Cindy Blackman-Santana: A Woman For All Seasons
by Fred Gretsch
A gifted writer named Nicole Williams Sitaraman said of Cindy Blackman-Santana: “Hearing Cindy play the drums is like a rapturous percussive tornado of sound. You just get swept away.”
That’s about the most succinct—and accurate—description of Cindy’s talent and versatility that I’ve ever heard. From the highest level of jazz improvisation to the most down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll grooves, Cindy plays it all—and does so with a unique cross-pollination of styles. That is to say, her jazz playing rocks, and her rock playing swings. It’s a musical marriage made in heaven.
And speaking of marriage, Cindy added the “Santana” to her professional name when she married legendary Carlos Santana in 2010—following an on-stage proposal by Carlos at the conclusion of Cindy’s drum solo during a Santana Band concert in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Cindy had been sitting in with the band when Dennis Chambers took a leave of absence.)
However, long before Cindy connected with Carlos Santana, she had established herself as one of the most successful drummers around. In particular she gained recognition and respect among the drumming community as the long-time touring drummer for rocker Lenny Kravitz.
But Cindy actually started out as a jazz drummer. She grew up in a musical household where jazz was the main fare, and she had the benefit of parents who encouraged her interest in drums rather than being daunted by it. She attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied with Alan Dawson—the legendary teacher of jazz icon Tony Williams.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cindy often cites Tony Williams as one of her greatest influences. From listening to him she learned how to be innovative and to allow the drums to speak with impact. After she moved to New York as a young woman she learned from the top jazz drummers who performed there, including Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones. In particular, Art Blakey became a significant figure in Cindy’s life. “He was like a father to me,” she once said. “I learned a lot just watching him, and I asked him a lot of questions about the drums and music. He answered all of them. He was fantastic.”
Regrettably but predictably, Cindy initially encountered resistance as a black woman playing drums on the jazz scene. She had to deal with racial and gender bias, as well as prejudice against her musical opinions. But she had a simple response: “I learned to completely ignore all that.”
Ignoring negative opinions led Cindy to very positive musical experiences, including work with a list of stellar jazz artists like Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Don Pullen, Hugh Masakela, Pharaoh Sanders, Sam Rivers, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Bill Laswell, and many more. In 1987 the first of her own compositions appeared on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s Verses album. This led to her debut recording as a bandleader: 1988’s Arcane, which featured a lineup of jazz luminaries including Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, Clarence Seay, and Larry Willis.
Cindy pursued her jazz leanings until 1993, when she connected with Lenny Kravitz. She was in New York; he was in Los Angeles, so she played drums for him as he listened on the phone. At Lenny’s insistence she flew out to LA the next day. She stayed for two weeks and appeared on the video for Kravitz’s mega-hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” She became his touring drummer virtually from then on, apart from 2004.
Having previously only played jazz shows in clubs and small festivals, Cindy was unprepared for the experience of playing at the stadium level. Her first gig with Kravitz was at an outdoor festival for 70,000 people. “It was in the summer,” she recalls, “so most people had just t-shirts or tanks on. I just saw skin and hands all doing this wave thing. I wasn’t used to seeing that many people. I was disoriented, and my equilibrium was teetering. I had to stop looking and start focusing.”
Explaining the difference between playing rock and playing jazz, Cindy says, “My job with Lenny is to play a beat for hours, make it feel good, and tastefully add some exciting fills and colors. My job in my own band or any creative jazz situation is totally different. We may start with a groove that feels great, and I may play that for hours, too. But I’m going to explore and expand and change it—play around with the rhythm and interact with the soloists.”
Even while anchoring Lenny Kravitz’s shows Cindy has also maintained her role as a jazz composer and bandleader. Her albums have included Telepathy (1994), The Oracle (1996), In The Now (1998), Works On Canvas (1999), Someday (2001), Music For The New Millennium (2004), and Another Lifetime (2010). She also has an instructional drum video called Multiplicity to her credit.
In addition to being a fabulous drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana is an intelligent, articulate, and gracious person. I’m proud that Cindy is a great Gretsch drum artist. I’m also proud to say that my wife Dinah and I consider her a personal friend.
More information about Cindy Blackman-Santana is available on her website. You can also find a selection of audio clips from her various albums there. In the meantime, you might also enjoy the following video clips.
Here’s a great drum solo from Cindy’s appearance at the 2009 Montreal Drum Fest, demonstrating her versatile rock and jazz abilities:
Another solo, from the 2009 Tam Tam Drum Fest.
Here’s Cindy soloing and also playing with her own band at the Leverkusener Jazztage, in 2013.
Cindy gives her own account of growing up on the drums. This clip includes a killer brush solo.
Finally, Cindy and husband Carlos Santana performed the national anthem this past June 7 before Game 2 of the NBA finals. The performance was aired live on ABC.