In 1984, cindy blackman santana was featured on jazz trumpeter ted curson’s radio program, jazz stars of the future, on wkcr in new york city—30 years later, santana has more than validated curson’s prophetic title. Having worked with such music icons as ron carter and joss stone, not to mention her 14-year stint with lenny kravitz, santana has crafted a career that has made her one of the most accomplished and influential jazz drummers of our time.
“Jazz does have a special place in my heart, and it always will. I am a jazz musician—I’m a bebopper, that’s what I am,” says Santana, spending the day at Guitar Center Las Vegas. “And I can say that, ’cause it’s true, but it’s interesting that that wasn’t the first music that I started to hear, or that I started to learn on drums—but once I heard that, I was just transported. You know, we had a family friend who was a drummer … and he played with Jackie McLean … he turned me on to Max Roach … and he wrote out this pattern, and it was Max playing his ride cymbal, two and four on the sock cymbal, four/four on the bass drum, and he was playing triplets in the left hand … and I was like ‘Whoa’—that was the first time I had ever experienced that—I was 12 or 13 at the time, and so I was really taken by that … I was totally hooked on jazz. I was totally hooked on creative music, you know? And I’m wired to love that, because I love creativity … that’s my key, it’s my ticker, it makes me go, it’s my engine, it makes me think, it makes my heart beat with passion … it’s like life to me, you know? The creativity.”
Santana was fortunate enough to grow up in a very musical household, an environment that exposed her to a plethora of various genres and artists. “When I was coming up, there was a lot of music in my house. My dad listened to jazz, so there were a lot of records that he had. My mom—though she doesn’t play anymore—she was a classical violinist, and she loved classical music, so, she would take me to classical concerts all the time … my oldest sister loved everything, so she had a 200-plus record collection—an incredible collection—of everything from Miles Davis to Sly & The Family Stone, to James Brown, to Chaka Khan and Rufus, to The Beatles, to John Coltrane, you know, she had so much stuff and such a hip record collection, I would just get lost in her room for hours just listening … so my scope has always been really vast in terms of what I could not only appreciate, but what I would take in, and what I would ingest, and what I would be influenced by. So, the creativity and the freedom of jazz is what’s at the core of that for me.”
That creativity Santana associates with jazz music is more than just a perk of the genre—for her, it is a necessity as an artist. “You know, creativity is like breathing fresh air for me. It’s like drinking clear, fresh water,” she says. “I feel awakened, and I feel sparks that tingle in my hands, in my head, in my heart … so it makes me want to play. It makes me want to create. And when I sit down at my kit—and that’s why I’m very specific about the cymbals that I play, the drums that I play, the drum heads that I play—’cause when I sit down, and I hear melody and tone in the drums, when I hear melody [in my cymbals], I just wanna sit down and create—I wanna sit down and play, you know? And so, I need that. I need to be inspired. I need for my mind to dance with musical thoughts.”
To help inspire those musical thoughts, and to satisfy her specific needs, Santana relies on Gretsch drums—an iconic company in the world of jazz music. “There’s a great history with Gretsch drums, there’s an incredible lineage, because so many incredible drummers made so much innovative music on those drums … all those drummers—and I’m talking about Art Blakey, Max [Roach], Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, all these drummers—Jimmy Cobb—they all played Gretsch drums. There were very few great drummers that didn’t play Gretsch drums, and so there’s such an incredible history with that sound. And there’s a reason that those drummers played those drums, because they sound very musical, you know? So, for me, it was a very easy choice to play Gretsch drums.”
According to Santana, “What I look for in drums are warmth, great tone, the ability to keep a note, and to be able to tune the drum to a specific note—not just a relative pitch … projection, feel and, of course, the overall sound has to be, for me, very, very rich … and that’s why I play Gretsch. A lot of times, people play drums because they’re free, or because they’re cheap, or because they’re this or that or whatever reason … but for me, if a drum doesn’t inspire me to be creative, if it doesn’t make me want to play it, then I don’t have use for it, ’cause I’m not gonna want to sit on it, and stay on there all day. But a drum that makes me feel like playing melodies, and playing grooves and just experimenting over the kit—that’s something that excites me to my core, so I always look for that in every piece of gear that I play.” Santana adds, “It’s part emotional, it’s part practical because it has to sound great, it has to feel great, and it doesn’t hurt if they look good too,” she laughs.
In today’s music scene, where electronic elements such as pitch correction, quantizing and drum replacement are becoming more and more common, Santana maintains that the organic—rather than the synthetic—is what keeps her passion alive. “I love raw—that’s my favorite thing,” she says. “When something is too polished, or when it’s too fake, I don’t get inspired by that. Plastic doesn’t inspire me—but silk does. Cotton does. I think that when you replace the drums completely with electronic sounds—and even if it’s a human performance with electronic stuff—that’s not so inspiring to me, you know, because it takes away from a person learning a craft—learning how to get a sound of an instrument—’cause that’s the thing … and I learned that at a very young age because my grandmother—she was a classical pianist, she was really great—and the first thing that she ever taught me was that the dynamics and the sound you should make yourself. She did not believe in pedals … she didn’t use sustain pedals and she didn’t use dampening pedals, because she believed that if she was gonna make a note long, she’d play it long. If she was gonna make a note staccato and short, she’d play it staccato and short … she said, ‘If you’re gonna make something happen, you need to make it happen, because you are the divine architect of your music. Of your sound.’ And I believe thoroughly with my whole heart that she was right.”
Santana continues, “You know, there’s a pride in [pulling sound out of your instrument]. I talk with my husband, with Carlos, about that. And he tells me about Armando Peraza, the great conguero, and he says Amando was proud to play drums with his hands. He said, ‘I don’t use sticks—I get the sound out of the drum with my hands.’ And I feel the same way … I pull the sound out of the drums … there’s musicality in that, there’s heart in that, there’s development in that, there’s a process in that. And it’s a craft. It’s an art. And that’s one that I don’t wanna see die.” She adds, “Sometimes Miles Davis tuned his trumpet a little bit flat, and played it in tune. But that’s him—that’s his human soul that he put into that. That’s his feeling that he put into that. That’s his ear that he used to hear that. And we lose that, if we depend completely on electronic devices to give us that sound … and so, I don’t wanna lose that.”
And just as Santana was inspired by her drum heroes, she hopes to pay that forward to the next generation of up-and-coming percussionists. “If somebody walked up to me and said they wanted to sound like me, right now, in Guitar Center, I would thank them … [I would say], ‘Well, thank you very much. And through that inspiration, have fun finding you.’ ’Cause that’s what it’s all about, you know? And we need, sometimes, different roads to follow, different inspirations to have, to get to us—to get to ourselves. And that’s all well and good, that’s all fine. Just as long as the goal is to get to ourselves.”