” Blake said of those veteran drummers. “Even though they were older than my father, they took on that responsibility. Mickey Roker never called me by my first name – it was never Jonathan, it was always ‘Little Blake.’ I feel like that type of vibe is missing in the scene today, so it’s up to myself and other people around my age to become those mentors to the younger individuals out here trying to play this music.”

The second single from Passage is “Tears I Cannot Hide,” which pays homage to another key mentor of Blake’s who has passed: drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., who originally recorded it on his 2002 album Subliminal Seduction. Throughout his career, Peterson carried on the legacy of his mentor, Art Blakey. Before succumbing to a lengthy battle with cancer in 2021, Peterson tasked Blake and a small coterie of fellow drummers (including Tyshawn Sorey, Justin Faulkner, Mark Whitfield, Jr., Kush Abadey and Chris Beck) with shouldering a similar responsibility.

“When your mentor tells you, ‘Look, I’m passing the mantle on to you,’ you feel that energy when you sit at the drums,” Blake reflected. “The fact that there’s only a handful of us that he really trusts means to much to me. It’s a high honor, and I don’t take it lightly. I’ll try to do my best to make him proud. I think he’s going to love what we did with his song. I feel like it’s a true testament to who he was as a person, so hopefully he’s smiling down on us.”

Loss and its inevitability with the passage of time is another central theme that runs throughout Passage. The album begins with a brief, meditative solo drum piece with Blake on mallets, a dedication to his late peer, Lawrence “Lo” Leathers. Even the sprightly “Muna & Johna’s Playtime” seems to look back wistfully at a time when Blake’s children were younger. Yet the music is never somber or mournful, choosing to celebrate what’s been passed forward rather than what’s been left behind.

Passage will be released on Blue Note on Aug. 11; preorder here. Johnathan Blake and Pentad will appear Aug. 24-27 at Smoke Jazz Club in New York.

Correction: This story originally identified Rio Sakairi as Johnathan Blake's wife. They are divorced.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.