Terence Blanchard on Scoring Spike Lee Joints

Terence Blanchard, an internationally renowned jazz trumpeter, has composed music for all of director Spike Lee's films — from Malcolm X to Inside Man. He talks to Farai Chideya about the relationship between music and the movies.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now, if you've seen any of Spike Lee's movies, you'll probably recognize the music of Terence Blanchard. You can hear his trademark trumpet on nearly 50 film scores from "Barbershop" to "Malcolm X."

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: As a young man, Terence Blanchard left his hometown of New Orleans, and headed to New York to make a name in jazz. After years of success, he moved on to composing film scores. Blanchard told me how he got involved in doing movie music.

Mr. TERENCE BLANCHARD (Jazz Musician, Composer): I'd been hired on, you know, several of Spike's earlier projects, "School Daze," "Do The Right Thing," just as a session player. And while we were doing "Mo' Better Blues," Spike heard me playing something on a piano, and asked if he could use it. And then we recorded it just as a solo trumpet piece. And then he asked if I can write a string arrangement for it, and I did. And Spike came over and he said, you have a talent for this, you have a future in the film business. And I said, OK, thank you. And I thought he was just being nice. Then he called me to do "Jungle Fever," and we've been working together ever since.

CHIDEYA: You've done so many things together, from feature films to documentaries. What is it like to collaborate? Because I'm sure that if he works with you as much as he does, he respects your talents and what you bring to the table as much as you respect his. So how do you guys communicate about what you want to accomplish when it comes to scoring a film?

Mr. BLANCHARD: The general things, I mean, that Spike talked about when we first started working together, in terms of how he loves melody. He loves very thematic music. And once we got that out of a way, then the next hurdle has always been to try to derive a sonic palette for each film that's slightly different from the one that we're currently working on. We always talk about instrumentation, you know, the sound that we're going for. And we just kind of take it from there. I mean, Spike is a cinematic visionary, you know. So you know, with those few simple requirements that I just talked to you about, they are very demanding actually. Because while he may want thematic music, sometimes those themes may get in the way of dialogue, and they have posed challenges for me in the past.

CHEDEYA: Terence, when some people think about movie music, they think OK, well, these are couple of songs I'll buy for a soundtrack or this is just the mustard and relish on the side, or, you know, a little condiment, or it's not even important. I don't even listen to it. How do you think of the music?

Mr. BLANCHARD: It varies from director to director and film to film, actually. But mostly with Spike, Spike always views his music as being a separate character, a whole nother piece to the puzzle, if you will. And he's always paid a lot of respect to the music. You know, not only mine, but the incidental music as well.

CHIDEYA: When you were faced with either the dailies or the rough cut or the script, how do you think about story?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh, you have to. You have to think about the story. You have to think about the big picture, because within any story there's an art. And you have to make sure that the music enhances those places that need to be enhanced within that art. You have to stay within the context of the story. But at the same time, there could be many variables. So I'm constantly thinking about the big picture. You know, not necessarily what the music should do at any given point, but where is it going? You know, where is it ultimately going to end up?

CHIDEYA: We've been talking a lot about the marriage between film and story and the music that you create. So why don't you tell us why the themes for "25th Hour" and "Inside Man" worked for those films. Let's listen to a little bit from the "25th Hour."

(Soundbite of theme song to "25th Hour")

CHIDEYA: What about that really resonated with you? Why did you create it?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I mean, when you listen to some of the music in "25th Hour," you know, Spike wanted to make sure that music kept you in a post-9/11 New York. And so in my mind, that meant bagpipes, that meant Irish flutes, which represented the New York Police Department and the Fire Department. It also meant to me that there was Arabic percussion and Arabic vocals that could have been used, which represented al Qaeda. And in various scenes throughout, you know, "25th hour," you'll hear those elements, you know, throughout any given scene, which subliminally should keep you in the mindset that this is after 9/11, and it gives a certain type of flavor to the film.

CHIDEYA: What about "Inside Man"?

Mr. BLANCHARD: "Inside Man" is a little different, in that, you know, Denzel's character is kind of like an old-school cop, you know. So hence the R&B type of groove that you will hear under the main theme in some various spots in that particular film. I tried to draw upon some of the old-school R&B grooves to kind of give him more of a flavor. Because to me his character reminded me of some of my uncles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: You know, guys who were very serious about what they did. You know, very good at their jobs, but also loved their music.

(Soundbite of theme song to "Inside Man")

CHIDEYA: What is the benefit and what's the risk of trying to do film work? I mean, I'm sure that on some level, there's only 24 hours in a day.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Uh huh

CHIDEYA: And you have to make decisions about where you're going to put your time. How do you, for example, make those decisions?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, the thing about doing film work is, is that the limitations are the things that actually make you creative. You know, because not having the type of time you would really want to write this music, it forces you to make choices, and it forces you, you know, to come to the point where you have to live with those choices. And the more you do it, the better you become at it, you know. And my background as a jazz musician has always aided me in that regard, being able to think quickly on my feet. But at the same time, you know, it's made me learn how to really organize my time, you know.

When I get a film, the first thing I try to do is break it down structurally. I try to, you know, identify certain thematic things that may occur. And then, once I get all of those things set aside in my mind structurally and how the score should evolve, then it makes scoring it that much easier, actually.

CHIDEYA: In a 1994 interview for Downbeat magazine, you said, "Writing for film is fun but nothing can beat being a jazz musician playing a club, playing a concert." Do you still think that?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, live performance for me has always been where it's at. I mean don't get me wrong. I mean, you know, there are different forms of expression, so they all have their plusses and minuses, you know.

The film thing allows me to be creative, you know, with different sonic textures, different sonic ensembles and different musical genres whereas, you know, the immediacy of playing with a band is something totally different, you know, because the guys may throw something at me musically, and then I'll respond, which will make us go in a certain musical direction one night, which will be different from the night prior to and probably will yet be different the next night.

So that kind of excitement, that kind of creative energy, is something that I've always yearned, and I've always cherished, you know. So I have a lot of fun playing live.

CHIDEYA: Terence Blanchard, thank you for your time.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure talking to you, as always.

CHIDEYA: Terence Blanchard is an internationally renowned jazz trumpeter, band leader, composer and film-score writer. We spoke to him while he was on the road touring, from Gainesville, Florida.

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