A Love Supreme: Carlos Santana and Cindy Blackman Santana on Coltrane, Miles and Making Music Together

Drummer Cindy Blackman Santana and her husband, guitarist Carlos Santana, make their best music where the currents of jazz, rock, funk, blues and world music converge. That’s certainly the case for the latest album featuring this married musical duo, Give The Drummer Some. It’s a leader project by Cindy featuring Carlos on guitar on eight tracks, as well as a couple of appearances by fellow six-stringer (and Mahavishnu Orchestra founder) John McLaughlin. The album was released on September 18.

In advance of the album, the Santanas stopped by the JAZZIZ Live Stream to discuss the making of the new album and their shared affinity for Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Speaking with JAZZIZ Executive Editor Brian Zimmerman, Carlos and Cindy also traded stories about Woodstock, playing with Lenny Kravitz, meditating with Alice Coltrane and more. Below is an excerpt of the conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: First of all, how is everybody doing during this age of lockdowns and social distancing?

Cindy Blackman Santana: We’ve been doing very well, actually. We do a lot of meditation. We listen to a lot of music, and we really take this time to look inside, to pray, to send healing energy to the world and to people who need it.

JAZZIZ: Cindy, this album is your debut as a lead vocalist, isn’t it?

Cindy: Absolutely. It happened very organically. I certainly wasn’t planning on doing that much singing at first. And it was Carlos who convinced me to. And then the songs just kind of came very naturally.

JAZZIZ: Carlos, you are featured on eight tracks on this album. Considering Cindy’s jazz background –  she’s played with everyone from Ron Carter and Pharoah Sanders to Kenny Garrett – did this session feel more like a jazz recording session or a rock session?

Carlos: You know, I have never looked at it like this kind of recording session or that kind of recording session. That’s kind of looking at it like a swimming pool. I don’t look at it like that. I look at it like a lake. I take a deep breath in play from the heart, and whatever it is it is. Miles and Coltrane and the people that I love, they don’t call it jazz. They call it life. We play life.

JAZZIZ: One thing I love about this album, Cindy, is that it reunites you and Carlos with John McLaughlin, who makes an appearance on a couple of these tracks. What was it like to play next to such a guitar powerhouse?

Cindy: He is exactly that. He’s got so much exuberance. And he’s an innovator not just of guitar but of music. To be in his presence since is enlightening, because he’s got so much facility yet so much heart. This album really lets my love for guitar players shine.

JAZZIZ: Carlos, how did Cindy react when you encouraged her to sing?

Carlos: Well it all started with being with a car ride from San Francisco to Napa for the weekend. We always put on the music and it’s always the classic quintet stuff: Miles, Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony. Cindy is singing everyone’s parts. And I looked around like, dang! It sounds great! But aside from that, the wonderment that I’m hearing in her voice – it’s like a singing diamond child, you know? And I’m like, I don’t want to be pushy or imposing, but you have an amazing voice. The timber of your voice, the timing in your voice. And I told her she should consider singing on her next CD. So I just went in there hoping that I would be able to share that experience with her. Because there’s certain kind of people that sound like … the language of light, and the power of a tornado or hurricane or earthquake, but in a positive way.

JAZZIZ: What is it like to listen to jazz with Cindy?

Listening to jazz with Cindy is crystallizing in this particular past time that we share. It’s crystallizing intention, mode and purpose. There’s an old saying: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” And I used to think, “If nothing’s new under the sun, why the hell get out of bed?” And I’d listen to people like Miles and Coltrane and think there’s nothing more I could say. You can’t improve on perfect perfection, right? But then I think of jazz, which requires that a musician be unknown in our predictability. So when I see someone like Keith Jarrett sit down on the piano and have a totally blank mind just play. It’s like streaming big chunks of galactic, universal heaven. So when I listen to jazz, it’s like, “Oh, that’s what it is, man. We have been blessed with a thirst to discover the unknown and curiosity to do the unpredictable. And that’s what being with Cindy is. We were constantly listening to Coltrane and just continually being astonished.

JAZZIZ: Cindy, I know Tony Williams, who Carlos mentioned, was a huge influence on you. Tell me about the first time you heard Tony and what impact he had on your drumming and on your career.

Cindy: Growing up, I had a friend who told me, “If you want to be a drummer, you have to listen to this guy.” And so he took me over to his house and put on a record of Tony Williams. And the record just blew me away. It was Miles in Europe. I went to school the next day and was telling everybody about this drummer, Tony Williams. I couldn’t stop talking about him. And then about a week or so later, a couple of friends of mine said, “Oh, you know he’s about to do a drum clinic on Sunday nearby?” And so I begged my mom for a ticket. So she took me, dropped me off.

And from the first note, Tony just completely blew me away. He blew my socks off. I mean, it was just so incredible. His sound, first of all, just the way he sat behind the drums was amazing. Just from looking at his stature on the drums. Seeing how he hit them, he wasn’t messing around. When he sat down and played, it was another world. I remember Star Wars coming out, and all of my friends were going to see Star Wars. And I was like, no, I gotta practice drums. That’s how much Tony inspired me.

JAZZIZ: Carlos, I’m curious, how did growing up in San Francisco affect the direction of your music?

Carlos: I was really blessed to be in San Francisco, which was ground zero for consciousness, illumination, exploration. I mean, it was San Francisco, so we’d go out listening to music and we’d be taking acid and Mescaline. It’s Haight-Asbury, man. And you’re listening to Charles Lloyd and you’re listening to John Handy, you’re listening to The Doors and you’re listening to Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar. It was mind-expanding music, you know?

JAZZIZ: Who were some of your earliest mentors?

Well, one musician for sure was [percussionist] Armando Peraza. He was one of my main gurus. He taught me so much, and not just about music. He taught me how to deal with royalty checks, the business side of things. He was the first one to tell me, “You do a lot more than just play the guitar, man. You’ve got to start looking into who’s booking the planes and the hotels, things like that.”

Carlos Santana (left) with Alice Coltrane (Courtesy Last.fm)

But one of the first ones also was Alice Coltrane, who invited me to her house for about a week. And she would play from 2 o’clock in the morning to four – playing the piano, then the harp, you know. And that was where I learned how to be in a place where you can really quiet the “monkey mind.” I remember during one meditation, I was actually seeing and hearing John Coltrane coming at me with two scoops of ice cream. And he says, “Carlos, have one.” And this is all internal, you know. A spiritual vision. And I’m looking at him with this ice cream. And I hear Alice’s voice say, “Thanks, John.” And I’m like, “How can she know what’s happening inside my meditation?” Cause it’s silent, you know?

So I took a lick of one of the flavors and John says, “That’s a B flat seven diminished.” And I’m like, “Whoa.” And I hear Alice say, “Try another one.” It was incredible. And I was blessed to be there. But it’s just so important, because as a musician, you’re supposed to bring the inner world into the outer world and help people believe that they can have access to it too. That’s the artist’s job. I know a lot of people say, “Well, Santana was really too far out for me.” That’s okay. My craziness is happening. How is your sanity working for you?

JAZZIZ: I would love to hear about Woodstock. First of all, Cindy, as a young musician, were you aware of what was going on at Woodstock?

Not at all. I’m from Yellow Springs, Ohio, wo I was playing on my street, you know, doing stuff that kids do. I had no idea. I think my oldest sister, she must’ve known about it. But for me, I didn’t have any inkling.

JAZZIZ: And Carlos, how did they pitch this concert to you? Just some big jam at a farm in Upstate New York?

[Promoter] Bill Graham invited the whole band out to this house and sat us down and said, “Look, what’s happening to The Doors. And Jimi and Sly.” And I’m thinking, “What do you mean what’s happening with them?” And he’s like, “The playing mega states. They’re getting bigger than they can handle.” And he thinks we can do it, too. And so he’s telling us about this festival. And he says, “After you play this festival, you will never be the same.” We go, “What do you mean?” And he’s literally walking us through the psychological things that were going to happen with us.

So we play the fest. And I actually have no idea what happened because I was under the influence – or on top of the influence, as I say – of ayahuasca, mescaline, LSD, whatever I took in front of a hundred thousand people. It was a miracle that I could actually articulate. And I actually didn’t even know what happened on that stage until I saw the movie they made of it.  And of course, it blew me away. And I’m not even talking about Santana’s performance or even The Band. I’m just talking about the energy of the thing. There was a certain energy that for me was everything. I mean, just think of Sly Stone. Even though he went on at 2:30 in the morning, it was Sly, Jimi Hendrix and Santana and everybody else can fight for fourth place.

JAZZIZ: Carlos talks about making this huge leap from not having recorded an album to playing Woodstock. You made a similar huge leap when you were tapped to play with Lenny Kravitz in the early ‘90s. How did you end up playing with him?

It was a big, big leap. It started with my friend Antoine Roney, a great saxophonist. He called me up one day and said he was talking to his friend Lenny, who needed a drummer. And I said, “Who’s Lenny?” I mean, I had no idea who Lenny Kravitz was.

And Antoine said, “Oh, he’s the guy who’s married to Lisa Bonet.” And looking back, I’m like, “Why didn’t he just tell me he was a rock musician?” Anyway, Antoine tells me that Lenny is into Miles. And I figured I’d go out and meet him just because of that. Anyway, a few months go by and I don’t really hear anything. And then my phone rings and it’s Lenny, and he goes, “Do you have drums set up in your apartment?” And I said yeah. And he said, “Well, can you play some?” So I put the phone down and I played.

He said, “I’m in L.A., can you fly out here right now?” I flew out and it was a full-scale audition. And there were about 40 drummers at this audition. And I had, you know, jet lag. I didn’t sleep that much the night before. I was excited about the trip and everything. And so I went outside on the lawn and fell asleep on a lawn chair. The next thing you know his assistant is coming up to me and saying, “Oh, Lenny was looking for you. Your audition was supposed to start already.”

So I rushed in and played and I hear Lenny say, “I’m calling the audition off. I’m going to take Cindy.” I mean, he had like 39, 38 other people out there waiting to audition. But he still preferred my playing. So I had about two weeks to learn all the music. And at the end of that, we did the first video that I did with that band, which is probably one of my favorite videos ever: “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”

JAZZIZ: Carlos, when did you first meet John McLaughlin?

We were in between two sets at the Fillmore, and this gentleman who was like a valet for B.B. King caught up with me and says, “Hey, man, what are you up to now? You want to go to Slugs? Tony Williams is playing there.” So we hop in a cab and walk in and the energy was so intense, and the music was so loud. My face became like, like, an astronaut leaving the earth. And so the set ends and they take a break and John McLaughlin gets off the stage and comes straight to me. And he grabs me by the arms and takes me outside and goes, “Santana, right?” And I tell him yes and that I love what he played on the Wayne Shorter Super Nova album with Sonny Sharrock. And then we just got to talking about Coltrane and Bill Evans, and all of a sudden we were like forever brothers. We loved the same things.

And so I went back in for a second set, and, let me tell you, I’ve seen Cream and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix – loud, you know – but I have never heard anything quite like what that trio [with John on guitar, Tony Williams on drums and Larry Young on organ] was putting down.

JAZZIZ: Cindy, in the ‘80s, you were playing with trumpeter Wallace Roney, a real disciple of Miles. Did you ever get a chance to meet Miles during that time?

Cindy: Oh my gosh, I have some great Miles stories. I mean, Wallace and I came to New York around the same time, in the early ‘80s. He adored Miles, and he’s one of my musical heroes, too. And so we were trying to find Miles. So somehow we found out where he lived and we got in my car and we drove over to Miles’ house. And we sat out there for hours in Wallace’s station wagon, and I had this letter that I wrote to Miles and everything. Cause I wanted to play with him, you know? And so we just waited.

Miles Davis (Photo by Pool BENAINOUS/RENAULT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

And finally, I went up to the doorman and said, “Hey, do you think Miles is coming out soon?” And the doorman tells me that Miles just called down for his car. And then I see Miles come out, and I run up to him, and I say, “Hi, my name is Cindy Blackman. I want to play drums with you.” And he just goes, (mimicking Miles voice) “Yeah?” And so I’m shaking, and I give him the letter, and that was the last I heard of it.

But then one day I get a call from someone. And remember, we all loved Miles at the time, so everybody in New York would be mimicking Miles’ voice. And so I get a call and I hear this raspy voice on the other end of the line, and I’m like, “What friend is this?” Is it Kenny Garrett? And then the voice says, “It’s Miles.” And that’s when I knew, because even when you mimic him, we’d never say his name. So I started sweating I was so happily nervous.

He told me that he was looking for a percussionist. So he invited me over to the Essex House where he was living on 59th street. I dashed over there. And when I get there I see the door is cracked open, and so I put my shoes over in the foyer and then he comes around the corner. This apartment that he had was like a circle. So he comes around in front of me and he says, “Come on in.” It was such an amazing moment, you know? And I walked in and I sat down and we talked for like four, almost five hours about music. He talked about Bird. He talked about Max Roach. And he talked about Tony Williams and how much he adored Tony.

JAZZIZ: And you guys had an Art Blakey connection, right?

Cindy: Yeah, I was with Art Blakey almost every day because I babysat for Art’s kids. And Miles loved Art as much as I did. And so when I brought that up it was like Miles turned into a little boy. And I said, “Do you want to talk to him?” Cause I had his phone number. So we called him up and, unfortunately, Art wasn’t home, so Miles didn’t get to talk to him. But we stayed talking, you know, about everything – art, movies. It was that day was probably one of the most incredible days of my existence – in every lifetime.

JAZZIZ: Carlos, when did you first meet Miles?

Tanglewood. And again, this was just Bill Graham going, “You want to open for Miles Davis? Okay, I’ll make it happen.” And Bill, like Clive Davis, just knew how to get things done that I didn’t know. And so he puts together this program and it’s Santana, The Voices of East Harlem and Miles Davis. And Miles Davis shows up in this yellow Lamborghini. And he had probably already heard from Bill Graham that I was a total Miles Davis nut. And so he came right at me, and gave me this gift. And we just became friends from that moment on. I had this big poster of him and I went and got it and I said, “Miles, would you be so gracious as to sign this for me?” And he grabbed the pen and he signed the picture: “To Carlos and the greatest band.” And I was speechless.

I’ve been around a lot of bands and a lot of musicians. And let me tell you, there’s nothing like having Miles Davis just look at you. Those eyes, man. He was such a gracious guy. He always went out of his way to validate my existence. He gave me confidence. Because no matter what anybody else thought of me, I would just think, “Well, Miles likes me, so I don’t give a shit about what anyone else thinks.”

JAZZIZ: How would you like to see his legacy continued?

Carlos: Cindy and I have talked about this. I would just love to see, in Manhattan, a store that just sold Miles and Coltrane. And you walk in and you can hear their instruments and you can hear the music and see what they wore. I mean, look, they have stores for headphones and sneakers. Why not have the same thing for Coltrane and Miles? Like a museum. They’re that important. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Einstein and Tesla – geniuses, all. And that’s how we feel about Miles and Coltrane.

JAZZIZ: Thanks to you both for being here.

Carlos and Cindy: Thank you. This was beautiful.

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