Trumpeter Terence Blanchard Performs Live in 4A Born and raised among the jazz greats of New Orleans, renowned trumpeter Terence Blanchard captured the city's devastation in his film score for Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke. He discusses his latest project, A Tale of God's Will (a requiem for Katrina).
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Trumpeter Terence Blanchard Performs Live in 4A

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Terence Blanchard left his hometown of New Orleans as a young man to go to New York and make his name in jazz. He got one big break when he replaced Wynton Marsalis, another man from New Orleans, on trumpet for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. He lived in Brooklyn at that time, where he connected with movie director Spike Lee, and established himself as a composer of film scores.

Last year, for Spike Lee's documentary "When the Levees Broke," Blanchard came full circle. He appeared in front of the camera on an emotional journey to his childhood home, and the score he's wrote for that documentary become the basis of a new CD that's out this week "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)."

If you have questions for Terence Blanchard about his career, his work in film, about the city of New Orleans, or about jazz education, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Terence Blanchard joins us here in studio 4A with the members of his band: Brice Winston on saxophone; Fabian Almazan on piano; Derrick Hodge on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums, off there in the closet behind us; and of course, Terence Blanchard is on trumpet.

Thank you all for joining us on the program today.

Mr. TERENCE BLANCHARD (Jazz Musician; Composer, Film Scorer): Thanks for having us.

CONAN: Why don't we begin with a tune?

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song "In Time of Need")

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Brice Winston on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Terence Blanchard latest CD is called "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." It's in stores today. He is here with us here in studio 4A on TALK OF THE NATION.

And, Terence Blanchard, I've read that you write your scores after a film has been edited. After being part of that experience in New Orleans in Katrina, this must have been a difficult thing to do.

Mr. BLANCHARD: It was probably the most difficult artistic project that I've ever been associated with. Most films that I work on that have serious emotional content - if it ever gets too thick for me, you know, I can take a break. I can go outside, I can hang out, I could go to lunch, do whatever.

Working on "Levees" was extremely hard because, you know, I kept looking at these horrible images, you know, everyday. And want to take a break, and I'd go outside and the grocery stores weren't open. Restaurants weren't open. Streetlights didn't work. There were stop signs everywhere.

My mom was still, you know, she hadn't relocated back to New Orleans yet. She was still in Los Angeles. So it was a hard process to be a part of, but at the same time, I was very proud of being a part of that project because I looked at what Spike had done and I thought he gave voice to the voiceless. And I told him - I said I'm forever be in his debt for that.

CONAN: Your mom was a big part of that picture.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yeah. Yes, she was a big part of the picture, and it just kind of happened. We were in L.A. doing the music to "Inside Man." And I was out with the orchestra recording a scene, and I had come in to listen to a playback. And my mom had never - it was one good thing about Katrina - my mom had never been to a film scoring session of mine.

So while she was out in L.A., you know, I brought her to the studio and I came in for a playback, and Spike goes we're going to film your mom going in a house. And I went, oh, okay. But then, I looked at my mom and I said are you sure? And she said, yeah, and I didn't press it right then. I waited until we got back home and I said that do you realize the type of invasion that's about to occur if you do that?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLANCHARD: And her response was, yeah, but a lot of people need to see what we're going through. So, you know, a lot of people have been coming up to me and saying that, man, when your mom came on the screen, I really cried. It really broke me up. And the thing that I told them - I said, well, if you felt that way for my mom, you have to really multiply that by at least 100,000 people because my mom is just one of a large number of people who had the exact same experience.

CONAN: Terence Blanchard and his mom were featured in "When the Levees Broke," the Spike Lee documentary. There's a new CD out that was based on the score that Terence Blanchard wrote for that documentary and it's called "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." We'll have more with Terence Blanchard, more music and we'll take your calls for him.

If you'd like to talk to him about New Orleans, about jazz education, about, well, anything at all, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: If you've seen any of Spike Lee's movies, you can probably recognize the music of our guest today, Terence Blanchard. In the film "Mo' Better Blues," that's Blanchard's technique you see whenever Denzel Washington picks up the horn.

Washington plays a determined jazz trumpeter, but probably couldn't have pulled it off without the help of Blanchard's coaching. If you have questions for Terence Blanchard, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We've also posted a great piece, a solo piano version from "A Tale of God's Will," online at npr.org/music.

So you taught Denzel Washington how to swing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I don't know about the lad, but no, I taught him how to act like he was a trumpet player. But I got to show him a better deal, man. I made him look good on film, but he hasn't made look me good. He hadn't taught me how to look like him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, a number of people have noticed that the character he plays, there's no small resemblance to you. The film opens with the kid stuck in a piano, practicing piano, and the rest of the kids going out to play.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh, man, you know, it was a very interesting. I just did an interview with another journalist, and I took him to my mother's home and we're standing by the window. And I said, man, you don't know how many days I sat here and practiced the piano while all of my boys were right out there in the street playing football, mocking me. You know, Terence, come on. Oh, that's right. He's got to practice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we got some callers in on this conversation. And why don't we go with - this is - let me figure this out. And, Matt, Matt, are you on the line?

MATT (Caller): Yes, I am.

CONAN: Go ahead. Matt's with...

MATT: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: ... Aiken, South Carolina.

MATT: I was about five when I first saw the movie "Malcolm X." And what struck me more than these images on the screen and the burning X with the American flag was the wild trumpet solo going over that in the beginning.

And I was wondering if when he - when Terence composes for films, is it more about bringing the audience into the movie through creating a more accurate environment like the 1950s and 1960s with "Malcolm X"? Or, is it to emphasize the emotions and the characters and what they're going through on the film?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I think for me - that's a great question, by the way. Thank you. For me, I try to bring the audience into my experience, especially with a film like "Malcolm X." There was enough music there - prerecorded music, I guess I should say - that would give the audience a sense of the time period and the flavor of that period.

But for me, you know, I had my own experiences with Malcolm X as a kid. First time I heard one of his speeches, I was scared to death. I didn't understand what I was listening to. And I thought that most people that I talked to had similar experiences. So I tried to draw on those things - the honesty and what I feel - and tried to create music based on that.

CONAN: You talk about an overwhelming power - you're making a movie about Malcolm X, who's said to be intimidating at the least.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh, man, let me tell you something. And it was the second movie I've ever done in my life, so I was scared to death. But Wind Thomas(ph), who was the set designer, he said the best thing that we could do is be professional. And I remember when he said that to me, it just kind of shoot me back into reality.

So we all worked 150 percent on that project, but we tried to not become so consumed with what we were working on, you know, because we knew by doing that, we'd, you know, we'd totally be intimidated by the entire project.

CONAN: Hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Matt.

MATT: Mm-hmm. Thank you.

CONAN: And let me ask you. People listening on the radio don't have the option, the chance to see the horn you're playing, which is a little unusual. I could describe it. It's got, well, solids in places where you don't expect. And it doesn't have a detachable mouthpiece to it. It's all sort of aligned.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Right. A lot of people come up to me after the show, saying, man, how do you play a trumpet with no mouthpiece? But I always explain to them that it's all built-in. It's all in one piece. It's the design of a guy named David Monnett. And when I talked to him, his whole ideas - he said he tries to build these horns like they're race cars. He tries to make them very rigid, so that the sound doesn't dissipate in the vibrating metal. The sound passes through. And as a result, these horns really project.

CONAN: There's also a device, a foot pedal with - that's 10-foot pedals in front of you, which sounds like, it looks like an electronic processor next to it.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh, yeah. That - the one right in front of me is actually like an organ foot pedal and the one to the right is just a mini-controller, which actually helps me to change the sounds in the sampler that's further to my right. What I'm - I've been into things. I've been doing the film thing, trying to add a lot of different types of ambient sounds to what we do. And it was a point in which everybody had something going on. But it's rolled down to just me right now.

CONAN: Just you.

Mr. BLANCHARD: But I think in the future, we're going to bring some of those things back to the group.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is, let's see if we can go to Alicia(ph). Alicia with us from Evanston, Illinois.

ELYSIA(ph) (Caller): Yes, Elysia.

CONAN: Elysia, excuse me.

ELYSIA: It's okay. I wanted to know - I want to ask about what you think jazz' impact is on the younger generation, with the advent of digital music and kind of musical instruments and live performance not really being taught as much or even the disaster in Katrina as affecting, you know, jazz or the huge jazz city in this country. How do you think younger generations are taking on the jazz? Or where does jazz go from here?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I think you'd be very interested to know that it's alive and well in a lot of these educational programs. And the artistic director for the Monterey Jazz Festival - and they have a summer program that was well attended. In New Orleans, we have a number of young kids who are part of the school systems, who are really talented and are really interested in playing music.

And I think jazz is a great avenue for them because, as you said, with the digital age, there's not much for them to learn or do, you know? I mean, we have some musicians in this group here who play a lot of different types of music, but they chose to make this their main thing that they do.

And I think that says a lot about where jazz is headed, you know? We are getting those brilliant minds, those young minds, who are going to create new forms and new sounds of the future.

CONAN: You're also the head of the Thelonious Monk...

Mr. BLANCHARD: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...a program, which - you helped to engineer a move for that program from the University of Southern California to New Orleans.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yeah. When we found out that our contract was up - where we were on California, I immediately started lobbying for New Orleans because I started to realize that the program that we worked with at the Monk Institute, we have a serious high school outreach program, where we send our students into the high schools to work with a number of kids.

And it was very successful in California. And I told Tom Carter, who's the director of the program, I said, you know, what city's more deserving of that right now but New Orleans, which also happens to be the birthplace of the music.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller in. This is Phil(ph), Phil with us from Bend, Oregon. Phil, you're...

PHIL (Caller): Hi. I - can you hear me?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. You're on the air. Go ahead.

PHIL: Hi. I just want to say that I've always been an admirer of Mr. Blanchard's work.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Thank you.

PHIL: And I love the sound of that. I love the sound of the trumpet.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Thank you.

PHIL: And for a long time, it seems like the trumpet was absent from popular music - I'm also a pop music fan. But now I hear - I want to hear more and more trumpet playing, working his way back into popular music. And I wonder if he has a comment about that or where he sees that trend going.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Man, I totally agree because, you know what? I used to hate watching a movie and all of a sudden, the love scene will come on, a sexy woman would come on the screen and you'd hear a saxophone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: Wait a minute. Hold on. All the time you would hear a trumpet would be at the racetrack, man. So hopefully, I've been trying to do my part to turn that around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PHIL: Well, it's curious because it seems - I played in bands before. And it seems like the women are - they go crazy for the sax players, while the trumpet gets no love at all.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Not in this band. Not. Yeah. Yeah. Not in this band. No. No. Not in this band. The people here go crazy for the sax player when he finishes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: No. It's just an inside joke. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's all right. Thanks very much for the call, Phil.

Mr. BLANCHARD: All right.

PHIL: You're welcome.

CONAN: How about another tune?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Sure. We're going to play - well, you know, I didn't tell the name of the first one. The first tune was actually written by our own saxophonist...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLANCHARD: ...called "In Time of Need." And right now, we're going to...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yeah. And right now we want to play Aaron Park's composition. This is called "Ashe'."

(Soundbite of song "Ashe'")

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Terence Blanchard with us in studio 4A.

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

And Terence, this is a sad day in jazz. News earlier today, the great drummer/composer Max Roach died. You knew him?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yes, I did. I met him years ago when I first started playing with Art Blakey. It was a magical time in my life because I was meeting all of my heroes. And he was one of true pioneers in this business. And he will be extremely missed. When I found out today, I felt, like, you know, there's a segment of our history that's, like, you know, the segment of this period in jazz - there's a chapter that's been closed.

CONAN: For those who did not - are unfamiliar with his work, what would you say Max Roach should be remembered for?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Max Roach - for two things. First of all, he's probably one of the most melodic drummers that had come along in the bebop period, you know, because when you listen to his drum solos, his drum solos contained a lot of melodic content. But, also, he was a person who was socially conscious. And, you know, he knew how to bring that social awareness into his realm of his art, and he never forgot that. I mean, he always seemed to make sure that as an artist, his music reflected his cultural surroundings as well. I mean, when I look at Max Roach, you know, and I - I mean, you can't say it enough. He's truly one of the great pioneers in this business.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Not only socially conscious, he would listen to no one when they said, look, this isn't selling. This isn't commercial.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, that's a sign of a true artist. I mean, because sometimes, you know, a person of his statute - not everyone - but a person of a genius statute like a Max Roach can have something that he believes in so much that he has to stick to his guns because - let's face it, you know, with any type of innovation, you know, it doesn't become immediately recognizable to everybody at one time. You know, some - think about the guy who thought about bottling water. Can you imagine that pitch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's sad, though, when a lion like that leaves us.

Mr. BLANCHARD: It's very sad. I mean, you know, like I said, I felt like it's -I feel like it's an end of an era, you know? I just thought about today, I'll never get a chance to see him live again. I'll never get a chance to talk to him or just experience his brilliance as a musician, because one of the things that I've always loved about Max is that he never stopped growing, you know, even up to the latter part of his years. He had the Double Quartet. He had different types of groups. He was always trying to expand, you know, his musical experiences, you know? And that's a sign of a true artist.

CONAN: More music from Terence Blanchard and more of your calls in just a moment. The new CD out this week is called "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." We'll hear about the trip back home to New Orleans and take more of your calls. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Today, the music of Terence Blanchard and his band. They are Brice Winston on sax, Fabian Almazan on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. And the latest CD is called "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." It's in stores today from Blue Note Records.

If you have questions for him about his music, his movie scores or his New Orleans roots, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. E-mail: talk@npr.org.

And why don't we get another caller on. And this - if I can push the right button - will be Jim, and Jim's calling us from Sonora in California.

JIM (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JIM: First of all, I just like to say thank you to Terence and his bandmates for his music...

Mr. BLANCHARD: Thank you.

JIM: ...and their dedicated creativity in keeping this music alive and going. Whether they realize it or not, they are now the lions. And I'm a drummer, and losing Max today - as I just found out from listening to your show - is very depressing, but these guys keep it alive and that's what matters. My question to you, Mr. Blanchard, is how is the state of jazz in New Orleans today?

Mr. BLANCHARD: It's alive and well, I mean, like any - everything else in New Orleans. I mean, we've taken a serious hit, and it's going to take us a long time to fully rebound and recover from it. But I'm very pleased to say that I'm very proud of the citizens in New Orleans because there are a lot of guys who have come back and they're playing, they're doing their thing in spite of, you know, the minimal amount of help and relief that they've haven't gotten up until this point. But the spirits - their spirits are alive and well and, you know, that music is the lifeblood of the city.

JIM: Yes and...

CONAN: Just - let me interrupt just a moment. We've referred to the death of George Brumat, the owner of Snug Harbor...

Mr. BLANCHARD: Yes.

CONAN: ...and that jazz club in New Orleans. He was on our program here in 2005 to talk about the music and bringing it back to New Orleans. You've had many gigs at Snug Harbor, and George Brumat made sure the city - New Orleans musicians kept working after the storm.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, yeah, I mean, we understood that, you know, music is the thing that help - Art Blakey used to say music washes away the dust of everyday life, you know, and we understood that as musicians. And we also knew that not only was it important for us to keep the music alive and well in New Orleans, but we had to keep talking about the city when we traveled because, you know, we didn't want, you know, the story to die. We want the people to understand that, you know, this city has been totally destroyed, you know, and it's going to take - it's not going to come back in one or two years. This is decades of work that we're looking, you know, to achieve.

And the amazing thing about it is that the music itself seems to be rejuvenating a lot of souls in New Orleans. You go out to the clubs and the clubs are full with locals, you know, not tourists - locals. People are coming out and they're supporting the music and, you know, they're having a good time. And it's helping them to get through all of this turmoil and all of this, you know - I can't think of a word right now, but it's a very rough time for a lot of folks.

CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much for the call, Jim.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And why don't you clean away some of our dust, have another tune?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: Okay, we're going to play a composition written by our drummer, and he calls this "Mantra."

(Soundbite of song "Mantra")

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Kendrick Scott's "Mantra." Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Brice Winston on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott, the composer, on drums.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an e-mail question we have from Edward. Terence, I hear the ghost of Charlie Parker in some of your music, would you consider Charlie Parker an influence, and if so, to what extent?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh, definitely an influence. You know, he's the father of bebop, and I take that as a great compliment. But, wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: When you're talking about Charlie Parker, man, I mean, you know, to put him in the context is like a person who created an entirely new language that everyone started to speak afterwards. I mean, it's something that's kind of inconceivable right now. But when you think about it, that's exactly what happened. Him and Dizzy Gillespie together just forged ahead and created a new path of expression, you know, that became the norm.

CONAN: Hmm. Were they some of the guys you listened to as a kid, because I know you've talked about Freddie Hubbard and some younger guys.

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh yeah. But, I mean, I definitely listened to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker growing up. I mean, when I got a chance to meet Dizzy, man, there was nothing I could say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLANCHARD: I just stared and looked at him like I'm a...

CONAN: You didn't have to. If I knew Dizz, he would fill all those spaces himself, yeah.

Mr. BLANCHARD: That's true, too.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BLANCHARD: But I know you thought I was crazy because I just followed him around the dressing room for about five minutes. Just looked at him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You are scoring films. You're an educator. Why do you think it's important to find time and continue to tour?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Oh. Well, touring is where the music is created. Touring is how it's developed. You know, when you listen to all the bands that I'd loved growing up, you know, including Bert and Dizz(ph), Miles' band, Monk's band, Train's(ph) band, Ornette Coleman, all those - Max and Clifford - all those were touring groups that hone their craft by playing.

You know, putting in the hours. You know, getting tired of playing the same phrases and learning new phrases and learning new ways of expressing themselves. I think it's very important to play. And the immediacy of it is unmatched anywhere.

CONAN: Yet, you also, in those settings, have to overcome - you're tired, you're depressed, you're - it's always not - not always so easy to go out there and...

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, actually, sometimes when you're tired, that's the best thing for you, to be honest, because your brains gets out of the way. You know, sometimes when you think too much, you can think yourself into a hole. And you're not- and the music is actually going by you. You know, you're not allowing it to speak through you. You know, that's why Art Blakey used to call this group the Jazz Messengers because he always used to say it's from the creator the artist, direct to the audience. And I'm a firm believer in that.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get one last caller in. This is Karl(ph), Karl with us from Milwaukee in Wisconsin.

KARL (Caller): Yes that's right.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

KARL: Yeah, I just - you answered one of my questions about some of the influences - you have the great influences like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and so it's, kind of, answered that - you've, kind of, answered that. But I wonder, what do you see in terms of drawing from the avant-garde or free-jazz artists that you feel might be relevant to bring in to the future from today on?

Mr. BLANCHARD: Well, I think, you know, it can come from a number of different sources. I mean, I've always loved, you know, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. I love Hamiet Bluiett. I mean, there are a lot of guys in that room that I listen to as well. But I think, you know, that's just one another form of expression. And you got to remember that that's been around since the '60s as well. So I think, you know, now, innovation is going to come from some unlikely source, like it always does. You know, I don't think you really can predict that.

I think the thing for us as artists is to recognize when something comes up that's a value. You know, the think that I tell my students all the time is don't pigeonhole yourselves. Don't try to say that jazz is this or jazz is that because it's neither. You know, it's what you make it and what you make of it.

CONAN: Hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Karl.

KARL: You're welcome, thank you.

CONAN: And we want to thank our guest today, Terence Blanchard, for joining us in Studio 4A. He was on trumpet, of course. Backing up again, Brice Winston on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Terence Blanchard's latest CD is called "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." It's in stores today.

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