Born November 18, 1959, Blackman comes from a musical family, both her mother and grandmother were classical musicians and her uncle a vibist. "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," says Blackman. "My dad was into jazz -- Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, people like that." Blackman's first introduction to the drums happened when she was seven years old in her hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio and attending a pool party at a friend's house, she went to use the bathroom and saw a drum set and just hopped onto the set. "It was incredible," says Blackman. "Just looking at them struck something in my core, and it was completely right from the second I saw them," says Blackman. "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 her first introduction to drums at her friend's house, Blackman began playing in the school band and was able to convince her parents to get her a drum set of her own while she was still only seven. "Of course those would be broken up in a matter of days," Blackman says. "The only thing I heard at home was, 'we don't know if you can play drums because one, they're noisy, and two, they're very expensive." Some people ask why she didn't study violin or flute like other girls. "I learned very early on -- when I was 13 -- that when I concentrate on those attitudes, I don't make progress for myself," says Blackman. "If they're not paying my mortgage, I don't care what they think."
Cindy Blackman became engaged to legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana, who proposed during a concert of the Universal Tone Tour at Tinley Park, Illinois, Chicago on July 9 2010.
When Blackman was 11, she moved to Bristol, Connecticut and studied at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. Blackman began to have an interest in jazz at age 13 after listening to Max Roach and got her first professional drum kitset at 14. "Jazz was the thing that was most intriguing because of the challenge that was involved," says Blackman. "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!'"
Drummer Tony Williams was an early influence. "The first drummer I ever saw, where I got to feel the impact up close, was Tony Williams," Blackman said. "When I was 16, Tony came to my local drum store with a bassist and did a [drum] 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." Blackman says that the way the Williams used all four limbs to attack the drums strongly influenced her. "I just love and loved everything about Tony," says Blackman. "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." But although Blackman is sometimes referred to as a disciple of Tony Williams, she follows her own path. "On the one hand, it doesn't bother me at all to be associated and in line with a master of the instrument like that – Okay, I might not be where I want to be, but I'm on the right track," says Blackman. "On the other hand, I don't plan on being a clone. What I'm doing is always looking to expound on something that he's done, or push the music in a different way."
Blackman moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music with Alan Dawson, one of Tony Williams' teachers. "Alan's method was incredible in terms of getting your independence together, getting your hands together," says Blackman.
While she was at Berklee a friend recommended her for a gig with The Drifters so Blackman left college after three semesters and moved to New York City in 1982. Blackman worked busking, as a New York street performer but also got a chance to watch and learn. "I looked for Art Blakey, I looked for Elvin [Jones], I looked for Philly Joe Jones, for Roy Haynes, for Tony Williams. I saw so many great drummers, like Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes. I saw Al Foster play quite a bit, Billy Hart, Jack DeJohnette. All these people, they’re in New York so I got a chance to watch them do their thing."
While in New York, Art Blakey became a significant influence. "He really was like a father to me. I learned a lot just watching him. I asked him a lot of questions about the drums and music -- and he answered all of them. He was fantastic," said Blackman. Blackman initially encountered resistance to a woman playing drums in the jazz world. "I’m a black woman, so I’ve encountered racial prejudice, and I’ve encountered gender prejudice. I’ve also encountered prejudice against my afro when I wore that out. But I’ve also encountered prejudice against my musical opinions. What I’ve learned to do is completely ignore that."
In 1984, Blackman was showcased on Ted Curson's "Jazz Stars of the Future" on WKCR-FM in New York. In 1987, Blackman's first compositions appeared on Wallace Roney's Verses album. When an executive at Muse Records heard Blackman's recordings, he offered her a recording contract to lead her own project. In 1988 Blackman released Arcane, her debut as a bandleader. Her band included Wallace 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.
In 1993, Blackman had an opportunity to work with Lenny Kravitz. Blackman in New York talked to Kravitz in Los Angeles on the phone, played drums for him over the phone, and Kravitz asked Blackman to fly out to LA. "Lenny asked me can you play something for me over the phone," Blackman says. "So I put the phone down and I started playing something like, BOOSH-bat-bat, BOOSH-BOOSH-BOOSH-bat, and I went back to the phone and I said, 'Can you hear that?' He said, 'Yeah. Can you fly out to L.A. right now?'" "I flew out the next morning. While I’m downstairs waiting for the instruments to come from the studio, these people started coming in. First 12, and then like 30 more. I was like, 'whoa, this is an audition'. I ended up playing and instead of staying for one or two days, I stayed for two weeks and did the first video that I did with him, Are You Gonna Go My Way. Apart from 2004, I played with him ever since."
Blackman had previously only played jazz shows and was unprepared to play for an entire arena. "The first time I played in a really large concert with Lenny was at an outdoor festival called Pinkpop. We played for like 70,000 people. It was in the summer so most people had just t-shirts or tanks, a lot of guys had their shirts off, so you just see skin and hands and they’re doing this wave thing. I almost lost it, my equilibrium was teetering. I wasn’t used to seeing that many people; I was disoriented; I just had to stop looking and start focusing."
Blackman says that playing with Kravitz and playing jazz are different. "My job with Lenny is a different thing. My job is to play a beat for hours, and make it feel good, and add some exciting fills and exciting colors, when it fits tastefully," Blackman says. "My job in my band or in a creative situation is a totally different thing. We may start with a groove that feels great, I may play that for hours too, but I’m going to explore and expand and change that, play around with the rhythm and interject with the soloists." "I like dance music and I like making the music feel good," says Blackman. "To drive an audience of 100,000 into complete oblivion by playing a groove so strong ... I love doing that. I love the chance to show versatility."
In an article published May 1, 2004, NPR reported that Blackman had recently left Kravitz's group to focus on her own music. "I love danceable music, and I love big fat beats and I really dig rock 'n' roll," says Blackman. "But jazz is my heart, it's my love, and I've never left jazz in mind or spirit."
In 1994 Blackman made her first recording with a working group and called the album Telepathy because of the tight communication in the band. "I wanted to do a quartet record because of the amount of space you get with fewer players," she said 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."
In 2005 Blackman released Music for the New Millennium on her Sacred Sounds Label. "It’s rooted in tradition, but it’s not traditional music. It’s explorative, very creative, very expressive, and we really try to expand any ideas we have that everything is played over the forms, but we like to stretch it, and really see the colors and make the music grow and move," says Blackman. "We experiment — but it’s never free. Everything is written out. I have charts for all the songs. We expand on what’s there, and stretch harmonics and note choices."
Blackman continues to make her home in Brooklyn in New York City. "It’s always such an amazing place, with every level of musical accomplishment, you can see complete beginners and you can see innovators. That’s why I live in New York. Not only is it tough, but all the greatest people have come through New York," says Blackman. Blackman prefers to play jazz in small, intimiate clubs. "It's an acoustic situation. You are close-knit and you are creating one hundred percent of the time -- so to me it just doesn't really get any better that!" Blackman also travels extensively conducting drum clinics. In September 2007, she made a tour of South America, teaching clinics in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, and on November 30, 2007, Blackman and her quartet performed at Art After 5 at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Blackman is a rarity as a female jazz percussionist. "In the past, there were a lot of stigmas attached to women playing certain instruments," Blackman says. "I think a lot of women stick to particular instruments, like piano, that are acceptable, so that lessens the playing field in terms of how many women are out there. And let's face it, boys' clubs still exist. But I care nothing about that at all. I'm going to do what I'm going to do musically anyway." However Blackman draws on the role models of her mother who played violin in an orchestra and her grandmother who was a classical pianist and does not let stereotypes deter her. "God forbid I should be limited to only play my drums in my basement; but if that's all I had, that's what I would do," says Blackman. "Any woman, or anyone facing race prejudice, weight prejudice, hair prejudice ... if you let somebody stop you because of their opinions, then the only thing you're doing is hurting yourself. I don't want to give somebody that power over me."
Blackman is adamant that musicality has nothing to do with gender. "The gender question is not even worth bringing up because the drums have got nothing to do with gender," Blackman says. "I'm there because I love to play music. And I'm in support of anyone who wants to play the instrument. I wouldn't care if Art Blakey was pink with polka dots and wearing a tutu. I wouldn't care if Tony Williams was green." "There are people who have opinions about whatever and whoever, in terms of gender, in terms of race and weight, hairstyle, religion," says Blackman. "But to me, your personality influences what you play and what you do, but everything else is for you to develop and to nourish and to take further, and that's where I'm at. In terms of my goals, me being a female drummer has nothing to with anything except for the fact that I wear bras and panties and guys don't."