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'It's what I am designed to be:' Cindy Blackman Santana on her musical journey
Hari Sreenivasan: The great jazz drummer Max Roach once said: "I think that the rhythm sections -- drummers in particular -- are the unsung heroes of the music."
Unsung perhaps, because they seldom step from behind the kit and into the spotlight. But after decades in the business, one prominent percussionist is stepping out, with a recent release that defies categorization.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato has the story.
Tom Casciato: You might say Cindy Blackman was born into her vocation.
Cindy Blackman Santana: There's this music thing that's, you know, running through the veins of our -- of our family. And mostly the women.
My mom is probably my biggest influence ever.
She played violin. she totally understood my desire for playing music. And her mom was also another incredible lady. She was a classical pianist.
Tom Casciato: I think a lot of parents, one might even say most parents want their kids to be musical. But I don't know if most parents want drumming in the house.
Cindy Blackman Santana: No, they don't. When I first said that I wanted to play the drums, they said they're loud, and they're expensive. I had to beg for a year to get drums.
It was one of those like really cheap student model kits. And before that, I had the little Beatles, kits from Sears, you know, they had the little blue Beatles design on the front and on the bass drum head.
Tom Casciato: She recalls being 11 and visiting an amusement park near her Connecticut home, where it wasn't the rides that attracted her.
Cindy Blackman Santana: I heard music. So, of course, I gravitated over there and I tried to walk in the door thinking I could get in with my little ticket. And they said, you can't come in, you're a minor, you know, because they were serving alcohol.
So I snuck around to the side window and I peeked in and I saw this guy with these hands like fast as lightning and like, whoa, who's -- who's that old guy?
Tom Casciato: That "old guy" was a legend: Buddy Rich, and the music he played was jazz.
She began to see a path for herself. It led next to a drum clinic where she heard jazz-fusion pioneer Tony Williams.
Cindy Blackman Santana: And then when he walked out, you know, he had the attitude, which was so confident and so full of life and energy. It was just incredible. And then when he played, I'll tell you, all my friends were into Star Wars at the time. And I went to see Star Wars. To me, it was boring after seeing Tony. That's how incredible Tony Williams was.
Tom Casciato: Soon the young drummer was accepted to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, and from there moved in 1982 to New York, where some great jazz pioneers still plied their trade.
Cindy Blackman Santana: That was an incredibly special time because Miles was walking around and alive and well, Dizzy...Elvin … Max …Dexter Gordon …. Art Blakey.
Tom Casciato: Blackman befriended and played with Art Blakey. And before the decade was out, she was leading jazz groups, and cutting albums of her own.
Along the way, her musical identity solidified.
Cindy Blackman Santana: I'm a jazz musician. That's who I am. I just can't stop it. It is what I'm designed to do, what I'm designed to be. It's who I am.
Tom Casciato: She didn't mind, she says, that women drummer role models were in short supply at the time.
Cindy Blackman Santana: There weren't any women to look up to, but I didn't look at drumming like that, so I didn't feel like I was blazing a trail. I just felt like I was following the music that I loved. And, you know, I was following the drummers that I loved. I didn't care if they were women, men or whatever.
Tom Casciato: And what about the way you were treated? Did you ever experience sexism as a drummer?
Cindy Blackman Santana: Oh surely, yeah, definitely. But, you know, I mean that's nothing that I align myself with for very long because it has nothing to do with my intention, has nothing to do with my heart, has nothing to do with my playing. I really learned very early on just to roll that off.
Tom Casciato: So you started leading your own bands. You're playing jazz. You're playing with great jazz players. And all of a sudden you wind up in a video with Lenny Kravitz doing "Are You Gonna Go My Way." That's not jazz, Cindy. I don't want to be the one to break it to you.
Cindy Blackman Santana: No, my friend. That is not jazz. You know, I hadn't really thought about a rock gig, but I liked rock. So I was OK with that.
Tom Casciato: From that point on, this jazz drummer's palate just got broader. She later joined a band known for its explorations of Latin rock and more: Santana.
Carlos Santana on video: She's a great drummer, she used to play drums with Lenny Kravitz.
Tom Casciato: The group's leader was her future husband.
Carlos Santana: There's a rumor going around that she's going to be my wife.
Tom Casciato: She brought an explosive style to the band.
Carlos Santana: Cindy is like Bruce Lee on drums, because she's very devoted and dedicated and disciplined. And so they ain't nothing cute about, you know, Cindy playing drums.
Cindy Blackman Santana: You know, the drums is the seat that really propels the music. You know, drums are the driving force. And we do it acoustically. You know, where if you're playing, you know, an instrument with an amp, you can just turn that down. You can turn that up or down. The drummers, you know, we do that with these.
Tom Casciato: Cindy Blackman Santana's latest project is a new album: "Give The Drummer Some." and to call it "eclectic" almost understates the case.
It includes fusion, pop, hip hop, and of course, jazz.
Narada Michael Walden: She has a very distinct sound that she loves, a lot of command of her instrument.
Tom Casciato: Grammy-winning producer Narada Michael Walden worked with her on the album.
Narada Michael Walden: And she's very fastidious how she wants her things to sound.
Tom Casciato: The record also has something brand new for her: lead vocals, including her unique take on John Lennon's "Imagine."
Narada Michael Warden: You know I was thinking of it as a message that I liked and that I wanted to play in a in a rock funk kind of way.
Tom Casciato: Doing a rock-funk "Imagine" might be something a young jazz drummer never imagined, but at this juncture of her career it makes perfect sense to Cindy Blackman Santana.
Narada Michael Walden: You know, drummers, we play with so many different people. Our job is to make that band sound as great as possible, And so we have to adapt. with different rhythmic situations, with different textural situations. And, you know, I just really wanted to put out a record of a collage of things that I love.