a tale of one trumpeter's will (part one)
Terence Blanchard's story, as told through his horn:
For the past twenty years, Terence Blanchard's music has supported Spike Lee's stories. Now, inspired by Lee, Blanchard tells his own tale, furthering both his own artistry and the healing process throughout New Orleans. Blanchard's new CD, "A Tale of God's Will"(Blue Note, out 8/14) adapts the music he composed for Lee's HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke" into a suite for jazz ensemble and chamber orchestra -- a purely instrumental statement about New Orleans in the wake of the floods that, to my ears, is the first sophisticated expression of its kind.
Unlike iconic trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, who left New Orleans for fame and for good, Blanchard returned to his hometown at the apex of his career a decade ago. Blanchard followed Marsalis into the trumpet chair of drummer Art Blakey's band, and in making the move to New York at a time when record companies were snapping up "young lions" (especially those from "jazz's birthplace"). Though Blanchard lacks Marsalis's media profile, his music has reached well beyond jazz's core audience, perhaps more so even than Marsalis's: Blanchard's is the musical signature for some three dozen feature films, including all of Lee's work since the late 1980s. (He played the trumpet part behind Denzel Washington's character in "Mo Better Blues," and did an onscreen cameo in "Malcolm X.")
With his working jazz quintet, Blanchard's trumpet distills the curled phrases and bent tones of his New Orleans predecessors without a hint of throwback or caricature. And his responses to the tragedy of Katrina -- through his music, as an educator and administrator, and in conversation -- are strongly voiced, finely nuanced, and free of the strange mixture of positive spin and utter resignation one gets from many New Orleans musicians.
Just days after the release of Blanchard's new CD, soon after he returns from leading his quintet on a European tour, he'll ease this year's class of students into a new semester at Loyola University, as director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Masters Program: Blanchard was the driving force in bringing the program to New Orleans (he has worked at its previous host university, USC, for the past seven years). "A lot of musicians got out there, holding fundraisers, and I played some of those," he told me. "But I wanted to see what I could do that might be of more permanent value." The Monk program, which trains its participants not just as performers but also as teachers through work with local public schools, can make a dent in one of the most daunting problems facing New Orleans -- a withering school system that has long been a breeding ground for its finest musicians.
I called Blanchard in 2005, just after he'd watched former FEMA director Michael Brown's testimony before Congress on C-SPAN. "It's too early to process all this right now, but I think you'll see in coming years that jazz musicians will create works that speak directly to what's gone on here." "God's Will," contains tight compositional cues underscoring deep pain but also moments during which Blanchard pushes his trumpet beyond its comfortable range -- not screeches, exactly, and nothing close to Abbey Lincoln's screams on Max Roach's 1960 "Freedom Now! Suite," but still angrier and less digestible than anything heard on his previous dozen albums.
At one point in Lee's "Levees," Blanchard escorted his mother back to her home, where he was born and raised. She broke down crying in the doorway with the realization that everything inside has been destroyed, right down to the family photos. "Spike's film showed a very literal expression of what my family went through," Blanchard said. "Now I can tell a little more of that story, taking my time and using the language I know best." He's done that with his new recording. "The strings are the water, my trumpet the cry for help that got no response for days," Blanchard told me. Another piece, "Funeral Dirge," is, for Blanchard attempt to pay respects to the people who gave their lives trying to help others.
I've interviewed Blanchard at several key points during the nearly two years since the 2005 floods: shortly after he returned home; while working with Lee on the "Levees" soundtrack; after an emotional performance at the New Orleans jazz & Heritage Festival; and sitting amid the boxes that filled his new Uptown home, just down the street from the Loyola campus.
"I'm telling you, it took all my energy not to become a bitter person making Spike's documentary," Blanchard said last year at Music Shed studio in New Orleans. "I looked at all of these people pleading for help, looked at them every day. And at the same time I did that I saw no public outcry and no president or other official stepping up with real action."
Blanchard brings his working quintet to Manhattan's Jazz Standard in mid-Septmeber, where jazz cognoscenti can experience his new music firsthand and up-close; he performs his "God's Will" score with the Louisiana Philharmonic at Tulane University on Nov. 3rd; and, on Dec. 8th, the Kennedy Center presents "the Movie Music of Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard" (with Blanchard's band, a chamber orchestra, comments from Lee, and film clips).
Blanchard's long-standing collaboration with Spike Lee, his work as educator, and his new CD as strands of a jazz career that, in Katrina's wake, projects an energy often absent from current New Orleans coverage: a vitality and sense of purpose that, far from shrugging off the pain, shame, and hurt, channels them into something useful and even beautiful.
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