Born November 18, 1959, in Yellow Springs, OH. Education: Attended University of Hartford, Hartford, CT, in the mid- 1970s, and Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, in the late 1970s. Addresses: Record company--Muse Records, 106 West 71st St., New York, NY 10023.
Exploration, experimentation, and improvisation characterize Cindy Blackman's career and the jazz music she writes and performs. Both her mother and her grandmother were classical musicians, and she fell in love with music at an early age. But Blackman's career has never followed any traditions.
Born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1959, Blackman started playing drums as a child. She moved to Hartford, Connecticut, at the age of 11, and in high school she began classical percussion training at the University of Hartford. When she saw drummer Tony Williams perform, she began to define her own ideas about percussion. "The first drummer I ever saw, where I got to feel the impact up close, was Tony Williams," Blackman told Chip Stern in the liner notes of her 1992 release Code Red. "When I was 16, Tony came to my local drum store with a bassist and did a clinic that left a powerful impression on me. And that's what I thought drumming should be: drummers should have a lot of impact and a great sound, without being limited to a conventional role in the band--the drums should speak just as freely as anybody."
After she graduated from high school, Blackman moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. While there, she trained with Lennie Nelson and the late Alan Dawson. But after just three semesters, she felt stifled by the confines of the college classroom. Blackman decided to leave convention behind. She picked up her drums and sticks and moved to New York City in 1982.
During the first couple of years in New York, Blackman played everywhere she could. She performed late night jams at the 55 Grand Club, where Jaco Pastorius would often invite her to play with his Word of Mouth group. She played the after-hours jam sessions that trumpet player Ted Curson organized at Manhattan's Blue Note Jazz Club. She also accompanied saxophonist Sam Rivers with his trio and big band and played some shows with pianist John Hicks and trumpet player Hugh Masekela. And for two consecutive summers, Blackman played for contributions on the sidewalk of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, near the New York Public Library, with a jazz ensemble led by George Braith. "That was cool because we'd start at noon and go till like six or seven," Blackman recalled in Down Beat. "You were able to get like a couple of days of straight playing in just one day. It was fun, for me, and a good experience."
In October of 1984, Ted Curson presented Blackman's talent on his "Jazz Stars of the Future" showcase on WKCR-FM in New York. From there, she started promoting her composing ability. Her first two compositions appeared on Wallace Roney's Verses album in 1987; each one reflected Blackman's early influence, Tony Williams. When Joe Fields, an executive at Muse Records, heard the recordings, he offered Blackman a recording contract to lead her own project.
Blackman released Arcane, her debut as a bandleader, in 1988 and launched her career as a composer, bandleader, and acclaimed jazz drummer. Her band included Roney on trumpet, Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Buster Williams and Clarence Seay on bass, and Larry Willis on piano. When she'd finished recording Arcane, she went on to write for the Jackie McLean Quartet. "He told me to think of his group as my group featuring him," Blackman told Cliff Preiss in the liner notes for Arcane. That same year, she played drums for saxophonist Joe Henderson at the Mt. Fuji Festival in Japan, which featured the original jazz giants of the Blue Note record label. "It was a drummer's dream," Blackman told Musician. "Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Max Roach were all there."
Between her own albums, Blackman worked with Larry Coryell's quartet, bassist Brian Torff, pianist Stanley Cowell, and Don Pullen's trio. Then, in 1990, she went into the studio to work on her second album, Code Red. Around the same time, Blackman's friend and mentor, Art Blakey, died. She decided to record Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" in tribute to Blakey. "[That song] was one of Art's favorite tunes to play on," Blackman revealed in the liner notes for Code Red. "So in my mind, I dedicated this entire session to Art Blakey. That was pretty emotional for me, because Art was like a father to me. Before he even knew my name, I was his 'red-headed friend.' Art always looked out for me, and so I really felt his passing." In addition to recording "'Round Midnight" in tribute to Blakey, Blackman included a drum solo titled "Something for Art" and dedicated the entire album to his memory.
Muse Records released Code Red in 1992. This time, Blackman's band consisted of Steve Coleman on alto saxophone, Kenny Barron on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Roney on trumpet. Blackman also played drums on Roney's Obsession that same year. Later, Blackman formed a quartet to tour the United States and Europe for about six months. After the quartet of Jacky Terrasson (piano), Clarence Seay (bass), Antoine Roney (tenor and soprano saxophone), and Blackman finished the tour, they recorded What's New under Terrasson's name for Jazz aux Remparts. In September of 1992, the quartet began working on Blackman's next album.
In 1993, Blackman took another turn away from the career of a conventional jazz drummer. Her friend Antoine Roney introduced her to rock singer Lenny Kravitz, who happened to be looking for a drummer to tour with his band. Kravitz heard her play drums over the telephone and immediately flew her out to audition for the job. She spent most of the next year and a half playing on music videos and tours with Kravitz and established a firm hold on the rock genre. Blackman said in Pulse! that playing jazz and rock 'n' roll definitely requires two different mindsets. "[In rock], you're playing parts, not a groove. You're not quite as free to do as you see fit."
Blackman's work with Kravitz spread her name into new arenas of recognition and fame and set the stage for the release of her next album, Telepathy, in 1994. Her first recording with a working group, she named the album Telepathy because of the tight communication within the band. "I wanted to do a quartet record because of the amount of space you get with fewer players," she told Kevin Whitehead in Telepathy's liner notes. "It's intimate, but more dimensional than a piano trio. I'm really into this sound, and it was nice to play with a group that was a group. You can't help but have a better feel when the musicians know each other, are headed in the same direction, and have the same goals. You can make most everything work. You get chances to play a lot of colors, and really stretch your ideas."
Always expanding and exploring, Blackman continued to push the limits of her musical career, talent, and composition. She sees the drums as an instrument with a wide spectrum of potential. "The drums can be bombastic, a vehicle to really shake things up," she told Jim Macnie in Musician. "That's one of the things that initially attracted me to them. But they can be romantic and pretty and moody, as well. That range, and the exploration necessary to get it, is what I'm about these days."
by Sonya Shelton
Cindy Blackman's Career
Began playing New York jazz clubs, 1982; recorded her first compositions on Wallace Roney's Verses; signed with Muse Records, 1987; released debut album as a bandleader, 1988; recorded and performed with a variety of musicians, including Jackie McLean, Lenny Kravitz, and Jacky Terrasson.
- Selective Works
- Arcane, Muse, 1988.
- Code Red, Muse, 1992.
- (With Santi Debriano and Dave Fiuczynski) Trio + Two, Free Lance, 1992.
- Telepathy, Muse, 1994.
- Down Beat, December 1989; March 1992; April 1993; November 1994.
- Life, November 1994.
- Musician, December 1989; July 1994.
- Pulse!, June 1994.
- Vibe, September 1994; March 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Muse Records publicity materials, 1995.