Terence Blanchard and the power of a story

Terence Blanchard is one of the most prominent brass players, bandleaders and recording artists of his generation.

He began playing piano at age 5, switched to trumpet three years later, and played alongside childhood friend and fellow New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis in summer band camps. In 1982, Blanchard replaced Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, working as the band’s lead soloist and musical director until 1986. He then co-led a prominent quintet with saxophonist Donald Harrison.

In the ’90s, Blanchard developed a fruitful working relationship with film director Spike Lee, having first played on the soundtracks to several of Lee’s films including Mo’ Better Blues and Do the Right Thing. Blanchard then composed the music for many of Lee’s subsequent films, like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam, 25th Hour, Inside Man and the Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. With more than 40 film scores to his name, Blanchard is one of the most sought-after jazz musicians to ever compose for film.

In its 136-year history, the Metropolitan Opera has never staged an opera by a black composer. But that will finally change. The company said this fall that it will present Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Terence Blanchard in a coming season.

Blanchard is the executive producer, host and narrator of a new documentary called Up from the Streets, a film celebrating 300 years of New Orleans music and culture.

Blanchard joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen for a chat about his past and present projects.

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I know your father’s dream was to sing at the Met, and I imagine that when they announced your opera, you couldn’t help but think of him.

The first thing my mom told me when I called her, she said, “Your dad would be proud.” Then she made a joke, she said, “We’d probably have to keep him off the stage.”

You play a huge role in Michael Murphy’s new documentary, Up from the Streets: A City of Music. How did you get involved with that film?

They called my wife and me and talked to us about helping to produce the documentary, and we jumped at the chance. At first we were going to have a concert chronicling the history of music in New Orleans, but then it turned into this idea of a documentary. I was more excited about that because the documentary is something that’s going to live on forever and ever. Kids will be able to sit down and learn as much as they can. It can be a starting point for them to learn about New Orleans music.

In the film, one of the things I found interesting that you mentioned was that as a kid, your heroes were Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and that you didn’t really understand Louis Armstrong at the time. And then in 1982 you come across a photo in the dressing room at a club in San Francisco, and this photograph made you reevaluate Louis Armstrong and where you’re from. Can you tell me more about that?

I was playing with Art Blakey at a club called the Keystone Corner in San Francisco. In the dressing room there was a huge picture plastered on the wall of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis is a hero of mine. In the picture, Louis Armstrong is looking straight ahead, and Miles is on his side … smiling like he’s a little kid. It turned my attention to the fact that Miles had this type of reverence for Pops. It made me go back and re-investigate his music. You don’t really get how great he is until you try to play what he played. As soon as you play it, you go, OK, this is not as easy as it sounds. And when you put it into context, he was the only person playing like that back then. He was so far ahead of his time. It was amazing.

You’ve composed music for Spike Lee films with some deep, deep subject matter. Tough topics. How difficult was it to work on When the Levees Broke? You weren’t looking at just the screen — you lived it.

It was very difficult, because it wasn’t a story that had no bearing on my life. This was about my life. When I would do other tough topics, I could take a break, hang out with my kids, go to a restaurant, just get out of the house. Working on this was really traumatic because not only was it tough seeing those images of dead bodies in my city in the middle of the street, houses torn apart, but when I needed to take a break, I remember going outside and trying to go for a drive and stepping into the reality of what I was looking at on my screen. There was no getting away from it. It was personal. You know, to see my mom deal with such heartbreak, that’s a hard thing to prepare for. I just had to let her experience it. I tried to talk her into understanding what was going on, but it was too overwhelming for her. It was a rough thing to experience, but the beautiful part of it is that one of the things I hope the country remembers is that we didn’t have red or blue states at that time. Political partisanship didn’t exist, because everyone wanted to help people in need. It was a beautiful moment in time even though it was a very tragic moment in time. The hurricane didn’t discriminate. It didn’t care if you were Democrat or Republican, white or black, rich or poor. We all were human beings trying to survive.

What’s the most difficult thing about composing music for yourself, versus scoring a film?

It’s all about how you want to help the director or producer tell their story. There are so many ways to tell any story. There are so many angles you can take. The thing about Up from the Streets, though, is that the music is the story. So it’s really about getting out of the way of those great performances, great stories, great musicians. Each project, there are always these little variances that make it different.

When I go to a movie you’ve scored, I’m humming the theme for days afterward. It feels like a score from one of those classic Hollywood movies. 

You have to thank Spike Lee for that, because he’s the one that hounded me about having musical and melodic themes for characters and situations in his films. It’s carried over into helping me develop a style that people recognize. In the films that I’ve done in the past, people have come to me because of them and want that. The cool thing about it is that when you get 70 or 80 people in a room to record some music and they’re excited about is as well, it comes across in their performance of what you’ve written. You feel it in the theatre.

I would argue with anyone that New Orleans music right now is probably at the most vibrant it’s been in a really long time. Would you agree with that?

I think it’s permeated a lot of people’s consciousness. It’s one of those things that we were just talking about — the energy and the passion you feel from this music, which carries over into every style of New Orleans music, is the thing that has spread across the country and across the world.