His father wanted him to be an opera singer, but Terence Blanchard became a jazz trumpeter instead, one whose enveloping sound -defined by a soaring, resplendent tone and a unique ability to set mood and evoke stories through music- is expansive enough to make a small jazz club feel like an opera house.
Thanks to this natural gift for mood-setting and storytelling, the 37 year-old Blanchard has emerged in the last decade as the foremost jazz-oriented film composer. He’s left his mark on numerous Spike Lee movies, such as Malcolm X, Clockers and Get on the Bus, as well as work by other filmmakers, such as Kasi Lemmons, who wrote and directed the acclaimed Eve’s Bayou. Lemmons once described Blanchard’s contribution thusly: “There’s this haunting theme that runs through the movie that is so creepy- it’s gorgeous and it’s sad. It was so perfectly what I wanted, like he had read my mind.”
After graduating from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts in the early ’80s, Blanchard toured with Lionel Hampton and then replaced Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. He then began a fruitful partnership with fellow New Orleans native, altoist Donald Harrison, resulting in several remarkable yet under appreciated records, such as Crystal Stair and Black Pearl, before venturing out on his own as a leader.
Even though his recent film success has overshadowed it somewhat, Blanchard’s career as a jazz bandleader and recording artist has continued to develop. His 1996 The Heart Speaks, a wonderful Latin jazz collaboration with Brazilian singer/composer Ivan Lins, received a Grammy nomination, and on last year’s Jazz in Film, he transformed classic film scores, such as Ellington’s “Anatomy of a Murder” and Jerry Goldsmith’s “Chinatown,” into lush vehicles for sultry improvisation.
For his recent release, Wandering Moon, Blanchard relied mostly on original compositions and his current touring unit, one of the best he’s ever assembled: 20 year-old altoist Aaron Fletcher, Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon, tenorman Brice Winston and drummer Eric Harland. Together with veteran bassist Dave Holland and guest tenor player Branford Marsalis, they explore a compelling theme- the loneliness and yearning experienced by a journeyman musician who, like Blanchard, is also a family man- with acute sensitivity and vitality.
Blanchard and company will appear at this year’s New Orleans Jazz Fest on May 6th. I spoke to him by phone while he was touring through French Lick, Indiana.
You’ve told me before that you believe “music should tell a story.” What story are you trying to tell on the new record, Wandering Moon?
Well, it’s about family relationships and the whole misunderstanding of the business that we’re in. You know, people think that we live a glamorous lifestyle, which we do. I’m not denying that part of it, but it is a very hard life at the same time. Because if you’re a family person, being in this business takes a big toll.
Is being on the road all the time the hardest thing about being a jazz musician?
That’s one of the hard things. It’s hard being a musician in general. All of the stuff that you have to study and deal with to try to get to something very personal, which on the surface may sound easy when you hear a person play it, but to actually develop to that point is an arduous task.
On the other end of the spectrum, what is the most rewarding thing about being a jazz musician?
Playing with some great musicians. When we’re on the bandstand we have a great time, you know? And that’s why I call it a sickness, because you go through so much airplane food, eating late at night, traveling, staying in hotels, all of that stuff just for a couple of hours a night.
The first song, “Luna Viajera,” really captures that mood with the drums sounding like a clock ticking away in a lonely hotel room late at night. What other devices did you employ to evoke that mood?
You know, it’s interesting, I know some guys write music that way, but I tend not to think of them as devices. Once a mood is created emotionally, then I start to hear sounds, do you know what I mean? If I’m feeling a certain way then that translates itself into the arrangement.
So your process is more emotional than intellectual?
Exactly. I mean, the intellect plays a part in it. That’s why you study composition. You have to know what it is you’re doing, but the inspiration has to come from what it is you’re feeling, what you’re going through.
You’ve become recognized as the jazz film composer, but this tends to overshadow your work as a jazz performer and bandleader. Does this frustrate you?
Greatly. I’ve been reading some reviews now where they say, “Terence Blanchard is back.” And I’m like, “Back from where?” I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been touring with my band. I’ve stayed on the road. And the thing that frustrates me the most about it is that people in the film industry say, “Well, he can’t do this film because he’s always on the road. He’s always gone.”
You can’t win.
Right. You know, I’ve put out a record every year with the exception of one year, and that’s more than some of the young rising stars have done. It’s just interesting to see how people, certain journalists, I should say, who call themselves experts, are not really up on what’s happening. As a matter of fact, one of those records, The Heart Speaks, got nominated for a Grammy. Do you know what I mean? [laughs] It’s really strange.
I guess those journalists didn’t hear Jazz in Film either?
Well, I guess they don’t view that record as, like, a pure jazz record. It’s amazing how the whole notion of being a jazz musician is be to experimental and try new things, but in this certain climate of the jazz industry, when you do that you’re viewed someHelvetica as not being faithful to the music, which is kind of ludicrous to me. It seems to me as though there’s a tendency for people to not want you to be as adventurous. It’s like they want you to stay within a certain niche because that’s what jazz is. But the thing is, when Bird came along, people hated that. Not to compare myself to Bird, I don’t want to do that, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the turtle never gets anywhere unless it sticks its neck out. You’ve got to try different things.
When I talk to young musicians like Irvin Mayfield and Jason Marsalis, they talk about how much they admire the artistic rebelliousness you and your generation displayed in the beginning, not for starting the so-called “neo-conservative” movement.
Well, it’s a very interesting thing. When we first got in the business we were trying to be on the cutting edge, very rebellious, and not trying to fall into a particular style. The band that Donald Harrison and myself had was an experimental band. We put that band together to work on different concepts and stuff. But as a musician you get to the point where you’re like, “Well damn, ‘Caravan’ is a great tune. ‘Satin Doll’ is a beautiful tune. Maybe I should try to investigate melody, maybe I should try to investigate writing in song form.” So as a musician you change, you go through phases. Not to say I’m going to totally abandon what I was doing early in my career, because I feel like I’m coming full circle with that stuff right about now in my life, but as the industry reacted to that stuff it was the most amazing thing. Because when we first got on the scene, people kept saying, “Man, the only thing they’re doing is playing like Miles Davis.” They wanted to fit us into a bag. But now if a guy comes along, they’ll praise him, like, “He comes in the style of Freddie Hubbard.” You hear that a lot. There has been this lack of trying to really explore what a guy is doing on his own. Something changed in the business in general.
Instead of it being an insult to say a musician sounds like someone else, now that’s a compliment.
Exactly. Things have changed in a short period of time. And it’s very interesting given the fact that, like I said earlier, what’s the whole premise of jazz for most people? It’s a cutting edge music that has no boundaries. I think there’s been a certain kind of fear of jazz losing its credibility. There’s been this whole movement of getting back to the fundamentals, of playing jazz to make sure people can really play. The older I get, that stuff is less important to me. Because a guy doesn’t need to know how to play the trumpet like Clifford Brown to be able to play. That’s sacrilege to say to some folks. I was working with this one director and he made a great comment. He said, “Some of this stuff is not jazz, it’s almost like commentary on jazz.”
Now that’s how an art form loses credibility.
Exactly. I was talking with my wife about this. How one of my biggest fears is the jazz scene becoming like the Elks club. Where a bunch of guys get together and they have a convention and everybody plays “Satin Doll” and plays some great old tunes, and then goes home and talks about how great it was. That’s not what this music is for me.
Let’s talk about some of the fresh faces in your band. How did you discover Aaron Fletcher?
I heard Aaron Fletcher on a gig with Irvin Mayfield. It was one of Irvin’s birthday gigs at the House of Blues. I walked in and heard this alto playing and I thought it was Donald Harrison. I looked around and Donald was walking around backstage, so I was like, “Man, who is that?” And I didn’t think about hiring him at that point. I just thought, “Man, this cat is talented, he’s really going to be something else.” Then later on the situation presented itself for him to tour with us.
What do you try to teach young cats who come into your band?
Well, the first thing that I really try to expose them to is the fact that they need to be honest with themselves. You know, if something’s not happening don’t lie to yourself, don’t make an excuse and put it on somebody else. It has to be you. Dig within yourself before you point the finger. And the other thing is patience and discipline is really important in making music, because while you’re flailing away playing a whole bunch of notes and doing a whole bunch of stuff, and you think it’s great, musically it may be nothing. So you have to really sit down and make a conscious effort to think about how you’re structuring things.
Do you draw on your past experience as a young man in Art Blakey’s band?
All the time. They get tired of me talking about Art Blakey. [laughing] Because I’m always like, “Yeah, when I played with Art…” They probably don’t even want to listen to any Art Blakey records anymore.
Blakey was a great teacher, wasn’t he?
Yes, he was a great teacher because he allowed us to make a lot of stupid mistakes.
What about some of these other guys in your current band, like drummer Eric Harland?
Eric Harland is probably one of the most talented out of his generation right now. I think he is an extremely gifted musician. You know, there’s some drummers who play jazz by numbers, like they’re painting by numbers, and he doesn’t play that way. He plays from his heart and you can hear it. And he’s very experimental, he’s always trying new things, which is cool.
What about pianist Ed Simon?
Ed Simon is probably one of the best-kept secrets in jazz. He’s a guy who really has great sensitivity for playing ballads and, well, obviously Latin music is really up his alley. But he also has a very melodic and interesting style when it comes to soloing on different types of tunes. Very knowledgeable cat, man. I have mixed emotions about his existence in jazz. On the one hand I’m kind of hurt that a lot of people don’t realize how great this guy is, but then on the other hand maybe that’s a good thing because he’s still in my band.
What did veterans Dave Holland and Branford Marsalis bring to the Wandering Moon session?
Everything. [laughs] You know, it’s just like having an NBA team that’s needs a few players to get to the playoffs. You’ve got to get those veterans players who’ve been there before, who know what it takes to make great music. It may not be just the technique, it may not be just the sound, but it’s their overall presence that just makes a difference. Dave Holland knew how to respond to certain things, and his response to certain musical ideas prompted Ed, myself and Branford to do other things. I guess one of the ways I could describe it is that before Dave came, it was like looking through a foggy window, and afterwards it was almost like somebody just came and wiped the window clean and you could see clearly through it.
Where did the title for the song “Joe & O” come from?
That’s about me and my father. His middle name was Joseph, my middle name was Oliver. And it’s a contrapuntal tune because we used to butt heads all the time talking about music. He was into Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Louis Armstrong and I was into Clark Terry, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. He always thought those guys played too many notes. [laughs] But at the end of the day,, though the main thing was that we both loved music. I lost him in December of ’98, so I thought it would be nice to remember him by putting something on the record. Losing my father had a big impact on me. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it did, because he was the musical foundation for me. He was the guy who introduced me to all of this stuff. He sang, he studied opera. That was his love. He wanted me to be an operatic singer. That didn’t work. [laughs] Not at all.
If you couldn’t be a musician, what would you be?
I don’t know. My first reaction was to be like either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but the more I think about it… Suffice it to say that I would probably be what they call a “truth seeker.” I don’t know about spiritual leader, but just someone trying to find out what’s going on with this whole universe on my own.