Glenwood Springs’ Summer of Jazz features drummer Cindy Blackman
July 16, 2008
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” It was more than 40 years ago that Cindy Blackman pounded on drums for the first time. As she recalled the moment, she was laughing, appreciating it all over again.
She remembered being 7 and hanging at a pool party. She ran downstairs at the host’s house to use the bathroom, and just sitting there, almost waiting for her, was a drum set. Blackman glanced around and then hopped on.
“It was incredible,” she said.
Sure, she must have sounded terrible and was quickly shooed off, but it didn’t matter. Musically, she was home.
“Just looking at them struck something in my core, and it was completely right from the second I saw them,” she said. “And then, when I hit them, it was like, wow, that’s me. That’s completely natural for me. It’s like breathing for me. It didn’t feel awkward at all.”
After that, she explained, she “never wavered” from the instrument.
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In her more than 20 years of playing, Blackman has been a street musician in New York City, a drummer for Lenny Kravitz and even been the star of her own instructional drumming video. As a solo recording artist and backup player, she’s done all kinds of work. But it’s jazz that speaks to her like nothing else.
“I can’t let go of that,” she said. “That’s like saying, letting go of my nose. I can’t do that. That’s like my arms or my eyes. I can’t do that. They’re mine. Jazz is part of me,” she said.
No, she wasn’t kidding about that “never wavering” thing.
Her musical life started not long after that short, fateful drum session. By playing in bands at school, she was able convince her parents to buy her a drum set of her own. As a teen, she flirted with the idea of studying to be a brain surgeon or lawyer, but when she thought of how long she’d be sacrificing to studying, she balked.
“How many years? You mean I won’t be able to play my drums during that whole time?” she remembered thinking. “Uh, no. See ya!”
So off she went to the Berklee School of Music. She was searching for a fresh energy, for a level of play, for people in “a certain headspace.” And she found all that ” in New York City, that is.
While she enjoyed school, something was calling her to the Big Apple. More than learning history or theory, she wanted to play. After three semesters at Berklee, she left.
“I wanted to delve into the intricacies of jazz,” she said.
Soon, she was in the thick of it. Jazz isn’t an old art form, and so when she arrived on the New York scene in the early ’80s, so many of the genre’s founding fathers were still kicking it. She was listening to and asking questions of the best: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw and more. While it was Blakey that really took her under his wing, it was watching Tony Williams use all four limbs to attack the drums in his totally fresh way that truly influenced her.
“I just love and loved everything about Tony,” she said. “To me, not only was he a master technician, a master drummer, the innovator of the age, but also, he was a sound innovator. He had so many things that elevated the sound and the level of skill required to play this kind of music.”
While Blackman spoke of it at length, there’s no real way to describe jazz drumming in words. Take a listen at her website or see a YouTube video, and you can experience her going after these crazy drum solos, some three or four minutes in length. They’re heavy and dramatic with crashing sounds and beats that build up like no one’s business. At first, they feel almost messy, but then they bring you into a kind of chaotic rhythm, and it’s hard to break away.
That pattern, explained Blackman, is all part of the underlying foundation of jazz. This isn’t a shapeless art form at all, but a complex one, she insisted. She’s stretching the structure, weaving in, out and through it. Second by second, she’s playing over the bar line, changing textures and colors and emotions ” all while staying inside some semblance of a form.
“That’s advanced,” she said. “And you know, that’s why jazz is my all-time favorite music, and I think it’s the greatest music.”
She knows it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, though. This is a genre that’s underplayed and full of misconceptions. She conceded that it takes a certain level of openness, of adventure to like it. But then again, doesn’t everyone have that in them, somewhere?
“Because that’s life,” she said. “Life is liberating. Life is, you know, it’s adventurous. It’s freeing. It’s a lot of things.”
Tonight, as she suits up for yet another rocking performance, she knows exactly what she’s looking to do. She explained that, more than exposing someone to jazz or getting her name out there, she wants people to feel something. If someone is inspired, if only for a second, she’s happy.
“Oh my gosh, it’s the best thing in the world,” she said. “I feel so blessed, and I’m so thankful to be able to play music. It’s an honor, and it’s a blessing.”
And it’s just who she is.