The soundtracks of films such as “Gia,” Twin Peaks,” and Spike Lee’s “Mo’Better Blues,” “Do the Right Thing,” “25th Hour,” “She Hate Me” and now “The Inside Man”- have become synonymous with the composer Terence Blanchard. The New Orleans born trumpeter is not just a soundtrack composer – he is a Grammy winning jazz musician with many CDs under his belt including his latest, “Flow Part 1,” (Blue Note) which has sound takes you back to the days of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Where while you are listening to it you feel as though you are at Yoshi’s (Oakland) or Kimball’s East (Emeryville). In an in-depth conversation, Blanchard spoke about his roots in jazz as well as his approach to developing music for movies. For more information, visit www.terenceblanchard.com.
AC:How did you get into Jazz as opposed to rock, new age, etc.and is the trumpet your main instrument?
TB:Being from New Orleans, your exposed to the roots of jazz from a very early age. Back in school, even in high school, when you went to a dance, you would listen to all of the hip r & b bands like Earth, Wind and Fire, if they had a live band, the band would play a lot of cover tunes but at the end of the night, the last thing you would hear would be a tone called Second Line which was a traditional New Orleans jazz composition. We were always influenced by that type of music from a very early age. With the trumpet, I was in elementary school and I was taking piano lessons and there is a local musician named Alvin Alcorn who came to our elementary school and gave a little presentation about New Orleans traditional music and I remember once I heard him play, the way he was bending notes and playing with vibrato, I took the music to be a little bit more expressive than playing the piano so I went home and told my father I wanted to play the trumpet at that point. I think I was in the 4th grade.
In terms of other instruments I do play piano and I have been playing all my life. Piano was my first instrument. I started playing it when I was five years old and I continued my studies into my college years and it has been one of the instruments I am very comfortable with.
Are you classically trained or self taught?
TBI am classically trained on both instruments. I had three great piano teachers growing up. Louise Winchester, Martha Francis and Roger Dickerson. I had two trumpet teachers, George Benson in New Orleans and William Fielder in New Jersey.
Growing up in New Orleans, in the heart of blues and jazz, was music something you always wanted to do? Was that something you wanted to take or did your parents say piano would be something good for you to learn? Did you always want to do music or was it something you wanted to pursue later in life?
- I used to go up to my grandmother’s house and try to play Batman on the piano and I was hitting all the wrong notes and my parents could not take it. They said if the boy is going to do this we need to get him piano lessons. It started with piano lessons. Like other kids, I had other interests. I wanted to be a professional athlete, but music was thing that stuck with me.
You went to high school with the Marsalis brothers. Do you work with them?
- No, we really do not work together that much. Everybody has their own careers. I do not think Wynton or Brandford collaborate anymore. Everybody has their own direction they are going in to which I think is a really good thing because it gives us a chance to spread our experiences and talent around as opposed to limiting it to ourselves, and also work and experience other musician’s music.
AC.On your album Flow, listening to Flow Part 1, it really took me back to the days when jazz was jazz. When you had musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. This album reminds me of that era of music. Do you consider yourself an old soul as far as jazz is concerned?
TB.I am not a jazz person in that sense of the word because I think once you start to say this is what jazz is you start to lock yourself in and you become stifled. For me, jazz always has meant breaking the rules, being a bit of a renegade musically, trying new ideas and trying to push the envelope but understanding the history of the music. With this record, with this band that I have, what we’ve always tried to do as a band is we are very well lined and studied musicians who understand the history of jazz but we are very determined not to repeat that history. We are very determined to find our own rhythm and our own sound. I think a lot of what you hear in the similarities is the intent behind the music. The music is very honest. The guys are not trying to play like Miles Davis. It is very interesting because Herbie Hancock produced the record and Herbie started talking to us about this certain period when he was playing with Miles. We went into the studio to make the record and the sessions began to have the Davis sound to it because of the conversation we had with Herbie, it was influencing our sound and that is not the sound we were going for in our record . That was then this is now, we have to really try to figure out what our rhythm is for our generation.
I know you said if you start saying you are jazz you put yourself in a box but I can not get away from the similarity between your music and that of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, you remind me of those days.
TB.I don’t want to give you the impression that jazz puts you in a box, but when you start to say jazz period, you want to keep things a certain way, that is what has been happening in the jazz community that I think has kind of hurt the community. I think there is some artist’s you are going to hear about in the future, free thinkers. They do not do what people readily understand but they are still strong musicians. It is going to take them a little time to develop their sounds and styles totally and fully and I am very excited about their future because to me those guys come in the real tradition of what jazz musician is suppose to be. They are renegades like Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Tholonus Monk or Art Blakey or Charlie parker. These are guys that still understand tradition, but still understand that it is very important to develop their own sound.
AC.Can you give me a couple of their names?
TB.Walter Smith, Tenor Saxaphone is one. Lionel Loueke, guitarist in the band is breaking out and going in his own direction. Lastly, there is a young pianist named Robert Glasper who has a very unique, distinctive sound.
AC.How did you get your first record deal?
TB.I went to Ruckers University and played with Lionel Hampton big band. I left that to play with Art Blakey and the jazz masters and while I was in Art Blakey’s band, George Wein, who is a producer for the JVC Jazz Festival was putting together a small record label and he wanted to sign some young artists and he came to Art Blakey and wanted to sign Donald Harrison who was also in the band and also from New Orleans and plays alto sax. He wanted to sign Donald Harrison and myself and put us together as a duo and that is how I got my first deal, through him and he had a label called Rejoice Records distributed by Concord Records at the time. From that, we did two records for him and then we got signed to Columbia Records.
How did you get into doing soundtracks?
TB.Well, that happened totally by accident because Spike Lee’s father Bill Lee is a jazz musician. When he was doing some of Spike’s earlier films, they would contact young musicians to be in the orchestra. I started to learn about Spike through that. I played on School Daze, Do Tha Right Thing and Mo’Better Blues and when we were doing MBB, I was playing the piano and Spike heard what I was playing and he asked if he could use it because he liked it. From there he asked me to do an orchestral arrangement for it and that is how the film soundtrack career started for me.
AC.Do you work with Spike Lee or is it coincidental that a lot of your music is in his movies?
TB.The guy I work with the most is Spike. I mean, I have worked with other directors repeatedly. Kesi Lemmons is one, we did Eve’s Bayou. We also did Caveman’s Valentine. I have worked with the director of Gia and Original Sin. Actually, Kesi’s husband, Vodie Curtis-Hall, we have collaborated on three films together. We did Glitter, Redemption with Jamie Foxx and he has another film coming out this summer called Wastedeep, which we just completed.
AC.When composing music for a soundtrack, do you take the same steps when you compose your solo albums as you do when composing soundtracks?
TB.No. Writing music for myself is all about what I want to say musically so I get a chance to stretch and do my own thing. But when I am doing music for film it is about helping the director’s vision, helping that director tell a story the best way they see fit. The direction of the score can go in a number of directions, so I have to take some kind of instruction from the director to let me know how exactly he wants the music to go. Does he want to have large ensamples, small ensamples, or does he want the score to be very rhythmic or very melodic. Does he want the score to play counter to what’s on the screen or does he want the score to be like a separate character in their film.
AC.When listening to your music, you remember the scene the music was in, yet your music also gives off a separate feeling, if that makes sense.
TB.It totally makes sense and that is good because what we are trying to do with the film’s score is to try to develop a sound. You try to develop a certain palette of colors to help the director tell a story, so that throughout the duration of the film people will start to associate these sounds, characters or situation. If you were to step away from the film and you hear the music, hopefully it will draw those emotions back out of you again.
AC.Thomas Newman is another musician who has a very distinct sound.
TB.Thomas Newman is a guy I have respected and I love his music and I have been loving his music for years. The reason I love his music is because he is not a guy that tries to sound like anybody else. He does a lot of soul searching, he does a lot of experimentation and you can hear that, you can hear the results of that in the end product. He comes up with some very unique results. You have to search your soul and search your heart constantly, 24/7 to come up with a little term of an idea.
You’re part of the University of Southern California artisitic direction for the Tholonius Monk institute. Are you still part of that?
How did you become involved in that? And what is the whole program about?
TB.I got involved in the Monk institute just by them contacting me. The program itself has been around for a number of years. It is a two year program by which we bring in college graduates from all over the world. We have a very expensive auditioning process. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter are on the board, actually Herbie Hancock is the director and I am the artistic director and we have this expensive auditioning process where we receive hundreds and hundreds of tapes from people around the world and we weed them out. Then we have a final auditioning process where we actually fly them to University of Southern California. Herbie, Wayne and myself sit down and evaluate the student, and we generally try to have a small class, just enough to have a small ensemble, six to eight students. We keep them there two years and what we do with them is house them and we give them a monthly stipend so they have no worries while they are in school. The whole idea behind the program is to find unique people, men or women who have something a little different to say and to help to try to build upon that difference and make them understand that just because they are different does not mean they are wrong. We are trying to help these guys develop their style because we truly believe that is what music deserves and needs right now. Right now, there is a lot of functional musicians in the jazz world who really can play, but we are looking for the guys who are little different and who are unique.
People are being told they won’t make it in the music business if they don’t have a certain sound.
TB.That is because people are thinking in terms of business. But when you think in terms of art, Art Blakey used to tell us all the time, if you have something to offer the world there will be a path to your door. What you have to understand in that regard is that a lot of people operate out of fear of failure. To me, the thing I got out of life is the passion for art as a result of that I have been successful and I firmly believe that if you keep your eyes on the prize things will come to you. They may not come to you when you want them to, but they will come to you if you have something to offer.