Drummer Cindy Blackman says she was in elementary school when she first discovered jazz. Looking through her parents’ LP collection, she came across some Pete Fountain records and was smitten. Today, she is at home playing hard bop to jazz-rock fusion. Recently, I spoke with the talented musician and learned more about her jazzy rhythms.
You see four men at a table—Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Shelly Manne, and Max Roach—but you only have time to talk to one; which one?
Art Blakey, of course! He’s the top level of everyone in my estimation. It’s interesting because when Bird and Diz started the small groups, which was the birth of bebop, the drummer who played with them actually was Art Blakey. As much as I love—and he’s also a hero of mine—Max Roach, and I’m crazy about Philly Joe Jones, and certainly love Shelly Manne, too, Art Blakey was the drummer because he was in the Billy Eckstine Band. When they started breaking off into smaller situations and smaller groups, the first drummer to play with them was Art Blakey.
You immediately said Blakey. Is there a special connection with him?
I was really blessed to have a great father-daughter mentor relationship with Art Blakey. I called him my papa and he called me his daughter, his kid. I was over at his house all the time. He taught me so much, not just about the drums, but about life, too. And I miss him dearly because he was such an incredible inspiration and force on the scene. When he passed away there was a big hole in the jazz scene because he provided an incredible forum for young musicians to strive and to be able to come and not only see, but participate, sit in, and then be chosen to join his band. That was a great place for young people to want to be and go. And he was a great mentor and father in terms of not only teaching but helping to mold young musicians. Jazz history is Art Blakey and all the musicians who played with him, from Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, to all the younger people who are my peers. So Art Blakey, hands down, is the one I’d go to talk to.
What music do you like, other than jazz, that might surprise people?
I don’t know if this is much of a surprise but I love traditional Brazilian music. It’s so pretty. I love classical music. There’s a lot of Indian music that I’m into. I love Gregorian chants. There’s a lot of new music that’s coming out of India that’s really cool. I was exposed to some of that the last year or two. And that sounds really cool. Those are some of my favorite types to listen to but I’m open to anything that inspires me. So if I hear traditional Chinese music and I hear a melody in there that I love, I’m in. In Korea about two years ago, I played this international drum festival and they had drummers from all over the world and an African combination dance troupe, which was incredible. That was my favorite thing. They had drummers from China, Japan, from India. The whole event was incredible pleasure in terms of music.
When you look at young musicians do you ever think, “Yeah, I recall that feeling”?
I have done that before and I recall that energy of wanting to play everything I know in two seconds!
It’s funny because [drummer] Ed Blackwell said something like that to me once: “Yeah, I love your playing. You bring a lot in a short amount of time. You could take all those things that you’re playing and space them out a little more.” I thought, “I don’t want to space them out anymore.” But sometimes that’s right. The thing is, what we learn is, the music is what dictates whether we play things in a dense nature, a sparse nature, or not at all. The music is the key that controls that and it’s not our ego, our do-list. I learned this, so I want to play that. It’s not that. If it’s any of those things, you’re not serving the spirit of the music.
Are you a dancer?
Yes! I love dancing. At one point I took tap dancing while I was living in Boston because through my investigations about all my favorite drummers, most of them danced. I thought “OK!” because they sound like they’re dancing when they’re playing. Art Blakey sounds like he’s dancing when he’s playing; Buddy Rich sounds like he’s dancing; Tony Williams sounds like he’s dancing; Elvin sounds like he’s dancing; Roy sounds like he’s dancing; and Billy sounds like he’s dancing. So I took tap. I found a great teacher who was really incredible. I love dancing around the house and love the feeling of dancing. When you evoke that in the spirit of the music and in your playing spiritually, mentally and physically, then the music takes on another shape. It starts to feel joyous. It doesn’t feel like a heavy piece of lead or like you’re wearing cement shoes. It feels inviting. It seems to make the molecules of the music smaller, and when molecules of anything are smaller they can infiltrate and can be felt easier, so I not only feel better but I’ll be able to touch people in a deeper way.
Are you a different drummer/person in 2014 than you were when you first expressed music?
Yes and no. I don’t mean to sound wishy-washy but when I first expressed music I had a very innocent, joyous enthusiasm, love, and desire to play music. That I haven’t lost, thank God. I so love playing music, making music, and making people smile when I play music, making people feel good. I so love touching people. That hasn’t changed from the time I was seven, and didn’t know how to explain that, but that’s what it was, till now in 2014 at 17 [laughs]! In that respect, I’m the same person. I’m a more evolved person now in that I feel and see that my outlook, my perspective and my tastes have matured and changed. My goal with myself is to obtain progressive revolution, progressive change within myself that’s in the most positive way. I feel I’m achieving that, so my core values are the same but the scope of them is larger. I was talking to my cousin about this the other day. My small hometown values are the same. The telescope in which I look at life, at the universe, at music, at myself is a whole lot bigger.