UArts honoring grad Adam Blackstone, bassist extraordinaire

Bassist Adam Blackstone has played with Jay Z, Rihanna, and Pharrell.
Bassist Adam Blackstone has played with Jay Z, Rihanna, and Pharrell. (Getty)
Posted: May 16, 2014

Thursday morning at the University of the Arts, at the school's 136th commencement, students will be graduated, watch awards presentations, and hear inspirational speeches. The keynote speaker will be Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

For graduating musicians, though, the life of one of the awardees - Adam Blackstone - might be just as inspiring as anything else they see.

Blackstone, who graduated from UArts in 2004 with a bachelor of arts in music with a concentration in electric bass, will receive a Silver Star award, given to distinguished alums.    

Blackstone is one of the hardest-working bassists and music directors in the industry. Eminem? Jay Z? Rihanna? John Legend? Justin Timberlake? Pharrell? He's played for them. And many more.

Paul Healy, associate vice president for communications at UArts, said that selecting Stern and Blackstone this year "was pretty easy, to be honest with you. For the ceremony, we play a video clip summarizing the person's career, and in both cases, it was incredible.

"With Adam, there he is with Justin Timberlake, there he is with Rihanna on Saturday Night Live, there he is with Adam Levine of Maroon 5. The selection process is a simple matter when someone is that accomplished."

Blackstone was born in Trenton. His immediate family moved to Willingboro when he was 4, but Trenton ties still ran deep. His father, jazz musician Rod Blackstone, encouraged his son, who soon excelled on drums and piano. At 6, Adam was playing at El Bethel Church on Euclid Street in Trenton. His father told the Trentonian in 2008 that his son had perfect rhythm and perfect pitch from the beginning, so much so that "I had to put him in with men, even when he was 6 years old."

He had a brush with the bass as early as third grade, but only in the music program at Willingboro High School did he really take it up.

Like another Willingboro graduate and world-beating bassist, Derrick Hodge, Blackstone "learned a lot by watching what everyone else was doing."

By the time he graduated from high school, said Blackstone, "I felt like LeBron James. I did a national tour to scout out colleges." He came to UArts on a full scholarship and calls it "one of the best decisions of my life."

The early 2000s were a good time to be in the Philly music scene. At the Five Spot in Old City, the weekly showcase Black Lily assembled a generation of present and future stars. "The Black Lily, it was like you were hearing music for the first time," Blackstone said. "I could see Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, India Arie, Eric Benét. And when there was a jam session, I could just hop on bass. I learned to cultivate relations with engineers and producers, and they let me just kind of hang."

His killer chops and professionalism brought him to the notice of Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and the Roots. "Questlove and me, we rolled tight," Blackstone said. "One time he said, 'Hey, I'm doing this thing with Jay Z. Want to be part of it?' "

That "thing" was Jay Z's November 2003 "Fade to Black" concert at Madison Square Garden, a so-called "farewell" show that became a popular DVD. The following September, Blackstone anchored Dave Chappelle's Block Party in Brooklyn, again a popular DVD.

And he hasn't stopped since. Most recently, he was music director for the United Negro College Fund's "An Evening of Stars" in April, and of Pharrell's extravaganza at last week's iHeart Radio Music Awards.

He just finished a gig in Los Angeles, as music director for the TV One show Verses and Flow, which he said is "as if you brought Black Lily to the West Coast." He is CEO of BASSic Black Entertainment, LLC, a musical staffing, recording, and promotion company that counts the red-hot Pharrell among its clients.

Blackstone said that at UArts, beyond an excellent musical training, he learned what he calls "the art of hanging out: watching people and learning what they need." Humility also came into play: newly arrived hotshot musicians found more established upper-classmen to contend with.

"We all were better than each other at certain things," he said. "I wasn't the best jazz soloist at stand-up bass. But I worked hard at it, and my feel enabled me to be a sought-after studio bassist, because I was trying to support the soloist. My bandmates loved that, because I could hold the groove down. That's based on my background: church, and R&B and a little jazz."

Blackstone is proud of being a bassist. "We're the root of it all," he said. "We lay the foundation. We can change the chord with one note, and that goes across the board. We can start a groove by ourselves. We're our own rhythm section. We can speak a language no other single instrument can do - and still keep the feel of the sound. We're the genesis of it all."

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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