John Blackwell

Associate Professor

"I want to offer my students the benefit of what I’ve learned performing and recording with the likes of Cameo, Patti LaBelle, and Prince. In one of my first ensemble sessions, I gave students a song to learn and transcribe. When they came back a week later, half of them didn’t do it. I told them they needed to treat the class like a band rehearsal for a big tour, learn the songs I give them and be ready to play them, note for note, the next week. ‘Prince would give me a song to learn in a couple of hours,’ I said. ‘If he gave you a song to learn and you didn’t, you’d be on the first plane back home.’"

"When I see that my private students can play all the technical tricks, I say, ‘Let me see if you can do what’s most important and what’s going to keep you working for the rest of your life. Let me see if you can groove.’ By ‘groove’ I mean play an R&B funk beat without playing any chops at all. I tell my students, ‘When you play with a group, you don’t play chops; you’re the timekeeper of the band. If you don’t groove, if you don’t lock with the bass player, that group doesn’t function, and they’re going to call somebody else.’"

"My dad taught me [how to groove] when I was young. He was a computer engineer and also a drummer who used to play with King Curtis, Mary Wells, and a lot of Motown artists. One day when he was working at his desk, I went in all excited and showed him I could play chops just like a Neil Peart drum solo I was listening to. My dad said, ‘Son, if you want to make a living in the music business, just play the two and four, and play pocket.’ (In R&B, when you’re grooving we say you’re playing ‘in the pocket.’) I felt so small as I walked away, but he was right. Some 20-odd years later, what people know me for is my groove."

"I also want my students to know how to do business. Many young musicians all over the world are phenomenal; they all know how to play but they don't know the business. So I tell my students that they’re here not just to polish their music skills, but also to learn how to negotiate to get what they’re worth. I also tell them I want to be able to buy their signature drumsticks or snare drums someday."

Career Highlights

  • Played with Prince and the New Power Generation, Larry Graham, Justin Timberlake, P. Diddy, Patti Labelle, Cameo, Chick Corea, Japanese pop star Utada Hikaru, Japanese boy band sensation Arashi, Maceo Parker, Michael Landau, George Howard, Charlie Singleton, Jeff Berlin, Luther Vandross, Gerald Levert, Nikka Costa, Eperanza Spaulding, the late Billy Eckstine (at age 17), Maze featring Frankie Beverly, and many others.
  • Special guest appearences with Gwen Stefani, Erykah Badu, Chaka Kahn, CeeLo Green, Mariah Carey, Eight Ball and MJG, Kanye West, Timbaland, and many others.
  • Played on Prince's 2003 instrumental album, N.E.W.S., which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album.