Recently I was surfing through YouTube (as you do) and my attention was drawn to a thumbnail entitled “100 Most Skilled Drummers.”
I proceeded to sit through 15 minutes of drummers bashing away, all sorted into different categories; ranging from jazz to fusion to rock and metal. Most of the great names were in there, including some of my favourite drummers. However, as the video drew to a close, it occurred to me I didn’t see a female drummer in any of the categories displayed. This is a little surprising, considering there are female drummers who have made significant contributions to modern music. Let’s take a look at some of those drummers.
Cindy Blackman Santana
Cindy Blackman Santana is one of the world’s top drummers for coming up to four decades.
Blackman first came to prominence in the late 1980s, releasing her debut album in 1988 called Arcane on the Muse record label. This album included Kenny Garrett and Joe Henderson on saxophones. Wallace Roney on trumpet, Buster Williams on bass and Larry Willis on piano. Very much a straight ahead jazz record; a style of jazz which made a comeback in the late 1980s after two decades of fusion. Blackman’s drumming style had sprinklings of Tony Williams. Perhaps not a total coincidence, Blackman took extensive lessons from Alan Dawson, Tony Williams’ teacher when Tony was learning his craft.
Not hearing anything from Blackman for a few years, the next time I saw her was in an entirely different setting, as rock star Lenny Kravitz’s drummer! This was in 1994 for his hit Are You Going My Way. Her big afro hair working perfectly in the setting of the MTV rock video. Blackman would play in Kravitz’s band for eighteen years to both critical acclaim and great success. As a jazz drummer, Blackman also shared Tony Williams’ love for playing heavy rock music.
Besides her great work with Kravitz, Blackman continued to release jazz albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s, showcasing her compositions and working with the top musicians of the day. To go along with her straight ahead jazz credentials, Blackman has also worked with a number of interesting contemporary musicians in a variety of projects. For instance Spectrum Road released in 2012 featuring Jack Bruce (Cream), Vernon Reid (Living Colour) and John Medeski (Medeski, Martin and Wood).
Blackman married rock / jazz guitar legend Carlos Santana in 2010. She remains one of the top musicians on the scene today.
Terri Lynne Carrington
Terri Lynne Carrington is very much a contemporary of Cindy Blackman, having also arrived on the scene in the late 1980s.
Carrington released her debut album in 1989 called Real Life Story on Verve Forecast. Unlike Arcane by Cindy Blackman, Real Life Story was a contemporary album combining fusion with r&b elements. Carrington was able to call on John Scofield, Patrice Rushen and vocalist Dianne Reeves, with Carrington also singing on the title track. Real Life Story may have been Carrington’s debut on a major label, but her debut as leader came in 1981 when she was 16 years old! Releasing a straight ahead album featuring Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and George Coleman called TLC and Friends.
Carrington has worked with an incredible array of great jazz musicians. The term who’s who of jazz would be an apt description. Carrington has worked with Mike Stern, Bob Berg, Bunny Brunel, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks among many others. I saw her perform with Herbie Hancock and his group at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London many years ago.
Carrington is also an in demand “sidewoman” on other artists’ records and released a number of critically acclaimed albums herself. One of the highlights being The Mosaic Project, where she recruits a host of world class singers allowing jazz to meet r&b. The Mosaic Project won a Grammy for best jazz album in 2012, one of many prestigious awards in her career. Carrington won the Jazz Journalists Awards (JJA) for Drummer of The Year in 2020; in addition to other awards including Musician of The Year and Producer of The Year.
Carrington is also a founder and Artistic Director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice in Detroit. Carrington has an important place in modern music.
Better known as Sheila E, Sheila is one of the top drummers in the world of pop, latin and creative music since the late 1970s.
Sheila E comes from a musical family; her father is legendary percussionist Pete Escovedo who worked with artists the calibre of Woody Herman and Carlos Santana. Sheila started to make waves in the 1970s as a percussionist and made a significant contribution to Herbie Hancock’s Mr Hands LP in 1980. Sheila was also part of George Duke’s Band for four years and appeared on Brazilian Love Affair in 1979. Sheila is also remembered for being an integral part of Prince and His Revolution between 1984 and 1989. Her powerful drumming style and on stage persona was perfect for the mix of funk, r&b, pop and rock.
During the 1990s and 2000s Sheila E continued to be very busy, releasing seven albums and also turning her hand to directing. Sheila was part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band and also performed with American female icons Beyoncé, Cyndi Lauper and Gloria Estefan. Sheila received a Lifetime Latin Grammy Achievement award in 2021 and in 2023 was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2020 Sheila released a Masterclass teaching video on Drumming and Percussion.
Sheila is also involved in humanitarian projects in California.
Karen Carpenter was a very talented drummer and singer, part of the family duo The Carpenters in the 1970s. A teenage prodigy, Carpenter was part of a small group of elite drummer / singers in musical history, along with Narada Michael Walden and Phil Collins.
Carpenter was said to have a full three-octave vocal range and her voice was described as a “remarkable instrument”. Carpenter took up drums at the age of 14 and studied with Bill Douglas, a jazz drummer who played with Art Tatum and Benny Goodman. A fan of Joe Morello (Dave Brubeck group) and Ringo Starr, within two years of extensive practice, Carpenter could play complex time signatures with both traditional and matched grip. In the mid-1960s, she was already a member of the Dick Carpenter trio (with her brother), playing jazz in local clubs. The Carpenters officially formed in 1969 and became a big success in the 1970s. As drummer / singer, The Carpenters sometimes enlisted a session drummer in studio recordings, mainly due to technical issues with drumming and singing at the same time. On stage Karen Carpenter would sing at the front of the stage and drum on other songs, sometimes participating in drum duals, much like Genesis with Phil Collins and Chester Thompson.
Karen Carpenter had many health issues surrounding anorexia nervosa which did not allow her to recognise her full potential and died in 1983 at the very young age of 32. She could have written many more songs and become one of the great drummers. Carpenter has inspired young drummers everywhere and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Other female drummers of note
Born in the USA but essentially raised in Denmark, Marilyn Mazur is a master drummer and percussionist. Mazur took up drumming at the age of 19 after initially studying piano, and has gone on to play and tour with great musicians including Miles Davis, Palle Mikkelborg, Wayne Shorter and Jan Garbarek. I saw her with the Jan Garbarek group at the Royal Festival Hall in 1992. Mazur leads an all-female group called Shamania.
Caroline Corr is a long term drummer, percussionist, singer and pianist in the Irish group the Corrs since their inception in the 1990s. The Corrs often play a mixture of traditional celtic music (similar to music from the Galicia region in Spain), rock, folk and pop.
Cecilia Sanchietti is a highly skilled drummer and composer from Rome. To date she has released many albums and plays regularly on the European circuit. Her compositional skills as a jazz writer stand out just as much as her drumming ability.
A fairly new name on the scene, Tina Raymond is an accomplished drummer / educator who is also releasing records under her own name. Raymond has chosen not to go down the classic straight ahead route, but writes music in a contemporary style with a hint of avant garde, Faye Patton interviewed her in the autumn of 2023 for Jazz London Radio.
A drummer, singer and bandleader / composer from the United States, Shirazette Tinnin is a talented rhythmist who fuses jazz with r&b seamlessly. Shirazette has also performed with artists as diverse as Tia Fuller, Lea DeLaria, Women of the World Ensemble and leads her own group called Shirazette and the Sonic Wallpaper.
Let us know in the comments section if there are other female drummers out there who are making waves musically.