Terence Blanchard Talks New Album 'Live,' Gun Violence & Working With Spike Lee

Terence Blanchard
Henry Abenejo

Terence Blanchard

Jazz mainstay is also scoring Spike Lee’s upcoming ‘BlacKkKlansman.’

“People don’t know how to take me,” says jazz trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard with a laugh.

It’s a rare rainy day in Los Angeles and the five-time Grammy Award winner is seated inside a West Hollywood hotel suite. Flanked by a piano festooned with sheet music on one side and a keyboard roosting on a granite kitchen countertop on the other, Blanchard is talking about the trio of projects he’s been juggling.

“There’s the E-Collective electric band, my film career and an opera,” he explains. “People ask, ‘How do you do all this?’ Well, I have a fascination with and love for music. It’s just that simple.”

First out of the Blanchard chute is his and the E-Collective’s latest Blue Note album, Live. Released this weekend (April 20), the set further addresses the issue of gun violence initiated by the quintet in 2015 on the Grammy-nominated studio album Breathless -- named in honor of shooting victim Mike Brown.

Live’s double-entendre title bears witness to the seven tracks culled from concerts performed in three cities where confrontations between the police and African Americans escalated into unconscionable tragedy: St. Paul, Minnesota suburb Falcon Heights, Cleveland and Dallas. Notable selections include the Marcus Miller composition “Hannibal” plus Blanchard’s own “Kaos” and “Choices,” the latter written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The New Orleans native and Berklee School of Music Artist-in-Residence is concurrently finishing the score for BlacKkKlansman (August). The true crime thriller, about a black police officer who infiltrates the KKK, once again reunites Blanchard with director Spike Lee. Their list of collaborative film credits includes Malcolm X, 25th Hour and Inside Man.

Blanchard is also in the midst of composing an opera based on the book and life of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Commissioned by the Opera Theatre St. Louis, the opera will debut in 2019.

Slowing down long enough to chat with Billboard, the indefatigable Blanchard touches on everything from living in a “weird” Twilight Zone episode under the narcissistic direction of President Trump and dispelling opera myths to nurturing the wide-eyed vision of jazz’s next generation.

What sparked the inspiration for Live?

After booking the concert dates, my agent suggested that we should think about doing things that had some civic engagement as well. We want to keep the story going about gun violence. It feels like we’re living in this weird Twilight Zone episode where there’s the TV world and then there’s reality. In the TV world, we talk about this narcissistic president every day all day. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are other things to talk about like citizens and police officers being killed. It’s not a one-sided issue.

It was interesting recording this music in the different cities. At one point, we went to the school in Minnesota where Philando Castile worked and the place where he was shot. It’s all senseless. The principal said the sea of kids that I played for at the school -- Muslim, black, white, Latino and Asian -- still ask about Castille. That’s why we did this record the way we did. We have to do something. We can’t just sit around and let these guys [politicians] run roughshod over an entire country. It’s incumbent for all of us to be on the same page on this issue because we’re all human beings.

How did audiences react to the new music?

Something happened in Cleveland that keeps me pushing forward and gives me hope. An older white man made it a point to talk to me after the show. Shaking my hand, he said, "Man, I was expecting to hear A Tale of God's Will (a Requiem for Katrina), one of my favorite albums. When I heard the music you were playing, it sounded angry. But then you told us what the music was about and it made me check myself." I’ll take that every day because TV has taught us how not to compromise; how not to deal with facts. We have to get back to that. This guy faced his own truth and came to terms with it. I thanked him for telling me.

Are you encouraged by what you’re hearing from jazz’s next generation at Berklee?

Oh man, yes. I have some students who are just phenomenal. It’s so gratifying when you see the light go off. It’s not going happen with all of them. But when it does you go, “Oh-oh, he or she’s been bitten by the bug." And you don’t have to worry about them because a natural curiosity is already there. I don’t say do this when I teach. I say if you want to do this, this is how you get to it. I see myself as a person who teaches architectural design because I want students to have a firm base. Then they can go wherever they want because they have the tools. Kids are coming to this music wide-eyed and with vision. The problem is getting them some spotlight. Record companies don’t have the monopoly [on jazz] the way they used to. When I first came on the scene, if a young kid was signed by say a Columbia, the label would do a marketing campaign. Then everybody would know the kid’s name in two months.

What’s the first thing that clicked in fostering the creative rapport between you and Lee?

I love to write melody and Spike loves melody. I was sitting at the piano early on, playing something I was working on. Spike walked by, asking, "Man, what’s that?" That’s how our professional relationship started. He used that music in Mo’ Better Blues, the scene where Denzel Washington has just left the bridge. In another early conversation, Spike said he didn’t like underscore but liked thematic music. For him you have to use melody throughout even though there may be important dialogue in the scene. It’s forced me to think like some of the great composers of the past; to shape a melodic idea around the most important words in a scene to help push the storyline through and also color those themes whether it’s a sensitive scene, chase scene, heartfelt or whatever.

Is the scoring door opening wider for black composers?

Not that I can see. That bothers me because there’s a lot of young talented composers out here. They just need a chance. [Bassist] Marcus Miller and I used to joke that we could never be in the same room because if it blows up, there goes two-thirds of the black film composers [laughs]. Right now, there’s Stanley [Clarke], if he’s still writing, Marcus and myself.

How’s the opera progressing?

When we first met, Blow said he didn’t see how his life could be turned into an opera. But his curiosity was piqued after we brought him to St. Louis to see some of the company’s operas. [Film director/actress] Kasi Lemmons has since written a very powerful libretto. We’ll probably do a workshop with some students in St. Louis in the next couple of weeks to whittle away at the material. When you say the word opera, people think of a Viking standing with a staff. But I tell people it’s 3D before 3D: the highest form of musical theater. It gets me excited about the possibilities of what music can do.