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Cindy Blackman Santana: Rhythmic And Musical Force


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Jazz is is the most comprehensive, the most innovative, and my favorite music. Because it's so creative.
—Cindy Blackman Santana
It's the 1980s in New York City. It's the place to be for musicians looking to make a name for themselves with hopes of finding steady gigs and recording dates. Drummer Cindy Blackman (long before her marriage to Carlos Santana) is there, fresh out of Berklee College of Music.

She's there to meet people, get experience and learn as much as she can. But things are tough for most young musicians hoping to follow a dream. She's willing to take the journey, but has no place to live or stay. Nor does her boyfriend, Wallace Roney, even though the trumpeter had a taste of the big time, having played with Art Blakey. Most of what they own is in the vehicle they arrived in, parked on the street. If they go inside to jam, their belongings might disappear.

But they were persistent.

"I didn't have any gigs," says Cindy Blackman Santana last June, speaking in the midst of a busy U.S. tour with her band. "I had just arrived there. I had a car that my brother gave me, this big Ford station wagon. No apartment. But we lugged our stuff around in that car. And we would have to sit in at the clubs, one by one. Because somebody had to stay with the car. We had all of our gear in the car. So, I would go sit in with the band—or Wallace would go sit in—and the other one would stay with the car. We'd take turns. Then we would dash back to Connecticut to my mom's to get some sleep and shower or go to D.C. to his dad's, or to Philly to his grandmother's, and do the same. Get some showers, get some sleep, get some food. And we'd dash back to New York until we finally found a place to stay. But it went like that for a little while."

Eventually, she got an apartment and was able to crash in the city, but dues were still being paid. Blackman Santana would play on the streets during the summer. "That was actually really, really amazing," she says. "Because we played five days a week, for like six hours a day. It gave me a great chance to go to clubs at night and check out all the great drummers, keep listening to the records and then have a place (during the day) to explore and try these things out. In real time. That was amazing."

It was all part of her growth she looks back on fondly. Her career success now speaks for itself, having played over the years with superb jazz musicians, as well as her long stint with rocker Lenny Kravitz. Cindy Blackman has been very busy in 2023 with an immense tour. She also occupies the drum seat in Santana.

The tours have been exhilarating. Blackman Santana loves performing. "We've been having great time," she says.

A positive person, she enjoys the journey and looks forward to new experiences, new knowledge, and new enlightenment. She is grateful for the experiences that brought her to the forefront of music. Part of that progression has involved closely studying the great drummers from the rich history of jazz. And while she plays music from many genres, from rock, to Latin to fusion, jazz is her first love.

"Jazz is the most comprehensive, the most innovative, and my favorite music. Because it's so creative. And it's so encompassing," she says. "It's so collectively encompassing of all people, all music styles, you know. All genres. You can really take this music anywhere you want to go with it. It's got such a rich history and legacy, which I love studying. And I've loved studying it in the past, and I still study it."

She respects "the way that it was built, the fact that it's a combination of African rhythms and European classical harmony, which was furthered by Charlie Parker. It just really intrigues me. And I love the fact that it allows and requires communication between the musicians. It requires the music to grow, to move, to change. And it's built out of the fabric of our everyday life because it's got intellect, it's got heart, it's got soul. It's got the street, you know? All of those things change every day. They all evolve every day in one way or another. And thus the music does, too. So it's definitely my all-time favorite music."

As a drummer, the top of the mountain for Blackman Santana is Blakey, with whom she spent a lot of time. Those times consisted of personal interactions and conversations that extended beyond music. But on the drum kit itself, he is just about without peer in Blackman Santana's book. Every drummer who comes through the jazz tradition, and even some who don't, take something from the Blakey bag.

"He's everybody's daddy," she says. She mentions drummers from the early period—Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett, Denzil Best, Joe Jones and Kenny Clarke, all of whom she has studied. "And then comes Art Blakey. He just exploded rhythmically on the drums, playing polyrhythms across the kit and really playing so excitedly behind the soloist and in conversation with the soloist. He just propelled the music. And his sound! His incredible signature press roll. His big beat on the cymbals. The way he got such a power and tone out of the drums. His drive. The way comped. His musical sensibility."

"He just had it all and I was really fortunate to be very close with him. We became really good friends—more like daughter and father. In fact, he and his family called me one of his daughters. And I used to call him my papa. I babysat for his children that he had at the time. So I was at his house a lot. I got to hang with him," she says, still excited by the memory. "And he would talk to me about the scene. He would talk to me about Horace Silver, about Thelonious Monk, about Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, the whole scene. He talked to me about everything including politics. So many things happening socially. There's a special place in music for Art that will always be his lane and his lane only. And there's also that same special spot for him in my heart, because we were so close."

She doesn't ignore post-Blakey masters. She holds in high esteem, and knows the contributions of, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Louis Hayes and Pete La Roca Sims.

"And then there's this guy, Tony Williams, who took all of that and more and just really expanded on what they were doing rhythmically. The way that he displaced the figures that they played," she says. The way that he displaced them around the kit, making them sound totally familiar but completely new. And then also completely new again, because he juxtaposed everything in such a way you're like, 'Whoa. What the heck is that?'

"The history is so rich and that's what makes me love it. If you listen to the sounds. Just the tones. These people heard drums and to them the sound was like a Rolls Royce. It was that smooth, that beautiful. I don't care how bombastic they got, the sound was always great. You listen to Art's sound and Philly's slick sound, with his lean cymbal ride. Art's big fat cymbal ride with his big drum sound. If you listen to Max's sound, which was very lean also. And then Elvin, he had that open sound and Roy, with that lean sound but with the triplets. It's interesting because Roy and Elvin both came out of Art Blakey, and both took the triplets in the opposite direction. Elvin played the closed triplets. Roy played those big, beautiful open triplets. And they both were innovative in their own rights. Then you look at Lou Hayes who could just swing you into oblivion. Billy Higgins. Pete La Roca, who probably was the connection between Elvin and Tony. He's probably that link... What an innovative drummer who definitely, to me, deserves a higher spot in history than I think he's gotten.

Drummers worship Williams, who came to the public eye as a teenager with Miles Davis. Blackman Santana can break it all down, so astute she is as a student of percussion "Look at Tony Williams and all of the incredible innovations that he had, which were numerous,. His ride cymbal playing was innovative. His sock cymbal playing was innovative, from no sock cymbal to the standard tune for two syncopated sock cymbals, to 4/4 on the sock cymbal, to splashing on the sock cymbal. All the different things that he did with that. Then his technique was so otherworldly, and yet crystal clear. Just the highest of the high technically, and then musically just incredible. So there's so much to this jazz lineage, the jazz drumming lineage, and this whole history. It's just mind boggling how amazing it is, and how amazing these innovations happened over such a relatively short period of time."

As for Blackman Santana's own journey, being a drummer was in the cards before she knew it.

"My mom and my older sister, who was six years my senior, tell me that when I came out of the womb, I was patting rhythms," she says. "My mom thought it was something that I would grow out of. She was like, 'Wow, she's not grown out of this. She's already a year old. Two years old. She's three years old. She's still doing that.' She said that I would find anything that would make a tone, whether it was her back, you know, me patting or playing rhythms on her back, or a pot or a pan. She said I was always looking for that thing that could give me a tone. So yeah, I've wanted to do this since before I knew what it was."

She started asking for drums at about age three and got a toy drum kit at seven. She still didn't have a full realization of what the drums could do, but "whatever that was in the music, whatever role that played, I wanted that. As the years progressed, I became more aware of what the drums did, what the effect was and how to go about getting some of those things happening."

At age 11 Blackman Santana got a student model kit. It served her for a couple years, but she couldn't get sounds like those she heard on recordings. She concluded she needed a better kit and needed to learn how to tune them properly. She got a babysitting job working five days one summer, pulling in $30 a week that went directly to a fund for new drums. When she earned enough, she ordered a Slingerland kit. The long-awaited day came and they were delivered to the shop.

"I was just so proud my drums had come in. It was the end of August, and school was getting ready to start and I was going to be able to start up with this new drum kit. I was just over the moon. And the guy said, 'Okay, it'll be such-and-such, plus such-and-such.' And I was like, 'Yeah, but it says on the paper that it's this much.' And he says, 'Well, then there's tax.' I didn't know what tax was. What is it?" she recalls, laughing.

She appealed to her mother, "a single mom, working really hard to care for her kids and didn't have extra money. But she gave me the money." The Slingerland set kicked things up a notch. She kept the kit through high school and Berklee. "And then when I got to New York, I got my hands on a Gretsch snare drum and played it with that kit, and it just blew the whole kit away. I'm like, 'Okay, that's it. So then I got my first Gretsch kit."

Her first professional gig was at age 13 with a punk rock trio. The family was living in Connecticut. Her mother was protective and not in favor of her girl playing out in bars. But the musicians were friends with her older daughter, so she allowed it. In school, Blackman Santana was in a marching band. She eventually advanced to playing with her peers in bands that played school dances and parties. Then it was off to Berklee. That expanded her horizons, allowing her to play with a wide variety of talented musicians.

"I was really able to learn a lot about playing with people, about myself as a drummer, about how to apply different things and just to get the experience. I always tell people that to play as much as possible is really key," says Blackman Santana.

She was with Roney for about 11 years, until the end of 1992, including the period of finding jam sessions while the car was stuffed with their belongings. "He was amazing. Just such a genius in music. He knew so much about every instrument, and certainly about his own instrument and just about music in general," she says. The trumpeter encouraged her to write music and on his first album Verses (Muse, 1987) included her tunes "Float" and "Topaz." In 1988 Blackman released Arcane (Muse) that included a star- studded band with Roney on trumpet, Kenny Garrett on alto sax and Joe Henderson on tenor.

The recording of Verses proved to be a major experience. The drummer was Tony Williams.

"I was able to go to the rehearsals. My excuse was: You guys are playing one or two of my songs, so I get to be there," she says, chuckling.

Blackman Santana says Williams did not bring drums that day. He was in New York doing some work with Yoko Ono and had rented a kit.

"And so I said, 'Well, he can use my drums. I got his same setup.' You know, I had his same sticks. I had his same setup. I had cases and cymbals like him. They were Gretsch drums with the full seven-piece kit. So I was his roadie that day. I was really excited," she recalls. "I set up the kit and I tuned them. I noticed that he didn't tune them. I said, 'Is the tuning, okay? Is everything okay?' He looked at me and said, 'Yeah, they sound great.' He left my tuning. I turned around to walk away from the drum booth feeling really great. I was probably 10 feet off the ground. And then he said, 'Cindy.' and I said, 'Uh oh' and I turned around, and he was holding up my brushes. I was broke. I didn't have money to keep buying sticks or brushes so my brushes were beaten up badly. And he said, 'Cindy, you need some new brushes.'

"But when you listen to the ballad, you'll never know that those brushes were so beaten up because of how perfect he played them. If you go back and listen to that record— and now you know that he was playing with some beaten up brushes—you'll be like, 'Whoa, this guy was a master.' I know because it sounds flawless. And those brushes were anything but."

It was also through the Roney family that led to her association with rocker Lenny Kravitz. This time it was saxophonist Antoine Roney, brother of Wallace.

"I actually didn't even know who Lenny was, because I was really following another path at that time. Even though I grew up with all kinds of music in my house and I played different kinds of music. I was not a foreigner to rock or to funk or anything like that."

Antoine told her he had a friend looking for a drummer and asked if she would be interested in talking to him. "And I said, 'What is he doing?' He said, 'He's a rock and roll guy who likes Gretsch drums. And I said, 'Okay.' He said, 'He likes Miles. He likes Coltrane.' And I said, 'Yes. I'd love to talk to him.'"

A few months later, Roney connected her with Kravitz via telephone. She played some riffs into the phone and she was asked in that moment to fly to Los Angeles for a meeting.

"I was in New York, where I lived at that time. He flew me out that morning. He said, 'Pack for two days, come out, play with my band. No strings attached. Just a loose session, then I'll send you home. Just see how it feels.'"

Blackman Santana figured it would be a good experience and a chance to meet new musicians during her first-ever trip to that city. Then, she thought, she would return home, "and that'll be that." But it turned out to be an audition situation involving about 40 drummers.

"I was to play second. I had gone outside to just relax. I had jet lag. I was a little sleepy. So I went out and found a chair and I was just kind of dozing in the sun. Then his assistant came in and said, 'Cindy, Lenny's been looking for you. He had to start the audition already. One drummer has played, but he wants you to play next.' So I came and played and he called the audition off. He said, 'I like her. Take her.' And his manager said, 'Well, it's not really fair of you to leave, like, 39 drummers out there just sitting. You should hear them.'"

The audition went on and Kravitz liked one other drummer in addition to Blackman Santana. The next day, that candidate alternated with Blackman Santana playing different songs. Blackman Santana prevailed. "That started the kickoff of a 17-year stint that I had with with Lenny," she says.

"I'm feeling very fortunate, because I've had some amazing opportunities to play with the best of the best in so many genres. I'm feeling very fortunate, very blessed and, and just very inspired to keep bettering myself, to keep pushing myself to play new things, better things. And to play the old things better, and to just keep growing."

Her varied career includes playing important jazz-rock fusion and the recording of Another Lifetime in 2010 (Four Quarters Entertainment), a tribute to Williams reimagining's of eight songs from his 1970s group Lifetime. More recently, the band Spectrum Road was further exploration of serious Williams—inspired fusion that had the drummer alongside John Medeski, Vernon Reid and Jack Bruce.

The forceful, expansive sound of her drums has been heard in varying contexts over the years. Her sounds always add the right texture and sonic cushion that serves the music and inspires whomever she is playing with, whether she is the band leader or special guest.

In his autobiography, The Universal Tone; Bringing My Story to Light (Little, Brown and Company, 2014), Carlos Santana says he first saw his future wife with Kravitz in Germany in 2002. He wasn't that impressed the first night, but began to see a superb drummer at a show the following night. They met a few years later and the guitarist was impressed enough to have her play with him on occasion. They had more than a musical connection and were married in 2010.

"Initially, I was just sitting in, you know," she says. She continued to tour with Kravitz, but that changed in 2016.

"Carlos asked me if I would join his band. He had gone through some drummer changes. And I guess some people in the camp said, 'You don't want to hire your wife, because that might be a little weird.' He listened for a while." But after a while he asked Blackman Santana what she thought of the idea. "And I said, 'Well, I think we're both mature enough to handle that. And if we find it we're not, then we'll make a change accordingly.' And so that was quite a while ago. It's working out great. I love playing with him. He's amazing."

Even though the Cindy Blackman Santana band has been super busy, she still makes the Santana gigs. For example in June at Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival, she opened the festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, at noon (with a band that included Ravi Coltrane on sax), then drove to Niagara Falls to play with Santana that night. On August 9, she and her husband also did a special show, participating in a Miles Davis tribute concert in Kingston, NY, led by Jack DeJohnette.

Playing with Santana is "just an incredible experience, because he's such an amazing musician. And that's apart from our personal relationship of him being my husband. He's just incredible. His Rolodex of music that he's got in his head is just amazing. He can just recall so much music at the drop of a dime."

Blackman Santana is working on a new album with her band, including music she is playing with her band, but hasn't been recorded. There have also been tracks laid down for a new Santana recording, "so I'm looking forward to both the Santana record and to my record."

Ever upbeat, she believes music is ever evolving and is in good hands. As an example, her nephew, Kojo Roney (son of Antoine) started playing drums as a young child and will one day become an in-demand player. Sooner than later.

"I remember when he was born," she says. "Antoine and Nia, Kojo's mom, brought him over to see me. So I met him when he was first born. He's like, my nephew. He's amazing. Such a talent. With him and a couple of other young drummers, I'm like, 'Okay, this drumming thing is going to be alright.' It's not just going to be pushing buttons and sampling. We've got some drummers who are serious and who are great already."

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