Believe It!

Cindy Blackman’s Tribute To Tony Williams

By Jared Cobb // Photos by Eddie MallukOriginally published in DRUM! Magazine’s May 2010 Issue

“Hey! You!”

Uh-oh, she’s busted. It’s 1979 and a wide-eyed 20-year-old Cindy Blackman is about to get booted from the Kennedy Center. Having slipped in the back door, blending in among the other musicians making their way inside, she’s been sneaking up and down the Center’s vast hallways searching for her musical idol, the great Tony Williams. He’s playing tonight, along with a grab bag of other legends, and despite not having a ticket to the show, the young Ms. Blackman couldn’t bear to miss it.

“Hey! Hold on there a minute!” The man approaches quickly, intently, while Blackman fumbles through her mind for an excuse. With all these icons on the billing she couldn’t possibly say she was playing tonight. That would never fly. Looks like the adventure is over.

“That a stick bag?”

Blackman rushed straight here from a gig and yes, it is a stick bag slung over her shoulder.

The man, now standing face-to-face with her, is surprised, inquisitive.

“Got any brushes in there?”

Of course she does. Relief washes over the man’s face. His body relaxes.

“I’m the drum tech for Tony Williams and I forgot to pack brushes in his stick bag. Dizzie Gillespie wanted brushes on the ballad in the first set but I forgot to pack them. If we could use your brushes that’d be great.”

“Are you kidding?” exclaims Blackman. “Tony can have my brushes! He’s who I’m here to see, he’s my idol. Can I come too?”

And in that instant the talented up-and-comer leaps from stealthy stowaway to beaming stage guest. After another sizzling set from Williams the two drummers shake hands and exchange numbers and birth what will become a lifelong friendship, forever rooted in the complex beauty of jazz drumming.

Musical Mentor. Most people think of Cindy Blackman as the hard-hitting, high-styled beat goddess for Lenny Kravitz. While the work she does under that bright spotlight is undeniably impressive, dig deeper into the career and craft of Blackman and you’ll find a highly trained, super-skilled veteran of the jazz world with all the technical chops and historical perspective necessary to earn whispers of the title virtuoso .

A long-time staple of New York’s downtown jazz scene, Blackman has studied under Alan Dawson, and her friendship and tutelage with Art Blakey runs deep enough for her to refer to him as Papa. Conjure up a list of top jazz artists and odds are Blackman has held the throne for them at one time or another or included them somewhere on her string of acclaimed solo works.

Her latest project, Another Lifetime, is a fresh and fantastic tribute to her biggest drumming idol, Tony Williams. The record serves to remind us not only of the technical mastery of one of the drumming world’s ultimate legends, but also of the genuine love and appreciation that both Williams and Blackman share for what many consider the art’s highest form.

“For me,” explains Blackman, “it’s important to honor Tony’s accomplishments and his level of artistry. In my opinion he was born a genius, because he was so great at such a young age. He’s the epitome of the true sense of the word genius. And I felt that honoring him has been sorely lacked. I appreciate that Jack DeJohnette did it, but Tony never really got a send off, and that’s unfortunate. So I wanted to really shed some light on the fact that this man was such an accomplished musician and composer.

“So many things on the drums – and in music – that we take for granted are innovations of his, that he pioneered. There’s a whole school of not only drumming, but musicality that he extended. I hear rock drummers play 4/4 on the sock [hi-hat] cymbal all the time and when I ask them if they ever checked out Tony a lot of them never have. ’Well, you’re playing one of his innovations, you should check him out.’

“I admire Tony because he was such a schooled musician and drummer and he never stopped learning, never stopped striving, never stopped creating. He did so many things and never rested on the fact that he was such an incredible musician at such an incredibly young age. I respect that.”

Blackman channels her admiration through 11 of her favorite Tony Williams tracks. Another Lifetime came together quickly as Blackman has been hearing and playing these tunes all of her adult life. In fact, narrowing the list of songs became the biggest challenge.

“In choosing tracks for Another Lifetime,” Blackman recalls, “I went with songs that were my favorites that were not too difficult to get together quickly, to arrive at a band sound quickly. When you’re putting together a project with really complicated music and you don’t have a lot of time, you want it to sound good and you want everyone to have fun and be able to create over it with the right vibe. So I chose pieces that would accomplish those things more easily.

“There were some spots in these songs to kind of create and make some things happen right there on the spot. And that was important because that’s what Tony’s band was doing, they were creating. And I wanted to capture that vibe. When you do a tribute or homage it’s easy to just play what was there and nothing else. But if you put yourself into the time and mindset of those artists – and especially Tony – the music gains a certain feel and a certain energy.

“’Vashkar,’ which became kind of our theme song because I like it so much, we played a few different ways. We ended up with three different versions on the record. The reason we did that is because if Tony Williams Lifetime played ’Vashkar’ tonight it would sound one way and if they played it tomorrow night it would sound different in some way. If they played it three sets in a row it would be different in every set. So I wanted to capture that feel.

“I wanted this to be creative. Jazz is creative music.”

Innovator. It can be argued that no drummer better exemplified the creative capacities of jazz drumming better than Tony Williams. Every single aspect of his playing – from his phrasing to his right hand to his on-throne personality – raised the art to a new level. Blackman has studied these details down to their finest ghost note.

“For me, one of the first and foremost things about Tony is his sound. And he was a sound innovator. The things he did with his limbs elevated the language of the drums, thereby giving us so many choices and liberties with which to work. His right hand is a complete study in itself. He elevated Art, Philly, Elvin, and Max’ right hands into a whole other level of playing. His right hand is very lean and it pushes the beat. He took lines that were played on the snare drum and played them with his right hand. He elevated what would be a simple turnaround on the right hand into making a statement based on the music he was playing.

“His left hand is a study in itself as well. The comping that he did with his left hand was again based on that big band era, but he elevated it. And the bass drum as well. Different rhythmic statements, different meters, playing strokes in fives and threes and sevens, making comping statements on the bass drum as if it were his left hand. And playing 4/4 on the sock cymbal, making sounds that hadn’t been played before, rolls that created a wall of sound. The way he used the whole drum kit as an instrument that was full of so many different colors, it was a complete musical statement. And that hadn’t been done before to the extent that Tony did it.

“His move to bigger drums was another sound innovation. What he did with big drums was very melodic. He tuned them to notes and pitches, so his music took on another element. He wasn’t just hitting on things to hit, he thought about what he was playing.

“You can play one note and if it’s a well-placed note and the sound is right you don’t have to play anything else.”

The Way Of Tony. Blackman has been studying and practicing The Way basically since she first saw him perform live. She was 16 at the time and while the clinic provided a platform for her to talk with Williams, shyness and nerves overcame her and the two drummers would have to wait another four years for their Kennedy Center introduction.

“When I first heard Tony play live I knew right away that was the direction I had to follow. The way he sounded, his technique, the tone of the drums, his bravado and attitude, his musicality, everything was exactly where I wanted to go. So that influence has never left me.

“Tony’s playing is so articulate, and very metronomic – but not in a stiff way. He swings so hard, he grooves so hard. He’s like a walking metronomic piece of feel-great drumming. It’s so right on. Even when he pushes, it’s so right on. He lays it back, it’s right on. It all feels so good and I’m so floored by everything he played. I sit with my drums and go over that stuff, I work on it and practice it. It takes time, time alone with your drums. You’re not going to just sit down and play like that. It’s drumming at its highest level.

“His attitude and stature behind the kit was like a Buddha. Very straight up and down with his posture, which is good for preventing injury, but it also affects your energy and the way you sound. Tony played in a very linear way. His ride cymbal he played physically very linear. He physically held his sticks very linear. It’s a great lesson because you eliminate any extraneous movements and wasted energy when you play very directly like that.”

Her Own Drummer. But that’s not to say Blackman is or aspires to be some form of Tony Williams clone. If he taught her anything, it’s the importance of originality. So Blackman drives forward, taking the things she’s learned and, just as Williams did before her, pushing them further to different directions and expanding everything in the simplest ways possible.

“I want to expand on the lineage of what these great drummers have done,” says Blackman. “When I think of Tony I’m not just thinking of him, I’m thinking of everybody that he came through. I want the music to be understandable and accessible to people to who don’t listen to jazz, but it still has to have the innovation, the creativity, the quality of sound, the musicianship, the technical difficulty and intricacy that creative jazz music has.

“To me, it’s the highest form of music that can be played. Movement in direction, color changes, mood changes, innovation. I want each instrument to have a sound quality that is indicative of an innovation. I want the music to have controlled freedom. I want to play with musicians who can understand and create over form with discipline, but also have it sound so free and creative and welcoming to new things at any moment.

“I’m constantly looking for other sound innovators, just as Tony did, to play with. People who can hear new things and understand this kind of innovative music and go for it. I loved watching Tony as a bandleader. Watching him lead his bands live was great. True to form, Tony comes in, sits down, counts a tune off, and it is go. And if somebody wasn’t with it, that’s just too bad. As soon as Tony started it was on. Of course he had a great band, so those cats were right there with him, so it was amazing to see.

“I saw that Tony gave direction, but I also saw how he could let things happen, which made the magic. It made the band sound even greater because he was able to trust the people he was playing with. And that definitely influenced how I lead my bands. I try to direct and show leadership but I also like input from everyone else because that’s how you get to true creativity.”

Storyteller. Cindy Blackman oozes old-school vibe, and talking drums with her quickly, blessedly, becomes a one-sided conversation where it’s best to just sit back, get out of the way and listen to the stories roll out. Like the one with Miles Davis …

“All my friends knew that Miles Davis was one of my heroes and that I wanted to play with him. So they would call me all the time pretending to be Miles and mimic his voice. It was fun. So I get this call one day and someone says, ’Is Cindy there?’ And I’m like, ’Wallace is that you? Gary? Stop playing. Who is this?’

“’This is Miles.’

“And as soon as he said that I started sweating. I was nervous because I knew it was him. A lot of people mimic his voice but nobody says his name like he does. When he said it’s Miles I was at attention. He told me he was looking for a percussionist to fill out some gigs on his tour. I don’t even play percussion but I said, ’Of course.’

“He told me to come over to listen to the new record. He lived out on 59th Street at that time. I get there, knock on the door, and the door is ajar. Nobody answers and there’s a sign on the door that says: Please remove your shoes. I knocked a couple more times and nobody came so I pushed the door open and saw all these shoes, like 100 pairs of shoes, in the foyer. I took my shoes off and went in. It was a rounded building with windows facing Central Park and a ton of his paintings laying around, some wrapped to go to galleries, some on easels, some leaning against the wall.

“To my right he kind of stuck his head out and motioned for me to follow him. I was so nervous. His new record at the time was A Man To Love and he had the music on a cassette, just raw tracks – rhythm tracks, bass tracks – and he would sing parts for me to play. And I’ll never forget it because the diction with which he sang those percussion parts was so clear and in the pocket, it was incredible. And it’s been in my head ever since he did it.

“Then we started talking, basically about three people: Donald Byrd, Art Blakey, and Tony Williams. Miles loved Tony so much. He said there’s only one Tony and talked about how great his sound was and about his fire. He had a tremendous amount of respect and love for Tony and I could feel it in the way he talked about him. We talked for probably five hours.

“Apart from hanging out with Tony, that was the greatest day of my life.”

The stories keep rolling. They could roll all day and night. Blackman’s experiences make her, in a sense, a keeper of the flame for the old jazz masters. And here comes another story, the one with Art Blakey …

“I once went to the Vanguard to see Tony and his quintet play and I’m sitting on the side on a bench we used to call Drummer’s Row because it’s where all the drummers would sit and watch. Elvin Jones or Tony or Jimmy Cobb would come to play and we’d all hustle over there to watch.

“So I’m sitting there to watch Tony and of course Drummer’s Row is packed – there really isn’t any space for anybody else to sit. And in comes Art Blakey. I hadn’t even noticed he’d come to the club because I was watching Tony, and I felt a push and Art pushed whoever was sitting next to me out of the way and sat down next to me and put his arm around me.

“’Hey Cindy.’

“And Art was my papa, I love Art. And we’re sitting there watching Tony and he put his arm around me and started tapping on my shoulder. It was grooving, it was great and Art was digging it – that’s a tribute to Tony in itself. But Art was tapping to the groove on my shoulder and it became this incredible lesson.

“I heard and felt where Tony felt the beat – with his right hand pushing the groove in that articulate, linear style – and where Art Blakey felt the beat, which was behind the groove. They were both right on but to feel where each of them felt that pulse on two different sides of the beat was incredible. It was nothing I had to read or hear someone talk about. It’s something I could feel.

“Art Blakey’s tapping his feel on my shoulder and Tony’s playing his feel right in font of me! Man it doesn’t get any better than that! I’ve been so blessed and I thank the Universe for all these beautiful things I’ve been able to experience. That was incredible.”

Last Brush. You can feel lessons like these seeping through Blackman’s performances. Most of us are stuck with a book, YouTube, maybe a DVD, if we’re lucky a good – or possibly great – face-to-face lesson or two. But Blackman was taught in a much more spiritual way, from the inside out, really, creating a talent steeped in history and affection.

And while she continues to press forward, elevating her art and searching for more stories to create and pass along, her precious time shared with the great Tony Williams has come to an all-too-early end. The sounds and the memories will have to last.

“The last time I saw Tony was at the Birdland in New York. It was pretty incredible. He was playing with his trio and at the end of the night I was standing around waiting for him, just to say hi, and when Tony finally came out we gave each other a hug and started talking. Then Tony grabbed my hand and he was squeezing my hand really tightly. It was incredible. He was squeezing it so hard – it was an incredible feeling.

“He asked if I’d be in New York next month because he wanted to talk to me about something. And he’s still squeezing my hand, even while I introduced him to a friend who was with me. It started to feel uncomfortable so I kind of tried to pull away a little bit. And he wouldn’t let me. He pulled me back to him and kept squeezing my hand, for almost ten minutes, just squeezing.

“When I think about it I can still feel him squeezing my hand.

“And right after that he passed away and I wonder if his higher self knew, because he didn’t let go of my hand.

“That was the last time I saw him.”

Editor’s Note: To read the Tony Williams cover story article we published shortly after his death in 1997, click here.

Cindy’s Setup

DRUMS: Gretsch USA Custom
18" x 14" Bass Drum
14" x 6.5" Snare Drum
12" x 8" Tom
14" x 14" Floor Tom

CYMBALS: Istanbul Agop Cindy Blackman Om Series
15" Hi-Hat
18" Crash
16" Crash
22" Ride
20" Crash/Ride

Cindy Blackman also uses Remo heads, Vic Firth sticks, DW hardware, LP percussion, Protection Racket cases, and Beatnik Rhymic Analyzer.

Groove Analysis: Blackman Channels Williams

Cindy Blackman found endless inspiration in the drumming of her mentor and friend Tony Williams – the drummer who, with his group Lifetime, arguably invented jazz-fusion, and yet also worked with rockers later in his career. If you’ve seen Blackman’s excellent drum video Multiplicity, you will have noticed two things – the songs she plays are memorable and Williams’ influence permeates her drumming. Her CD Another Lifetime is an homage to Williams and his influence on her and on the drumming world.

DRUM! Notation Guide

“40 Years Of Innovation”
For this rock-oriented spoken word song, Blackman plays a drum solo transcribed here in its entirety. She uses lots of signature Tony-isms: a crescendo single-stroke roll that fills the space but isn’t quite metrical, flam triplets around the toms and on the snare, fast multiple bass drum notes played with just one foot. If you’d like to add a few tasty Williams licks to your repertoire, here they are!

“There Comes A Time”
This song has some interesting feel changes in the groove. Williams begins with a jazz-shuffle ride pattern and ghosts snare notes on the ah’s then shifts to a quarter-note triplet feel implying a new, quicker tempo (of course, the tempo change is just an illusion). She uses sixteenth-notes later, which briefly takes her part out of the deep triplet feel she’s established for yet another momentary temporal manipulation.