Drummer Derrick McDowell was one of many who responded to my post about a song written in tribute to the late John Blackwell. I was intrigued by his comment and asked him to tell his full story. Here it is.
I got to know who John Blackwell was in the mid 2000s. I was like, “Who is this guy playing for Prince?” I loved his approach and showmanship. As time went by, I learned his style and hard pocket when playing. When I watched his videos, he was soft spoken and explained everything that he does. When he messed up or missed something he kept playing like it was part of what he was doing. I’m assuming there was no editing. It is what it is.
In 2009, Zildjian had a contest to meet John Blackwell at the Zildjian Factory for a tour and pick out some cymbals. I was like, “How cool would that would be to meet John and do it at The Zildjian Factory!” As I put in my entries and awaited the outcome, my nerves were on ice. The entry deadline came and went. I had to know who won so I mailed Zildjian to get the list of who the winners were. When I received the mail, low and behold, my name was at the top of the list as the Grand Prize Winner. I actually didn’t get a call until days later to be notified that I won.
In the process I got nervous and concerned because they didn’t know when John would be able to come because of Prince’s schedule. So, I had to wait to see what was going to happen. After a couple of weeks, I received a call saying that John would be available.
I flew to Boston and was looking at all the artifacts of how Zildjian got started. I was sitting at a table and the man of the hour walked in. The same guy and demeanor he had on video. He introduced himself and I did the same. I told him all about myself as a person and being a drummer. After that, we hit it off as if we’ve known each other for life. We sat, talked, and ate with Craigie and Debbie Zildjian and shared stories. We then toured the facilities to see how these great cymbals were made. John and I were taken to the Drummer’s Room, the room where all the great drummers come to listen, hear, and pick out the next set of cymbals for their kits. John and I were left there alone for my private lessons with him.
This was the moment that I really saw how down to earth, John really was. After our drum lessons, he opened up to me about the music business. Then he asked me, “Can I trust you?” I’m like, “Yes, what’s up?” He told me stories that I would have to go to the grave with. I was wondering why would he put that trust in me, when we just met? I’m not going to put any names out there, nothing negative, but there some interesting and funny stories that he trusted me with. Then on top of that, he let me hear unfinished music from the JBP project and other music that was in the works. I’m like, “Wow, all this in one day.”
After the lesson and conversation, we picked out cymbals played to some old school beats. Then it was time to head to dinner, so John, Ron (Zildjian Rep), my wife, and I went to one of the best seafood spots.
As the night wound down, John and I exchanged info, phone numbers and email addresses. I was still in awe that he shared his life and now his info. Then he invited my wife and I to Berklee College where he went to school and where he played for students the next day. When this day came to an end and it was time to depart, we gave our thanks, appreciations, and hugs. At this moment, John said to me, “Call and email me, don’t take my info and don’t use it, and please don’t share with anyone.” I was like, “Bro, I got you, you just don’t know how you’ve changed my life.”
On the way home, my wife is just watching me grin from ear to ear and told me, “I guess you’ve gained a brother, huh?” I said, “Yes I did!” I waited a couple of days and I called John to see if he made it home. He answered the phone! Ever since that Zildjian day, John and I were very close. Whenever John came to town or close to town, for shows or clinics, he told me to come on and not to worry about a thing. When John told me that he was going to be coming to Cascio Interstate Music for Drummerfest he asked me to help set up and assist him.
John asked if I would come to the Chicago Drum Show in 2016. At that show he was announcing his new alliance with Turkish Cymbals. He allowed me to help set up for his clinic and performance. Once the show was over I went out to dinner with John and Jim Uding of Dixon Drums and we all shared more stories.
After the Drum show, John and I spoke again as we always do. He was in between gigs and headed for Japan. I didn’t know the Chicago Show would be the last time I would see him. Even when he was ill we’d talk and I would see how he was going. He always kept his spirits up and he was going to play again. Just not the kit on this earth but the one he is playing softly in the heavens.