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The Boston Phoenix Limbering Up

Cindy Blackman's rock and jazz

By Jon Garelick

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  At 40, Cindy Blackman's at the top of her game as a jazz drummer. She's also at the top of her game as a rock drummer. In the former role, she's widely respected for a tense, ferocious, pulse-like drum style that draws from a variety of sources, but especially from the late Tony Williams. And she's a composer and bandleader who's made several fine albums (including the new High Note release Works on Canvas) that build stylistically on the mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet that Williams was a part of. As a rock drummer, she has for seven years toured and recorded with Lenny Kravitz -- with her versatility, she has proved to be the perfect drummer to drive and unify Kravitz's encyclopedic eclecticism. So Blackman has two audiences. Her fans in each are probably unaware of Blackman's double life.

"I grew up in a house where there was all kinds of music available," Blackman explains on the phone from her home in New York City. "My mom, when she was younger, played violin in classical orchestras, and her mom, incidentally, was a classical musician. My mom used to take me to see classical concerts. My dad was into jazz -- Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, people like that -- and my older sister was really into Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown. And my older brother was starting to get into John Coltrane, and then there was the music of my peers and my younger sister."

Blackman grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, where she was a regular in all the student bands. She took a summer session at the Hart College of Music in Hartford, and visited jazz great Jackie McLean and his wife Dolly's Artists' Collective in that city. By that time she'd been bitten by the jazz bug. "Jazz was the thing that was most intriguing because of the challenge that was involved. When I was shown that the drummers on these records were playing independently with all four limbs, I was like: 'Really?! Is that what they're doing? Is that what Max Roach is doing on that record? Oh! Okay!' "

So she went off for a few semesters to Berklee, where she studied principally with Lenny Nelson, transcribing drum parts from records and then playing them. And there were a handful of lessons with the legendary Alan Dawson, Tony Williams's teacher. "Alan's method was incredible in terms of getting your independence together, getting your hands together. And he was really sweet. At that time I was commuting from Connecticut, and it took me about two or three hours to drive to his house. And the first day I showed up early, so I was just waiting outside. And then when I went in he had prepared a lunch for me -- a sandwich and some juice. And we ate lunch and he gave me some material to read. Then we played."

From there, in 1982 it was on to New York, hooking up with McLean, playing with Sam Rivers, and studying drums in the clubs, night after night. There was Art Blakey, Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, "and my main hero, Tony Williams . . . I was really blessed to be in New York during that period because I was exposed to such great people, and not just drummers. Dizzy Gillespie was there, and Miles, Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Walter Davis Jr. And I could learn from them in a variety of ways, which meant watching and talking and asking questions, which was pretty incredible."

Blackman recalls one night sitting in the basement of Mikell's in New York with Art Blakey and his band between sets, telling Blakey that she felt stuck on her comping -- her licks, her vocabulary, felt tired. "He said, 'Go upstairs right now and get a seat next to the drums.' So I went upstairs, got a seat up close to the drums, and waited for the set to start. And when the set started he proceeded to play some of the slickest, hippest comping I'd ever heard. He would play something and look at me and wink, which meant: check it out. And then he'd play something else, kind of look at the drum, and let me know what it meant."

As for the difference in playing jazz and rock, "Rock music is stimulated by one and three and a backbeat; it's an on-the-beat kind of music. Whereas jazz is more upbeat. And in jazz drumming, I'd say four-limb playing is a requirement. Whereas in rock-and-roll playing, you can play three limbs and be the greatest rock-and-roll drummer in the world -- I mean, not me -- but, say, with John Bonham it didn't matter that he was playing with three limbs. That's what was required. It doesn't take away from him being a great rock drummer, because he was."

Does Blackman ever bring her jazz chops to a Lenny Kravitz gig? "I do it where I think it fits the music. I've been playing with Lenny for seven years, so I know him, and we're comfortable with each other, so I just make a decision if I think a particular thing fits. But in [jazz], where I'm able to interject my opinion any time I want to, I cross the borders more frequently."

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