Terence Blanchard on Ferguson vs. Waco, Spike Lee's 'Chiraq' & His New Album 'Breathless'

Terence Blanchard
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Terence Blanchard performs during the 36th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park on August 29, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. 

Trumpet player and composer Terence Blanchard could rest on his laurels with five Grammy Awards, a broad solo discography that spans 20 years, and film scoring credits that range from Love & Basketball to Spike Lee's Mo' Betta Blues

But Blanchard keeps working. Back with a new band -- the E-Collective, complete with a guitarist he met via Facebook -- and a new sound ("It's a band that has a groove philosophy," he says), Blanchard is staying contemporary while continuing to use his music to bring attention to injustice. On his new record Breathless (out now on Blue Note), the trumpet player was inspired by the urgency behind Eric Garner's plea-turned-national rallying cry, "I can't breathe."

He spoke to Billboard about the new album, why he stays political and potentially working with Kanye West on Spike Lee's next project, Chiraq.

Did you bring the idea of doing something about #BlackLivesMatter to your band?

Not initially. Initially we were just trying to figure out musically where we were going. As we were doing that, the music just started to unfold, and say, "This is what it's all about."

Frankly, last fall it just seemed to be one story after another. It was Mike Brown, Eric Brown, the kid in Ohio, and it's still going on. We see these guys in Texas, in Waco and how they're being treated so differently from what happened in Ferguson and Baltimore. You just get tired of it. 

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Not too many jazz musicians take explicitly political angles, but historically, that's something you've done fairly frequently (Malcolm X, Katrina etc.).

It's kind of hard to turn a blind eye to this stuff for me. When you think about what's been going on in our community, John Coltrane wrote a tune called "Alabama" for the four little girls that were killed [in 1963's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing]. I take my cues from those guys, and I stand on their shoulders. Those are the dudes who inspire me. Max Roach wrote the Freedom Now Suite. 

It's incumbent upon me -- or at least, I feel like it is -- to keep the discussion going in my realm of the world. With this album, frankly, I'm at a point where I think discussions are not helping. I think we need legislation. We need policy. People need to go to jail -- I think that's the only way stuff will change. If me writing a song, or writing some music to help push that agenda forward can help, so be it.

I think it's so important for creative people to express those kinds of sentiments.

Here's the thing about it: I've been trying not to even watch too much news. When I go on Facebook and I check my messages, I try not to even click on those things. You already know what it's gonna be. 

When the thing happened in Waco, I got angry at myself, because I stopped everything. The first newscast I saw, I noticed that they didn't call anybody thugs. The police are sitting there, no riot gear on, no tanks or anything like that, and nine people died. I immediately dropped everything I was doing, going from channel to channel and waiting to hear the word thugs, and I was waiting to see how the police were handling it. 

Charles Blow and some other people have brought the topic to life, in terms of the double standard that exists. People don't want to admit it. My thinking is, people don't want to admit it because they're a part of the problem, or they're just blind. In either case, the evidence is pretty clear, that there's a double standard in how people are treated in this country, and that has to change. People better get on board, because the demographics of this country are changing day by day.

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I know you've done the scores for many of Spike Lee's movies -- has he asked you to get involved in Chiraq, his upcoming musical about gang violence on Chicago?

Yes, I'm going to write the score. He's just starting to shoot right now, so there hasn't been anything to look at just yet.

Have you heard anything about Kanye being involved in the score? 

Yeah, I think he's going to produce a few things, some songs. That's something me and Spike still have to talk about. Common's in it too, so I don't know if he's going to do any songs. 

You have some special guests on this album -- Cornel West, P.J. Martin (of Maroon 5).

P.J. I met years ago -- he's from New Orleans [as well]. I've known of him for a long time, I've always loved his voice, always loved everything he's done. With Dr. West, that conversation you hear is from a conversation that I did with him for another album called Choices. That's a segment that I didn't use from that album, but the content, I thought, was extremely relevant to the topic that we were dealing with. 

The spoken word is actually my son.

You've done more soundtracks than almost any jazz musician -- how has it impacted the way you write and record?

You start to realize that what you think is limiting truly isn't. You think, "Aw man, I have to write the music for this story, and it has to happen here, and the music has to be this long" -- but that's totally not the case. It's actually liberating. What it does is confine you, in a sense, to a certain specific content. When you have everything at your disposal, sometimes you can't make a decision. 

With the film, there's a story there -- a beginning, middle, and end. There's a lot of things that can happen in that story, but the characters still remain. When I'm making albums, or even when I'm playing solos, the music can go a lot of different places. If it stays within the context of what we're doing as a group, then it's easier for artists to follow. 

The opposite is true in film, where, with my jazz career, I'm allowed to see one thing in a million ways, and that's allowed me to be very creative in the film world. 

It's also given me a lot of chances to write for a large ensemble, and various instrument configurations. 

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I know this album is definitely more of a departure from a traditional jazz sound for you.

I don't even look at it as a jazz record, really -- it's a groove-based record. It's a band that has a groove philosophy, not a jazz band. 

I read that some of your audiences in Europe were kind of surprised when they went to see this group.

It's been interesting -- we've been playing this music since last fall, and it's been pretty funny because the same thing happens when we walk out on stage and we see the audience, and the audience is like 40 and above. We sit down, and we say, "Ok, we know what's about to occur." The first song is always like, "What the hell is this." The second song is always like, "Oh, ok." Then by the third or fourth song, it's like, "Ok, this is cool." It happens the same way every time. You can see the transformation.

For anyone listening to the album, what do you hope they take away from it?

First of all, I just hope that they enjoy the music. I don't want people to get too serious about it -- music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life. Hopefully the music can be an escape. 

On the other hand, there are things we're trying to make people think about. I hope that for some people, who are struggling with the issues, it can change some hearts and minds. We're all in this together, man -- we say that on paper, we write it down and say it like that's supposed to be the way we live. But that's not actually what we do, and that's what has to change. Now's the time to step up to the plate, and put our actions in the same place we put our words. 

Breathless is available now on iTunes and Amazon.