a tale of terence blanchard's will (the full story)

Those who attended Terence Blanchard's Saturday night concert with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at Tulane University's Dixon Hall heard the trumpeter tell his story through music. And as Blanchard led his quintet and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra through the music of his latest Blue Note CD, A Tale of God's Will, largely drawn from his score to Spike Lee's HBO documentary 'When the Levees Broke," still shots from the film were projected above the stage, supporting the music with visuals This made for some touching moments, as when the post-Katrina ruins of the Blanchard's childhood home flashed above, as well as an awkward one, when, for a prolonged moment, the image of Mayor Ray Nagin loomed over the musicians.

Blanchard, who spoke touchingly and sometimes humorously between numbers, had one moment of memorable defiance and drew deep belly laughs when he shared his retort to concerned folks he's encountered while on the road since Katrina: "Don't worry about us in New Orleans" he said. "We'll be fine because we hate your music and we can't stand your food."

But mostly it was Blanchard's tale, as related through compositions by he and his band members. Here's how the trumpeter spilled it out in words for the October issue of Jazziz magazine:


In 1980, trumpeter Terence Blanchard left his home in New Orleans - first for Rutgers University in New Jersey, then Art Blakey's band, and finally, Brooklyn, New York, where he settled in 1982. In the fall of 1995, he moved back to New Orleans for a number of reasons, including a desire to recapture the simple joys of his musical roots.

On Sunday, August 28, 2005, Blanchard and his family evacuated their city as Hurricane Katrina approached. By December 1, they were back, picking up the pieces of daily life, along with so many of their neighbors. Through his new Blue Note CD, A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina, and through collaborations with director Spike Lee, with his working band, and his trumpet, Blanchard has slowly begun expressing the complex emotions left in the wake of the flood. He shares them here.

By Terence Blanchard
with Larry Blumenfeld

SILENCE WAS ALL I HEARD when I listened for the music of my requiem for Hurricane Katrina. And silence is the dominant memory of the first time I visited my mother's house after the flood. Standing in front of her house I heard no birds, no one cutting grass, no insects, no cars - nothing.

It was Robin, my wife and manager, who suggested I take my compositions for Spike Lee's documentary, When the Levees Broke, and arrange them for jazz band and orchestra. So the silence I was hearing broke as I began to deal with that music. I started, instead, to hear voices and the stories those voices told - of people on rooftops waiting and crying for help, beating back the heat. Of water everywhere you looked. I tried to give the listener an idea of all this through my arrangement of the opening piece, "Levees." The strings are the water, my trumpet; the cry for help that got no response for days. Another piece, "Funeral Dirge," is an attempt to pay my respects to the people who gave their lives trying to help others. Thinking about those dead bodies all around New Orleans still shakes me to my knees. The idea that this could happen - that this did happen - in my hometown is unthinkable. Even today, when we play these pieces, I get emotional - not over the music, but in response to these indelible images.

The making of my musical requiem, A Tale of God's Will, brought on its own flood - of memories in Katrina's wake. Immediately after the hurricane, I think we were all numb. We were trying to make sense of it all. I remember that when we realized we couldn't go home, we felt as if we were trapped in a bad dream. Here we were, Robin and me, at the Doubletree in Atlanta with our two girls and some family friends, trying to figure what was the next move. Meanwhile, I'm still trying to find my mom. Our friend Leslie said she was going to Colorado to stay with her brother. My niece Neana was going back to D.C. We had a place in L.A., so we figured we should go there. We quickly bought tickets and, leaving our car and truck in Atlanta, flew to L.A. This entire time I'm thinking, What the hell is happening in my home? Where is the help? How come the city is still flooded? Where is my mom? And how the hell did those levees break? I remember feeling helpless and hopeless.

We all rely on our government to give us the basics to take care of our families. We expect our government to protect us from harm. After kissing our asses for votes, we expect them to keep their most essential promises. Not so. And it's not just the politicians that left a stinging feeling. I remember screaming at the TV news to stop calling us "refugees." Those people in those stories looked like my family, not refugees. They were taxpayers, voters, churchgoers, hard-working family people. I kept thinking, Why are blacks identified as "looting" when whites are described as "foraging for food"? It was as if the networks unwittingly revealed a side of themselves that's usually hidden away. This was the first time I can recall not feeling like a citizen at all. I felt homeless. Don't get me wrong: I knew that people all over the country wanted to help us - many opened their wallets wide - but I felt as though America didn't see us for us - for who we really are. The wild thing is that I never felt like it was malicious. It just opened my eyes to what has always gone on and is still going on here, to the reality of unintentional racism. People may have good intentions, but those intentions are clouded by their own biases.

Spike Lee's film was my first chance to express my experiences, to vent my frustration, and look for healing. We were doing the music to another film of his, Inside Man. I had evacuated to L.A. and was set up in a small apartment there. Spike flew to L.A. to finish the score. I will never forget that when he walked into my place, the first thing he said was, "I'm going to do a story on those levees because that story has to be told." I thought to myself, Here is a guy who has compassion for humanity, and the power to give voice to the voiceless. Because of his documentary, everywhere I go people ask about my mom and about my city - how she's doing, how we're all doing. In those moments, I get a chance to tell people: If you cried for my mom, multiply that cry by hundreds of thousands because she represents so many others who have gone through the same thing - who've suffered and yet still want to rebuild, to go home. As for my mom, we have just about everything done to rebuild her home. She will be back in it by the time you read this.

Now, I have a special opportunity to give something back to my city and to help it heal, through my role as artistic director of the masters program at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in New Orleans. Here's how that came about: Tom Carter (the Institute's executive director) told me that we were leaving USC, and I told Robin that same day. Soon after, Robin, Vincent Bennett (my road manager), and I were invited to speak to the music department at Loyola University in New Orleans. Little did I know that Robin had already discussed the idea of moving the Institute to Loyola with John Snyder (head of Loyola's music-industry program). After the lecture, John, Robin, and Loyola's Dean, Ed Kvet, began a conversation with me. Someone - I can't recall who - said it would be great to have the Monk Institute here. I had to laugh: It was the right thing to do, and everyone around me had come to the same conclusion without my saying a word. A few weeks later, at the Monk Institute's annual competition in D.C., I talked to Tom Carter about moving the masters program to New Orleans. "It just makes so much sense," I remember saying. "The birthplace of the music, and a whole city, are in need. This would help." I put Tom and John in touch with each other, and then Robin and I helped shape the deal that brought the program to New Orleans. Students arrived in mid-August.

I hope that the Monk students gain insight from their stay in the birthplace of jazz. I know what the city has done for me. I'd heard the musicians in the French Quarter playing traditional New Orleans jazz. At the same time, I was exposed to the likes of Ellis Marsalis, Kidd Jordan, Alvin Batiste, and Roger Dickerson, who, though steeped in tradition, were free thinkers. So I understood that this music had to evolve, that it wasn't a stagnant art form. That understanding represents the greatest message and challenge for jazz education. I also hope that the Monk students will open the minds of the younger musicians. We plan to send them into the schools to help younger students realize their dreams. The Monk Institute tries to find and support the most promising minds in jazz. We want those minds to connect with the youth of New Orleans and to inspire them to reach higher. My school years in New Orleans were filled with musical moments that enabled me to grow - in my early high-school days when I learned from upper classmen like Leroy Jones and Arden Jones and Kenneth Serra; and through my experiences with classmates such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Donald Harrison. We all competed, but in a way that encouraged one another. With all that New Orleans has to do to rebuild, there is the danger that the city may not keep its focus on music and arts, as it must in a city whose very identity is shaped by culture.

People often ask me about the future of the music, whether this culture will live on. The culture I grew up in will never die. It's in the air, the water, the soil, and the food of New Orleans. Many musicians have returned to rebuild their lives in the city. Some never left. We are all committed doing whatever is needed to help our communities grow and prosper. The one thing we all have learned is not to wait for government to do anything. We have to do it ourselves, the best way we can. If it means cutting the grass in our neighbor's yard, fine. If it means working together to change our school system ourselves, let's do it.

Now, two years after the floods, I feel that the Bush administration has moved on. When the president failed to mention New Orleans in his State of the Union address, I thought: Wow! He's bold enough to announce to this city that he's done with us. I took that as a slap in the face. Some of the people who voted for him died; their families deserve better. In contrast to that bitterness, I'm proud of the work that has taken place in New Orleans. Many people still are not home, but those who have come back have taken big steps toward rebuilding their lives. And they've come together to help each other rebuild homes, schools, and entire neighborhoods. I'm still proud to call New Orleans home.

Many of us look at this as a historic moment in time when we can make a statement about where our hearts lie. We feel the need to make a difference and we're acting on that need. Sometimes these actions concern big issues: Robin and her friend Leslie are working in support of two schools, New Orleans Free Academy and McDonogh 28, making sure that students have safe, clean classrooms and up-to-date books. My neighbor, Rick Mithun, who owns a contracting business, has mobilized residents to work alongside his employees to maintain the neutral grounds that divide the wide streets in our neighborhood: This may seem like a small thing, but it lifts spirits and beautifies and inspires others to do likewise.

Who knows where the music will go from here? I've never been one to predict the direction of art. But the city I love is no longer silent, as it was that day I arrived at my mother's house. One thing is certain: Music will always represent the heart, soul, spirit, and personality of this diverse culture. It will continue to tell our stories - good and bad - and to be heard.

November 7, 2007 10:37 AM |


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