Terence Blanchard Considers Life's 'Choices' The New Orleans trumpeter's newest CD, Choices, delves into choices we make as individuals and as a society. He returned to his hometown to record the project, and continues to ask questions about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
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Terence Blanchard Considers Life's 'Choices'

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Terence Blanchard Considers Life's 'Choices'

Terence Blanchard Considers Life's 'Choices'

Terence Blanchard Considers Life's 'Choices'

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New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard's 2009 CD Choices is his follow-up to 2007's A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina).

On his 2007 album A Tale of God's Will, Terence Blanchard looked for comfort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Shannon Brinkman hide caption

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Shannon Brinkman

On his 2007 album A Tale of God's Will, Terence Blanchard looked for comfort in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Shannon Brinkman

He returned to his hometown to record Choices at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. On the album, Blanchard raises questions he has about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, on both a personal and a societal level.

Choices features excerpts from an interview with Cornel West. Guitarist Lionel Loueke and singer, musician and composer Bilal also make guest appearances.

Here, Blanchard talks about the recording with Rebecca Roberts, and describes his impressions of the recovery process in New Orleans.


In the four years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard has used his music to explore the questions and emotions that has affected him and his hometown. In his 2007 release, "A Tale of God's Will," a requiem for Katrina, Blanchard says he tried to find spiritual answers and comfort in the wake of the tragedy.

For his latest project, "Choices," Blanchard continues the discussion, with help from Cornel West, and tries to answer more of the questions raised by Katrina and its aftermath. "Choices" also explores the decisions we make as individuals and as part of the larger society.

We'll talk with Terence Blanchard in just a moment. But if you have questions for Terence Blanchard about his process in using music to open up a larger dialogue and how his hometown in New Orleans is recovering, our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

"Choices" is the name of the new CD. And Terence Blanchard is here in studio with me. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. TERENCE BLANCHARD (Jazz Trumpeter): Yeah, it's good to be back, Rebecca. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: Your last album, right after the storm, "A Tale of God's Will," there was kind of through line. We could hear the anguish of the storm and the loss of life and property. And there's a little hope at the end. The new album "Choices," it's a little more chaotic. There's a little more turmoil there.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, the new album is really about the renovation and resurgence of the city. You know, in the choices that we are making to kind of - to not only better our community, but, you know, we also want to raise the debate about the choices we have made that has put us in that predicament in the first place.

But I look at it as a means to, kind of, create the debate about the positive things that are going on, because there are a lot of great things going on in the city right now.

ROBERTS: Like what?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, in the music side, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz -which is an institution that I've been a part of about 10 years - we moved to New Orleans two years ago. And we've always had a big commitment to community service. And we take - what we do is we have graduate students that we choose from all around the world and we give them a two-year-commitment. And we take them and we have them go into the middle schools and high schools and work with young students to help prepare them and inspire them to be jazz musicians.

I'm also working with the lieutenant governor's office, Mitch Landrieu, to revitalize the U.S Mint Building. We want to renovate it and make it a first-class performance space. And we're also going to put a jazz museum on the second floor of that building. I'm also working with another group called Music National Services, which is kind of like music - kind of like we Teach for America Program, where we bring - we will bring in educators. We're trying to bring educators to the city, older educators who were there and knew people into the music world. We have four that we've brought in so far. And we have been working with kids from kindergarten through third grade. And we have four teachers working with 800 students.

So those are just some of the things that are happening on the music side. And that's - that, I'm, you know, that's where my level of expertise resides, but there are a lot of other things that are going on as well.

ROBERTS: Do you think the sound of the music being created there is different since the storm?

Mr. BLANCHARD: You know, suddenly, the characteristics of New Orleans was - that's never going to go. The character of the city is always going to be a part of whatever it is that we do. But I think there are some subtle changes. And I think it has to do with the intent of the stories.

There are a lot of people who - and we've all been shaken to our core. I mean, let's face facts. I mean, this is a very tragic event to deal with and it's made us all reassess what's important to us. So just in that regard itself, I think the music has changed a bit.

ROBERTS: Do you think there was a time - and maybe it's still going on - when the tourists went away and who was left was the locals.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: And they had a more of a chance to feed on each other a little bit and learn from each other without having to please the tourist crowd?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I think that's still going on. I think it really started right in the aftermath of the hurricane because when you're dealing with survival, all of those other things that we kind of - use to polarize ourselves with, all of those things go out the window.

But, I think when you look at what has happened politically in New Orleans, we got to a point where, you know, we felt like we couldn't trust our political leaders. So there are a lot of people who have come together who wouldn't normally work together in any other instance, but they're working together now to create a better environment for a lot of folks. There are things going on in the school system that just - it's really amazing. And it's being done through the collaborations of a lot of different folks from a lot of different areas and walks of life.

ROBERTS: For your new CD, "Choices," you collaborated with Cornel West, a professor at Princeton. I actually want to play a clip so we can listen what that sounds like.

(Soundbite of CD, "Choices")

Dr. CORNEL WEST (Professor of Religion and African-American Studies, Princeton University): I consider myself a jazz man in the world of ideas, a blues man in the life of the mind because my models, jazz musicians and blues men who have to find their voices not just the echoes, who had to have a vision not just a stare. And in the end have to be true to themselves because all imitation is suicide. All emulation is the sign of an adolescent mind. Now, all of us imitate, all of us emulate, but the ones who love us, the way Monk love Coltrane, you don't need to imitate Johnny Hodges. Go on and find your voice, brother.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: So what role did you want Cornel West to have in this project? What do you think he adds to it?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I mean, he's a brilliant speaker and he's a great - one of the greatest minds of our time. And I knew that in tackling a lot of these topics that - you know, there were some tough things to deal with and to put in perspective, you know? And I felt like, you know, doing it through song, you know, wasn't the direction that I really wanted to go. I immediately thought about spoken word and with that thought came along the only possible choice, which was Dr. West. Because I think - excuse me - he has uncanny ability to take all of these things and put them in a very concise statement for all of us to understand in a very much more manageable way.

I've listened to him speak on a number of occasions and he has the - he speaks with a lot of passion. I think he's right. He is like a jazz man in a world of ideas because he speaks with that same type of passion and…

ROBERTS: And rhythm.

Mr. BLANCHARD: …and - there you go. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. BLANCHARD: But I couldn't have thought of anyone else to do this with. And, basically, what you hear on the CD is just a conversation we had, basically.

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm. Well, it says at the end of that clip we just played…

Mr. BLANCHARD: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: …you go on and find your own voice.


ROBERTS: Do you feel like you have?

Mr. BLANCHARD: You know, we're in the process of evolving. You know, that's the way that I always like to look at it. I think, you know, one of the things about life in general is that we are constantly finding ourselves. I don't think, you know, I don't think we ever feel like we ever really reach this particular point. But, you know, it's an ongoing journey.

ROBERTS: My guest is jazz trumpeter, Terence Blanchard. You can join us at 800-989-8255 or send us email: talk@npr.org.

You actually recorded this CD in New Orleans.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: Is that the first time you've done that?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yeah, oddly enough. I mean, I've been in the business for about two weeks and it's taking me all of this time to record in New Orleans, but it was a lot of fun. And part of the reason why we did it is because the place that we chose, which was chosen by my wife - she went to a gala there at the Ogden Museum. And she was on the board. And when she saw this room, she thought it was amazing and thought that it had great acoustics and wanted me to check it out, and I did. But the real reason why we chose it is because it kind of represents what's going on in New Orleans. It's a very historic place - that's not only renovating it, but it's trying to update it and upgrade it and making it an extremely new experience for a lot of people who go to visit the museum.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Trish(ph) in Lafayette, Louisiana. Trish, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TRISH (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Mm-hmm.

TRISH: I just wanted to respond to Terence's comment about our lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu, who realizes that cultural workers, such as musicians, artists, chefs, are one of the reasons that people come to New Orleans and are coming back there.


TRISH: The state has - it's called the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation and they exist just to give grants to increase the business opportunities for musicians, artists and any kind of cultural worker. And so, to see him working - Terence working with Mitch to turn the Mint building into a performance venue is just a win-win situation both for the performing musicians and for people who love New Orleans and love to come to Louisiana.

Mr. BLANCHARD: You're exactly right. And I think one of the things I need to say also about the project is that it's not only going to be a performance space, but we want to actually equip the space with hi-tech technology which will allow us to do broadcasts of all different types via television broadcast, radio broadcast, and be able to stream those things around the world.

ROBERTS: Without being an enormous downer, because we've talked about some of the really hopeful things going on in the city, what questions do you feel like are still not answered well enough? You talked about the lack of confidence in your elected officials. What would better leadership bring, do you think? What questions are leaders not answering?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I mean, right now - I mean, for a lot of us, it's what's going on with the levees. I mean, that's in the back of our minds. It's not something that we talk about a great deal. But it is - it can be a part of the conversation. Also, what's happening…

ROBERTS: You mean with getting them rebuilt or with what happened during the storm?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Getting them rebuilt, you know, making sure that they hold. We had Gustav, and we felt kind of secure with those. But, you know, in the back of your mind, you still want to know exactly what's going on, because with some of the locks, we heard that they weren't working properly. But hopefully, all of that stuff has been taken care of. And then, for me, frankly, leadership for the future. That's the big question for me, what's going to happen in the future.

We're about to have a mayoral race and - just trying to see who's going to run, who's going to have the best vision for the city, because I think right now, it's a very crucial moment in our time. I think we need to have somebody who has a broad vision, somebody who's actually very courageous and taken some steps. That may ruffle some feathers, actually, because right now, it's about survival for us. It's not about politics. It's about really doing what's best for the community.

ROBERTS: You scored a Spike Lee movie when the levees broke and it included your mom. How is she?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: She's fine. She's fine.

ROBERTS: How's her house and her neighborhood and all that?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, her house is fine. We rebuilt the house. And she's back to being a mom. She's still telling me to put out the trash when I'm there. So, she's okay. The neighborhood is coming back slowly. There are number of people who were back, it's about half. The residents are there. But, you know, it's still one of those things where there are a lot of people who have been struggling around the country, you know, to come back. And the one thing that I fear is that some of us folks will never come back because they've, you know, they've put down roots in these communities where they are, you know? It's been a number of years since the hurricane. And some of these folks have kids that are in school and they're establishing their relationships. But having said that, there are a lot of people who have come back. And the most exciting thing about New Orleans is that, you know, it is one of the most fastest-growing cities in the country right now. I mean, and we have…

ROBERTS: Well, where do you start from that small, you're the best.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: Right. That's true. You can only go up. But you…

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from Diane(ph) in Burlingame, California. Diane, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DIANE (Caller): Thank you. Look, I'd like to let you know there are hundreds of thousands of us out here flung across the country who desperately want to come home.

Mr. BLANCHARD: I know.

DIANE: And believe me, it's the music that frees our soul. It's the music. When the musicians come out here, we don't have the money to go, but if it's free, we go and listen. I remember coming up, we'd go to Chicago and New York and all the folks will come cook and they listen to music, and it was always joyful. But now, when we listen to the music, we cry. We cry because we desperately want to come home. And see these elections and things, it's like they threw us out and are making sure we're not able to come home. There's no housing. There's no jobs. There are no schools and there's no health care. And it's like they want to make sure we're not able to come back home. And I want to applaud you for the efforts you're making. And I hope you're working with Chuck Siler at the museum.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Definitely. Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANE: But look, I'm serious. We hunger, hunger for all the news, but we live on the music. And thank you so much for thinking of us.


ROBERTS: Diane, thanks for your call.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, thank you for the call, too. And see, it's people like that that inspire us to do what we're doing because, you know, we always - New Orleans is a very small town, you know? I mean, and it's a big city in terms of what it's given to the world. But it's a small community. And the passion that you just heard is what we all feel, you know, growing up in that city. And I know that there are people like that all around the country. I run into them during my shows, you know? So we're not trying to forget those folks, you know? And that's another reason why we did the CD, is to continue the discussion about what's going on in New Orleans because there are a lot of positive things going on, don't get me wrong. But at the same time, we still have a long way to go. And we still have to make sure that for those people who don't have the resources to come home, who don't have the wherewithal, we need to try to find some solutions for them, because she's right. I mean, the housing thing is a big issue, you know, in New Orleans right now. And most people from all that, we've done away with a lot of the projects and we are trying to build low-income housing. But it's a political quagmire right now, you know? But we have to find some solutions right - some solutions for all of these people.

ROBERTS: I don't want to let you go without asking about another project you've worked on. You scored the film "The Princess and the Frog," which I'm going to have to borrow a girl-child as cover to go see it, because my sons would never be caught down to a princess movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: But it's set in New Orleans and it's in the '20s, right?

Mr. BLANCHARD: It's in the '20s. I didn't score it, Randy Newman scored it. What I did was I play - I am the trumpet sound…

ROBERTS: Oh, really?

Mr. BLANCHARD: …of Louis the alligator who plays the trumpet.

ROBERTS: So you're an alligator?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: Actually, and it was a lot of fun, man. We just finished, like, last week, recording the music. And I can't wait to see it, I mean, because it was really great going to Disney. And they took me around, then they showed me the area where the animators work and it's - you know, what's really amazing about it, they put a lot of time and effort in designing these characters. They really engross themselves in the community. They spent time in Louisiana. And even for some of the names that they want to use in the cartoon, they started to ask me about people that I grew up listening to in New Orleans, they wanted to incorporate some of those names. They actually had me record a trumpet tune that was composed by Alvin Alcorn, and he is the reason why I'm playing the trumpet, a local musician in New Orleans.

ROBERTS: Terence Blanchard, he's currently on an international tour to promote his latest project "Choices." He joined us today here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Thanks for having me. It's good to see you.

ROBERTS: For a free downloadable performance of the Terence Blanchard Quintet, head on over to npr.org.

Tomorrow, Neal Conan returns and we'll talk about the virtue of forgetting in a digital age. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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Terence Blanchard Group: Live In New Orleans

Listen Now: Terence Blanchard Quintet In Concert

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Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, flanked by pianist Fabian Almazan and saxophonist Walter Smith III. David Tallacksen hide caption

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David Tallacksen

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, flanked by pianist Fabian Almazan and saxophonist Walter Smith III.

David Tallacksen

On Demand: Interview With Terence Blanchard (By Josh Jackson, WBGO)

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When NPR Music and WBGO checked in on Terence Blanchard in February, he had just accepted a Grammy Award (for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo) and performed in the ceremony that night. Not long afterward, he introduced the new lineup of his quintet live at the Village Vanguard. We were there to record one of those sets, which is available for free download here.

That weeklong residency served as a warm-up, it turns out, to the making of a new recording. Following the group's Vanguard hit, Blanchard brought his musicians down to his hometown of New Orleans to make a forthcoming album titled Choices. That band returned to the scene of that recording — New Orleans' Ogden Museum of Southern Art — for the concert premiere of the new disc. And NPR Music and WBGO were on the scene, presenting the Terence Blanchard Group's concert as a live on-air broadcast and online video webcast.

Choices reflects on, as the press release states, "the choices we all make in life — both as a society and on a personal level." Those choices were expressed largely in sophisticated post-bop language, with twisted-line compositions occasionally hitting pockets of deep color. In making such an album, Blanchard called upon outspoken professor Cornel West to contribute spoken-word elements; West was not in attendance at the concert, but his recordings were, triggered by Blanchard's pedal board. The flexible voice of R&B singer Bilal was also summoned for the project; Bilal did appear on stage with tunes he wrote himself. And in Blanchard's quintet were longtime supporting cast members Derrick Hodge (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums), as well as relative newcomers Fabian Almazan on piano and Walter Smith on tenor saxophone. All contributed songs to the new album.

Many know Blanchard's music from his film scores: Since the early 1990s, he's been Spike Lee's first-call composer of diagetic music. Blanchard's previous album, A Tale of God's Will, was based in part on his score to Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. But before he was a film composer, he was a rising star of jazz trumpet, playing in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and going on to record many albums under his own name. Now 47 and leading musicians nearly half his age, Blanchard has taken on the role of mentor himself.

In performing in New Orleans, Blanchard returned to both his home and his office at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he serves as artistic director. The venue where his quintet performed, the 19th-century Patrick F. Taylor Library at the Ogden Museum, is the only surviving building in the South designed by New Orleans native H.H. Richardson.