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On The Corner Masthead


January 4, 2017 | by Rusty Aceves

Cindy Blackman Santana - photo by Jimmy Bruch

Here's a closer look at the life and music of Cindy Blackman Santana.

If there is one artist on today’s music scene with the passion, fire, and percussive mastery to do justice to the legacy of the late Tony Williams, it is undoubtedly Cindy Blackman Santana.

Made famous by her 10+ years providing the bone-deep grooves behind Lenny Kravitz, Blackman has distinguished herself as a highly versatile player and composer who is as comfortable leading post-bop sessions with Joe Henderson and Wallace Roney as she is touring with pop stars like Kravitz and husband Carlos Santana.

Making a life-defining connection with the drums at age 7, Blackman Santana attended Connecticut’s prestigious Hartt School as a pre-teen and discovered jazz at 13, taking inspiration from the hyper-speed polyrhythms of bop master Max Roach. A visceral experience with the power and grace of Tony Williams at a music store clinic exploded Blackman Santana’s notions of the role of drums in jazz, and inspired exploration of the limitless possibilities of the instrument when played by a force of nature like Williams. It was seemingly inevitable that while attending Boston’s Berklee School of Music, Blackman Santana would seek out the tutelage of renowned drummer and educator Alan Dawson, who mentored many of the world’s most accomplished jazz drummers over his four-decade educational career including Tony Williams.


Upon moving to New York City in the early 1980s, Blackman Santana was exposed to the jazz scene at a pivotal time for the music, when established veterans like Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Jack DeJohnette, Louis Hayes, and others were still actively performing at the same time that a rising crop of young lions were establishing themselves. Blackman Santata certainly counts among the very best of that younger generation, blazing new trails while seeking the counsel of many of her heroes, Blakey and Williams looming large among them.

The drummer began an illustrious tenure with trumpeter Wallace Roney in the late 80s, contributing a pair of compositions to Roney’s 1987 debut Visions – a record featuring none other than Tony Williams as a guest artist. She made her own debut as a leader the following year with 1988’ Arcane, a powerful hard bop session boasting an all-star lineup of Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, and Larry Willis. As Blackman Santana’s profile as a bandleader grew in the 90s, she got the call from Kravitz, and an audition over the phone catapulted her to worldwide recognition – appearing in the hugely popular video for Kravitz’ “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” The clip cemented her fiery musicality and signature visual style into pop culture history. Capitalizing on this recognition, the Volkswagen corporation featured her in a number of memorable television ads for their cars in 2008.

Several of Blackman Santana’s records bear the marks of Williams’ influence, including her stellar 1998 HighNote quartet session In the Now, which included Williams’ legendary Miles Davis quintet rhythm section partner Ron Carter on bass. In his review for JazzTimes, critic Bill Milkowski wrote: “In many ways, Tony Williams was Cindy Blackman's spiritual father, certainly her biggest role model. His passing has inspired the drummer-composer to go deep within and reflect on Tony's contribution as well as her own gifts. The result of that introspection is her most profound and heartfelt statement to date.”


In 2010, Blackman Santana paid tribute to the influence of Williams in a most direct way, releasing Another Lifetime, an explosive salute to Williams’ electrified Lifetime period with a band including guitarist Mike Stern, organist Doug Carn, and saxophonist Joe Lovano, among others. The album balanced material from the Lifetime songbook with a pair of new compositions dedicated to the late Williams entitled “40 Years of Innovation” and “And Heaven Welcomed a King.”

Another Lifetime was followed in 2012 by the all-star band project Spectrum Road, which revisited the Lifetime material with a group consisting of Blackman Santana with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame, and bass legend Jack Bruce, who was a founding member of Cream and also performed with Williams’ Lifetime band in the 1970s.

Here's Cindy Blackman Santana and her band, performing the music of Tony Williams: