SCOTT SIMON, host:

Tomorrow night, the New England Conservatory of Music kicks off a weeklong celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of its jazz program. Pianist Ran Blake has been at the school the whole time. He's become sort of a legend on campus. Even before he joined the faculty, he'd built a reputation for ignoring boundaries between jazz, classical, gospel and pop. He has released 36 albums of his own; his latest reflects a rather different inspiration, film noir. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR in Boston has a profile of a most unusual musician.

ANDREA SHEA: When I got to Ran Blake's basement apartment, he just had to show me his DVD collection.

Mr. RAN BLAKE (Pianist): Now, we're going to go to, this is all Chabrol chronologically. There is "Boucher" and the second half of "Flower of Evil." "Thank You for the Chocolate" is also quite wonderful.

SHEA: To understand Blake's music, you need to understand his obsession with film noir, specifically "The Spiral Staircase," which he sat me down to watch.

(Soundbite of film "The Spiral Staircase")

SHEA: Blake's seen it thousands of times, and is quick to call it gothic noir.

Mr. BLAKE: It's not the L.A.-drenched city streets with, I hope this doesn't sound sexist, with the blonde, the guy in the raincoat, the pistol shots.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: "The Spiral Staircase" hedges on horror, with a creepy killer, a shadowy Victorian mansion, and storms.

(Soundbite of film "The Spiral Staircase")

SHEA: Blake says he first saw the movie as a kid when he snuck into a theater in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Mr. BLAKE: I never saw anything like this dark house, and to have the unknown behind the curtain.

SHEA: And then there was the music.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Sitting at his black grand piano, Blake plays his interpretation of the soundtrack with his eyes closed, as if he's watching "The Spiral Staircase" on the insides of his eyelids. For Blake, making music is a cinematic experience.

Mr. BLAKE: In rehearsal or in concerts doing solo, lights are down. I'm actually seeing visions of what I'm playing about, so when I do "Birmingham, U.S.A.," I see Martin Luther King, the school being bombed.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: History, memories, montages, flashbacks.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Scenes from films, from the news, from Blake's own life.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: They're all in his music. As a teenager, Blake says he visited the Church of God in Hartford, Connecticut, where he heard gospel for the first time.

Mr. BLAKE: The noir movies didn't have the kind of music that I got to like more and more. I mean those chords in "The Spiral Staircase" and Bernard Hermann's great score to "Vertigo" still did not address Ray Charles, Chris Connor, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha, Stevie - some of the other music I liked.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: So Blake moved to New York City when he was in his 20s.

Mr. BLAKE: I just would be overwhelmed. When you come from a little stuffy place in Connecticut and then you see Miles Davis, who could give an ugly leer, you see all of the people in the flesh.

SHEA: He met Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson and Milton Babbit, among many others. Blake got a job sweeping floors at Atlantic Records, where the young pianist was discovered by composer Gunther Schuller.

Mr. GUNTHER SCHULLER (Composer): This man is such an incredible, innovative unique genius. There's no one that plays like him and no one ever will.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Blake's unusual approach to piano playing combines modern and classical harmonies, folk music, church music and jazz. It was something Schuller himself was exploring, a kind of music he came to call the third stream. He says Blake was radical without even knowing it.

Mr. SCHULLER: You know, it's almost like autistic children can do things that you just can't comprehend how they can do that. And it's something like that because really truly he cannot explain at any point what he is doing. But he just has all of this music, both the jazz language and the classical language, in his ear, in his mind, in his heart, wherever it is. And it just flows out of him.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BLAKE: As a kid I didn't quite fit in jazz or classical or pop, so I got used to playing alone.

SHEA: Though he has performed and recorded with his own groups and lots of other musicians, Blake spends much of his time playing solo and teaching. Gunther Schuller calls him one of the most generous people he has ever met, and Blake loves to share his passion for music - and film noir.

Mr. BLAKE: Now, hear Roy Webbs music. It's terrific. It's pretty derivative at the beginning, look at that pile of wood logs, you'll see that later. The candle plays a big role.

SHEA: Blake teaches a film noir class at the New England conservatory in Boston. He spends an entire semester on "The Spiral Staircase," using it to teach aspiring jazz and classical musicians how to improvise their own soundtracks.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: This is 20-year-old guitarist Brandon Lopez(ph).

Mr. BRANDON LOPEZ (Guitarist): I've been a fan of Ran's music since I was about 16, four years ago, not really long. But he's a brilliant dude. He's almost like this kind of Beethovenian figure in jazz, which is incredible.

SHEA: The people around Blake clearly adore his quirky nature. Even the pianist recognizes that his mind doesn't work quite the way others might.

Mr. BLAKE: I want to try to be linear. I think this lack of linearity, though, has probably not made me a giant in music with these interruptions and these fading shots, these atmospheres and these rain-drenched streets on a fall night with leaves that are congealing on the sidewalks.

SHEA: So is your life a film then?

Mr. BLAKE: Yeah. And I can turn it on and off. It's sometimes a little bit hard.

SHEA: As long as Ran Blake can dim the lights, close his eyes and play the music that fills his head, his personal film will continue to roll.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

(Soundbite of music)

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