Q&A: Cindy Blackman
Carlos Santana was on a break between the band’s latest round of Las Vegas shows and an upcoming tour of Japan and Australia, giving Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen a chance to interview drummer Cindy Blackman before the band returned to Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues (May 17, 19-21, 24 & 26-28). Cindy, who married Carlos in 2010, spoke about upcoming plans, as well as being recognized for musical merits rather than through a gender lens.
It looks like you’ve been on a two-month break between the last House of Blues shows and an upcoming tour of Japan and Australia before you come back to Vegas this month. How are you spending your time musically right now? What can you do on a two-month break?
We had a really hectic schedule, so the first thing I did was I just took a weekend and relaxed. I’m going to the studio again next week for my record, so I’ve been working on the music for that. Most of it’s recorded but there’s some new songs that we can record starting next week, and then some things that need lyrics and the vocal things need vocals, instrumental things might need a pad here or a pad there. But, yeah, I’ve been working on that and the following week we’re going to go into the studio with the Santana band and we’re going to start working on tracks for the next Santana record.
It kind of seems like there’s a strong direction that you all seem to go in with every new recording. How would you characterize this one?
A lot of African influence. I mean, he’s got African influence in all of his music anyway. You know, with all the percussion, all the rhythms that they play—but this is kind of another take on some of the music that’s come out of Africa.
What does that mean for you rhythmically? You work regularly with great percussionists often, but for this in particular with so much emphasis on rhythm, what does that mean for you? Are you the bedrock? Or do you get to do what you normally do and kind of brush strokes with your drums?
It’s some of both because this band, Santana band, has such a strong rhythm section. Paoli (Meijas) is the conguero and he’s just incredible, the rhythms that he knows and the conviction with which he plays them … and then Karl (Perazzo) on timbales and percussion. He’s just an amazing musician who also is really very rhythmically strong and plays with not only conviction but a lot of sensitivity to what’s going on around him as well. So you know there’s certainly me being the bedrock as the drummer, but then there are chances for me, and places and spots built in the music where I get to pepper things in a different way because those guys are holding down the fort, so to speak. There’s a lot of passing the ball in this band, and allowing each person especially in the rhythm section the moments to explore within, over the top of and around what everybody else is playing.
What about your own recording? Is this your first real solo-focused efforts since 2012’s Another Lifetime?
This my first solo effort since then, but I’ve certainly recorded several records with a bunch of different people since then, the latest being the Santana-Isley record which is going to be … that record is great. It’s all finished and when it comes out I think it’s going to really make some noise because Ronald Isley sounds incredible. He’s such a great singer. Carlos sounds amazing and the whole direction is really, really great. This record that I’m doing of my own is kind of a compilation of a lot of the things that I love and a lot of the musicians who I love. This one is a very guitar-centered record. It’s got a lot of great guitar players. John McLaughlin is on it. Carlos is on it. Vernon Reid is on it. My guitar player from my band, Aurélien Budynek, is on it. There’s some really beautiful pieces that are on there. There are some pieces that are just drums where I layered different percussive things. One morning on the way to the studio I thought, “I’m going to do some drum pieces but I don’t have any percussion,” so I was in the car and I called the studio and I said, “Do you guys have any percussion? You know, things for me to hit? Can you just grab me like some pots, some pans some bottles, trash cans, some trash can lids, boxes, you know, anything that can make a percussive sound?” I wish you could see the picture that we took of this percussion room that they made for me.
Did you come up with a name for this percussive behemoth you created?
I was just jokingly calling it my funky percussion rack because it’s very funky. I’m telling you, trashcan tops and bottles, and forks and spoons and all kinds of stuff. Just everything that could make a sound. Which reminds me of what I used to do when I was a kid. I used to find everything in the house and just make rhythms on them everything and anything that I could find.
Wow, it took you all the way back.
And that’s what this percussion room was. It turned into a room of stuff. I was, like, 7 years old again.
You often cite going to a Tony Williams drum clinic as one of the pivotal moments in your life. Can you describe the scene, and what it was like to meet him if you did?
That was the most incredible, and incredibly pivotal, moment in my life when I went to see Tony. I almost didn’t get to go because we didn’t really have the money for me to be able to get a ticket, and I begged my mom and begged her and begged her. I said, “Please, this drummer that I was talking about, he’s doing a drum clinic.” I didn’t know what a drum clinic was, really. I just knew that Tony was going to be there and I wanted to be there. My mom was so incredible. She got the money and she got me a ticket, and she took me and dropped me off, and I went in and my jaw dropped as I saw this man playing these drums with such ferocity, such incredible inventiveness and innovation, and astounding technique. The sound of his drums was just the most amazing thing that I had ever heard in my life.
Can you still hear them?
Absolutely, every day in my life. I can still see it right now. It was like watching a superhero. In fact he’s my favorite superhero. Even to this day, he’s my favorite superhero. You know, Star Wars was coming out and all my friends were talking about Star Wars. No kidding, I was bored. After Tony, it was boring to me.
You had seen your Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo on one person, and much more.
He took questions as most drummers do when they do clinics, and I raised my hand to ask a question and he looked at me and I opened my mouth to say something and nothing could come out. I couldn’t say anything. (Laughs) I was frozen. I couldn’t say a word. He was probably like, “What the heck is wrong with this little girl?” But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t ask a question. I stuck around upstairs at the drum store, drum shop, owned by Bob Gatzen, who was the inventor of the Noble & Cooley drums, or one of the guys, one of the partners, and he had this drum shop called Creative Music. This was in Wethersfield, Connecticut. … And so finally I’m thinking, “Oh, this is really getting to be a long time.” So I start walking from the front of the store to the back where the stairs were, and out comes Tony. And I was again taken aback, because I didn’t expect him to be walking out like that even though I was waiting for him. But when I saw him I just looked and my eyes got really big. And I said, (small voice) “Hi.” That’s all that came out and he said, “Hey,” and he just kept walking. And I felt that energy just like a whoosh of power that just walked past me. It was incredible. That was that was really a pivotal moment not only in my life of drumming but in my life just in development as a person because that set the direction that I knew I had to follow, at least had to chase that direction. And I felt that if I wasn’t chasing that level then I shouldn’t be playing drums. I should be doing something else.
Did he talk about how early he started playing? I think he played with Sam Rivers at 13 and Jackie McLean at 16.
He took some questions. I think most people were really in awe of him like I was, and so there was a lot of shyness going on. A lot of people, I could tell, wanted to ask questions but weren’t really able to, and I don’t know how Tony took that. You know, I have a feeling that he took it not in the way that that we all were feeling it. He probably took it like, “Oh these cats, they’re just not engaging. They’re not asking me anything.” But it was that we were so in awe it was very hard to. There were some questions, but honestly I don’t remember what the heck they were.
Did you did you ever get to talk to him before he passed away?
Absolutely. Fortunately we became friends. The way that happened was that I had played with Don Pullen at this festival outside of Washington D.C. and Tony played at the Kennedy Center in D.C. My friend Wallace Roney had played a gig in D.C. We met at the Kennedy Center to go see them, and we didn’t have tickets so we snuck in the back and I got there before Wallace did. I snuck in the back looking for him and looking to see if I could see Tony and I had my stick bag with me and it was slung on my shoulder, and I was walking around thinking, “OK, I snuck in here. I came in the back door. When somebody asks me what I’m doing who can I say I’m playing with?” And as I was thinking that somebody said, “Hey! Is that a stick bag? You got brushes in there?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Man, I’m Tony Williams’ drum tech, and I forgot to pack brushes. And on the first show he didn’t have brushes on the ballad, and Dizzy wants him to play brushes on the ballad. Can he use your brushes?” I said, “Are you kidding? He’s the reason I’m here! Can I come with the brushes too?” And he said, “Yeah.” By that time Wallace came around and we both went to the side of the stage. Tony used my brushes, and of course I didn’t want them back. He kept them in his bag and his tech Lee Ethier got us to the side of the stage and we watched that show, and that’s how I first met Tony, and we exchanged numbers that day. … One day out of the blue I called him, and then we just kind of developed a friendship.
Do you hear from a lot of female drummers that that tell you that you inspired them? You must be deluged with young drummers trying to communicate with you.
I hear from young female drummers and young male drummers. I just hear from drummers, which to me is a real honor because if people look at you as a drummer and not as a female drummer, or not as a black or white drummer, or a Jewish drummer or whatever, you know if they just look at you as a drummer, then to me, that’s a very good thing.
I don’t look at you as a black drummer or a female drummer but I do look at you as a conspicuously Afro’d drummer. You can’t miss that.
That’s hard to miss. And good thing, you know? I’m happy to have that aspect of myself.
I read an article about an indie band female drummer who said that you were her main influence, and I wouldn’t have thought to ask you the female drummer question but you gave her the confidence to be a female drummer or additional confidence. So although I think that you are an influence on drummers in general, you still have probably given many female drummers that extra confidence to go ahead and go for it.
Well, that’s an honor too but I hope I’ve given them the confidence to just be a drummer period and not say, “I’m a female drummer.” Because that’s a crutch and to me it’s almost making an excuse for who you are. If you’re a drummer, you’re a drummer. That’s all there is to it. Your hands either obey or don’t. And if they don’t obey then you have to do whatever it is to make them obey. To me, that’s got no bearing on gender. So I just hope that I inspire drummers to be drummers. When I was coming up and I was young I didn’t see any women playing. I just saw drummers, and you know the gender thing never entered my own mind until I started to play out and heard it from other people. And that was when I was 13. By that time it was too late because I was already in love with the drums and already had my course set for me, but when I was about 7 or 8 I was listening to a record and I look on the back of it—you know, sneaking into my dad’s jazz collection, which I did all the time—and the drummer was Connie Kaye with Modern Jazz Quartet. And I thought that Connie Kaye was a girl because I had a cousin who lived next door whose name was Connie. It didn’t faze me one way or the other. It just was who that drummer was. The only thing my parents said was, “Drums are loud and they’re expensive, so we don’t know if we can afford them and we don’t think we want to hear them.” That’s what I heard. I did a lot of begging to overcome the volume thing, with them saying they didn’t want to hear them, and I did a lot of begging to make them understand that it would be a good investment if they did.