BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRANCIS GEORGE | FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE
Through jazz, rock, and Latin music, Cindy Blackman Santana’s powerful drumming is easily identifiable on records and in person. But she’s not one to rest on her laurels. On her new album, Give The Drummer Some, the drumstress proves she’s still evolving as she not only showcases brilliant drumming on original songs and imaginative covers, but tackles a new instrument: Her voice.
“I sang a song on Carlos [Santana’s] last record, Power Of Peace (2017). That’s the first time I’ve ever sung on record,” says the 50-something drummer, sitting in a conference room at Santana’s business office in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Usually I just sing in the shower, sing around my house, you know. I like melody, I like singing solos by people whose playing I love, whether it be drummers, horn players, bass players.”
It was one of her drumming idols, Tony Williams, who subconsciously coaxed her voice to the surface. She sings in snippets on Another Lifetime, her 2010 tribute featuring original songs and covers of the iconic drummer who left an indelible mark on jazz starting at age 17 with his time in Miles Davis’ quintet. Though Williams passed away in 1997 at the age of 52, his style and presence are captured beautifully by Blackman Santana on that record and remain as fresh and modern-sounding as ever.
“There were a couple songs I would sing on my Another Lifetime tour, we were doing a tribute to Tony Williams, and so a couple songs he sang, I sang on. But I never considered myself any kind of singer or that I would do anything like that. I [only] did that because I love Tony so much,” says Blackman Santana.
“Carlos [Santana] was saying, ‘You should really sing.’ He was saying, ‘Oh, you know, Narada Michael Walden would be a great producer for you,’” she says. Walden is a superstar drummer in his own right who can be heard on records with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, and many others. But he’s equally, if not more lauded for his production with such celestial voices as Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, and Whitney Houston. One of his Grammy awards is for producing the 1994 album of the year, the soundtrack for The Bodyguard.
“At one point, Narada heard the song I did with Ronnie Isley on Power Of Peace, and he said, ‘Cindy, I want to produce you.’” She continues with a laugh, “And I said, produce me doing what?” When he said he wanted to work with Blackman Santana as a singer, it took some convincing to bring her around.
“The process was different for me, and fun, because I’ve been playing drums since I was, what, three or four? So that comes naturally for me, to play. But singing is not a natural thing for me to do in that realm,” she says. She found a vocal coach, stretched out her pipes, and got in shape, so to speak, for the recording. “[My coach] helps me with all the things that a singer needs to know, including how not to hurt yourself, which is key.”
She and Walden were working on original songs, and at one point he floated the idea of doing a cover tune. “I chose ‘Imagine’ because I love those lyrics, and I love John Lennon. And those lyrics are still so relevant today,” she says. “There’s so much negativity (in the world) and people get caught up in the negativity . . . My whole demeanor, wish, and command for myself is to put out positivity.”
Forging A Path
As a creative artist, Blackman Santana has already had success at the highest level of so many genres of music. She’s an acclaimed jazz drummer who’s recorded tributes to Tony Williams; she’s a badass rock drummer who spent years touring with Lenny Kravitz; and now she’s the drummer for legendary Latin rock group Santana, sharing a stage with her husband of eight years, Carlos.
Her playing reflects her own life story in so many ways. The influence of her mentors — jazz greats like Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Wallace Roney, and so many others — is clear as a ride bell. The power of her playing, particularly reminiscent of Williams’ innovative fusion style, was a natural fit for rock, and her time with Lenny Kravitz in the ’90s cemented her status as a great crossover artist. Now begins a whole new chapter in Latin rock with Santana.
“She brings a whole new side of kind of a jazzy feel, but yet very rock,” says Karl Perazzo, longtime percussionist for Santana. “I think that, simply put, her playing is very strong.”
Paoli Mejias, who plays congas with Santana, agrees. “She is amazing,” he says. “[She’s] an incredible drummer. She has a lot of energy.”
One can also hear the geography of her life in her music. Though she considers herself a New Yorker, Blackman Santana has true Midwestern roots, growing up in a small town in Ohio before moving to Connecticut when her father got a job there. Eventually she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and then took on the Big Apple.
Her playing is authentic, reflecting her Midwestern upbringing; it’s tough, as one has to be to make it in New York City; and there’s a sensitivity that evokes a San Francisco vibe. Now, as a resident of Las Vegas, she brings an element of pizazz and fun into her new music that coalesces with her existing persona to further evolve her artistry. But it all has deep roots in jazz.
Blackman Santana was about 13 when she really connected with the genre that would become her signature. “When I discovered jazz, when I discovered improvisational music, it just blew my mind and took me to another level,” she says.
“I had heard jazz prior because I used to raid my father’s record collection,” she says with a laugh. “He had Miles Davis records, he had Ahmad Jamal records, so those were my favorite records that he had and I used to sneak in and listen to those records all the time.”
Many family members, including her mother, both grandmothers, and an uncle, were professional or amateur musicians, but it was a family friend — a drummer — who got her hooked on jazz. “He played a Max Roach record for me and he wrote out a little transcription, just a couple bars,” she says. “Prior to that, I had been playing three-limb style. And when he played that and he showed me what it was, I said, ‘Whoa, oh my gosh, how do you do that?’ And he said, ‘That’s called four-way independence, that’s called coordination — that’s a four-limb style, that’s what jazz drummers do.’ I was like, I gotta get that.”
Like a message in a bottle, that one short transcription brought about a journey that nobody could have imagined. “I still have that little paper that he wrote that out on for me. It’s amazing, he drew this tree on the back of it, and on the other side he wrote out two bars — just two bars — and that set me on a whole other course.”
She started devouring every bite of jazz she could find, gorging on Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Roy Haynes before discovering her ultimate muse. “Then I heard Tony Williams and that just completely blew my mind. So from those moments, I was completely hooked.”
Learning From The Masters
Living in New York in her 20s, Blackman Santana not only met several of her idols, but played with them and their bands, went to shows with them, and flourished under their tutelage. Befriending Blakey was particularly impactful to her. “To this day, it’s one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me,” she says.
“Art used to call me his redhead friend, because he didn’t remember my name at first,” she says with a laugh, before doing a husky-voiced Art Blakey impression: “Ey, where’s my redhead friend?” [Laughs.]
The two became very close. Blakey would pass on his drumming knowledge to her, even have her rehearse his band at times. “And I would go to the gigs, and he would have me sit next to the drums, and I would watch him. And he would have me sit in,” she says. “He was like a dad to me. I called him Papa and he called me his daughter. His kids and his family, they recognized me as that, and I identified with them as that to me, because Art was like my daddy. And he still is.”
His influence is audible in her own artistry. “Art is one of our innovators who created jazz,” she says. “He created the drumming that I love for its drive, its aggressiveness, its passion, its fire, the sound of the drums, the veracity with which he hit the drums. Art made all of that happen, he created all of that.” It’s no coincidence that the way she describes Blakey’s drumming is not far from how many music critics would describe her own.
Her voice sparkles with excitement and her pace slightly quickens when she tells stories from her time in New York, hanging out with legendary jazz drummers as a young woman. Because she is such a vibrant storyteller, we’re going to let you read one in her own words, which she told with a smile that did not fade once during the entire story.
“I went to the Vanguard to see Tony Williams play. He was playing there — this was in the ’80s. And in the Vanguard — I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, to the Village Vanguard in New York — there’s a little balcony they call Drummers’ Row. And the stage is right here [points], and Drummers’ Row is right here [points]. There’s a partition here [points], so you want to get as close to this side of the stage as possible so you can see. And so, drummers were racing down there to get those spots, and I was in line to get that spot early. And I did. And I was sitting right there, watching Tony, and I don’t know who was sitting next to me; I wasn’t even paying attention — it didn’t matter. And all of a sudden, I feel somebody plop down in the seat, and it was Art Blakey. And he pushed the cat away who was there and he sat down. ‘Ey.’ And then he put his arm around my shoulder and we’re watching Tony Williams. And he starts — Tony is playing one of these tempos [taps very quickly]. Maybe he was playing blues or something, with his quintet, but it was of those fast tempos. So, Art had his hand on my shoulder, and he was tapping to where he felt it. And Tony was playing, obviously, where he felt it. So to feel those two different times happening, those two different interpretations of that happening at the same time, that blew my mind. It was incredible. Because Art was so far behind the beat, but [still] in the beat. Like, if the quarter-note is as thick as this bottle of water [holds up bottle], Tony was on this side of it, the upper end of it. He was really pushing it. Not rushing, but pushing. Art was way back here, on the back side. So, Tony was on the front side of the beat, Art was on the backside. It was incredible to feel that. It was amazing.”
So, where was she feeling the beat? “I felt it where Tony was feeling it, obviously,” she says with a laugh.
Plays Well With Others
Blackman Santana has a strong musical identity as an artist, but understands the importance of adapting her own style to fit the song. Where she feels the beat, for example, depends on the artist she’s playing with. “Every band, every musician, and every song needs a different thing, maybe,” she says. “And that’s one of the joys of music, is finding those different things. It’s very colorful. It’s like getting your crayons out and making a beautiful collage of different colors.”
With a catalog as deep as Santana’s, that approach is essential. “Carlos’ music is very expansive,” she says. “From the beginning of the set to the end of the set, you’re going through a whole bunch of different things.”
And taking on new projects is something she enjoys. “I like the challenge of it, I like learning new things. I like the excitement of taking different pathways, because [then] music and life are not boring.”
A different pathway opened up in 2010, when Cindy Blackman was playing with Santana on tour. She had just finished a drum solo during the show, and Carlos turned to her and proposed, right there on stage. They married less than a year later. Now, Blackman Santana has been playing regularly with Santana since 2016, including the band’s four annual residencies at the House Of Blues in Las Vegas.
She continues to write her own music, and that, too, is evolving. Tunes recorded for her new album range from straight-ahead jazz to upbeat pop, with some rock-and-roll groove and world music flavor thrown in for good measure. “For me, it’s a very natural thing to have a feeling for the different kinds of music,” says Blackman Santana.
There’s also some experimentation that came into play. “I was on my way to the studio and I thought, I’m going to do some layering and just have some drum stuff,” she says. “I’d been listening to Tony Williams’ record Ego and I love the drum pieces he did on that. So I called [the engineers] when I was in the car, and I asked, ‘Do you guys have any percussion? I don’t care if it’s real percussion, just grab me some stuff to hit. Grab me some bottles, cans, trashcan tops, pieces of paper, pots, just grab anything that you’ve got. Wood, pieces of wood, hollow chairs, give me anything!’ [Laughs.]” They rigged up a percussion tree with both legitimate and found instruments, and the sounds wound up making their way into two tracks on the album.
Blackman Santana also invited guest musicians to add their own musical voices, including Carlos Santana and [guitarist] John McLaughlin. “Carlos’ playing is incredible,” she says. “And he really knows how to play around a vocal to make me sound better than I sound.” [Laughs.]
She adds, “John McLaughlin, wow, he’s playing his tail off. I’ve got to bow every time I hear that one. He sounds so incredible… So those two supreme beings have blessed our music with their presence and their vibration.”
Other guests include Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. “Those two play together. [The song is] called ‘Evolution Revolution.’ Those two are killing it,” says Blackman Santana. Neil Evans, Matt Garrison, Benny Rietveld, Bill Ortiz, and others are also featured on the album. Instrumental parts were recorded in Vegas, with vocals tracked in Walden’s studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. They recorded much more than one album’s worth of music, and Blackman Santana hinted at a “part two” that could be released down the road.
But no matter how far she branches out, or what instruments she chooses to use to express herself, jazz will always be the music that makes her heart sing the loudest.
“You take Charlie Parker, and you take 32 bars that he played of that song — one chorus today, one chorus tomorrow, one chorus from last month, and one chorus from last year, and they’re all going to be completely different and completely great,” she says. “[But] it’s the same tune. So that, to me, is what makes creative music, jazz music, improvisational music at its highest, that’s what makes it, to me, the greatest music on the planet.”