Terence Blanchard: Tragic Symphony
By now, trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard has lost track of just how many films he’s scored since 1991’s Jungle Fever, the first of his many collaborations to come with controversial filmmaker Spike Lee. “I stopped counting,” he says with a laugh, an indication of just how prolific he’s been in his “second career” as a film score composer. For the record, he’s done a baker’s dozen with Lee, including scores for such memorable films as 1992’s Malcolm X, 1995’s Clockers, 1999’s Summer of Sam, 2000’s Bamboozled, 2002’s The 25th Hour and 2005’s Inside Man. Apart from his prodigious work with Lee, Blanchard has also delivered evocative scores for 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, 1998’s HBO movie Gia (starring Angelina Jolie in a breakthrough role), 2001’s Showtime film Bojangles (starring the late Gregory Hines in one of his last roles), 2001’s Glitter (a vehicle for singer Mariah Carey), 2002’s hit film Barbershop and 2003’s Dark Blue. His latest score is for Kasi Lemmons’ new film Talk To Me, based on the life of Washington, D.C., disc jockey and political activist Petey Greene (portrayed by Don Cheadle).
Of all the scores that Blanchard has composed over the past 17 years, easily his most cathartic and emotionally wrenching project to date was composing the music for Lee’s provocative HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. A chilling account of what Hurricane Katrina wrought on the city of New Orleans that tragic day in August 2005, it is also a stinging indictment of the Bush administration’s utter neglect of Americans who were left to die in the flooded Crescent City. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the Army Corps of Engineers are also taken to task in Lee’s remarkable four-hour documentary, which is underscored by Blanchard’s poignant and melancholy motifs.
But more than just fingerpointing, When the Levees Broke is a powerful narrative woven together by impassioned testimony from those who survived to tell the tale of devastation and abandonment. And Blanchard’s elegant, moving score reflects their grief and frustration while also channeling their hope and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds.
Considering that he was a subject of the Levees documentary as well as the composer of its haunting score, Blanchard had far more invested emotionally in this project than any other he’d done before with Lee. “It was very difficult because it was the first time that I couldn’t take a break from a project,” says Blanchard. “You know, you work on projects that are very dear to you and very heartfelt, and when you hit a wall you can take a break, step outside, go to lunch, hang out with the family, do whatever. But I couldn’t do that on Levees. Because taking a break meant I had to go and check on what was going on with my mom’s house, what was going on with my mom. And that meant driving through a city that had no street lights or stop signs anywhere, where there was total devastation on 80 percent of the properties. So it was a difficult time. And the craziest thing about it is whenever I speak about that I always have to end it by saying, ‘You know, with all of that, we still feel like we were the lucky ones.’”
One of many thousands of displaced New Orleanians (who were later callously referred to by the media as “refugees”), Blanchard delivers scathing testimony in the film. In one candid scene he declares, “It pisses you off because it didn’t have to happen.” Indeed, the breaking of the levees has been called “the most tragic failure of a civil-engineered system in the history of the United States.”
In one telling scene, the trumpeter is filmed walking through the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” while Lee’s camera scans the endless devastation, capturing the utter despair of a neighborhood that was home to Fats Domino and other proud residents. As one outraged resident of the Lower Ninth Ward states in the film, “This is what’s left. Your whole history under a pile of rubble. This is a good neighborhood that’s gone, man.”
In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, Blanchard comforts his mother, who breaks down in tears upon encountering the complete destruction of her home along with a lifetime of memories. “It was hard for all of us,” he says of filming that very touching moment. “I remember asking her, ‘You sure you want to do this? Because … that’s gonna be like having all these people following you around during this very private moment.’ And her thing was, ‘Well, people need to see what we’re going through in New Orleans.’ So when you watch the film, don’t just look at her. Take her experience and multiply that by a hundred thousand because there’s so many people who have had the exact same experience or worse.”
Watching these and other scenes of human tragedy that permeate all four acts of Levees, it is nearly impossible to suppress feelings of anger at the sheer incompetence that led to devastation on such staggering scale. If Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 hadn’t already made the point, Lee’s When the Levees Broke drives it home: Bush and his cronies at FEMA and Homeland Security are asleep at the wheel. There’s no other explanation for the bureaucratic bungling and foot-dragging that resulted in five days of inaction while stranded people waved SOS banners from rooftops and bloated carcasses floated facedown in the toxic waters that flooded Crescent City streets.
It would seem the only reasonable response to those disheartening scenes is one of pure rage. If someone else had been scoring this documentary, it might’ve been roaring with dissonance, throbbing with polyrhythms and power chords and skronking with cathartic feedback squalls—all tossed in as an iron fist upside the head of the Bush administration and all the incompetents at FEMA, Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers. But Blanchard chose another path in scoring Levees.
“Anger is an obvious direction to go in and that’s a very valid emotion to have,” he says. “But with this music, I was really trying to stay out of the way of all of those amazing stories which, to me, was the most important thing about the Levees documentary. So I didn’t want the music to be very complicated or cloud people’s judgment. I wanted the music to put people in a very reflective kind of mood so they could sit back and just experience these stories that are being told. These were truly sympathetic characters in the cinematic sense of the word. And the music, to me, had to play a vital role in not pushing that too far but just allowing that to exist. And again, it’s hard for me to take credit for that because, for me, I’m just reacting to what I’m watching on the screen.”
As it turned out, Blanchard’s work on Levees overlapped with his work on Lee’s Inside Man. “We were right in the midst of doing Inside Man when Katrina hit,” he explains. “As a matter of fact, I was living in L.A. because I have an apartment out there, and once I found my mom I flew her out there and set her up in an apartment in the same complex, across the courtyard from mine. Now, the amazing thing was, Spike flew to L.A. to come work with me on the music and when he walked into the studio the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m going to do a documentary on the levees, man. Those people have to be heard.’ He had already been interviewing people before we even got into the studio to record the music for Inside Man.”
When a comment is made that some of the musical cues for Levees seem fragile and trancelike, Blanchard responds enthusiastically. “That’s a good word, trancelike. Because for me, that’s what it was like when you went back to New Orleans and you saw it for the first time after the hurricane. When I stood outside my mom’s house, I heard nothing. I can’t explain it to people, it was like a Hitchcock movie. You couldn’t hear any cars moving, no people moving, no lawnmowers going, no birds, no insects, nothing. The only thing I heard when I stood out in front of my mom’s house was the wind. So it’s like we were all in a daze. And the devastation was so vast we’re still trying to get our heads around the whole thing.”
“People always say luck is when preparation meets opportunity, but I don’t know if I agree,” says Blanchard, the one-time Jazz Messenger (1982-1986) who subsequently co-led a potent hard-boppish quintet with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison through 1989 before forming his own band. “I was totally not prepared to be a film composer when Spike called and asked me to write some music for a scene for Mo’ Better Blues. [Spike’s father, bassist-composer Bill Lee, composed that score while Blanchard provided the trumpet parts for the film’s main character, jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, portrayed by Denzel Washington.]
“What happened was, during a break I was sitting at the piano playing something and Spike comes over and says, ‘Man, I like that. What is that?’ And I tell him it’s a tune I’m working on called ‘Sing Soweto’ for my next album [1992’s Terence Blanchard on Columbia]. And he says, ‘Can I use it?’ So we ended up recording it that day, just as a solo trumpet piece. When Spike shot the scene with Denzel he listened back to it and didn’t really dig how it was coming out. He felt like he needed something more so he asked me if I could write a string arrangement for it. And that’s how my film career started, basically.”
Blanchard’s big breakthrough in the genre came with his second film, Malcolm X, Lee’s controversial blockbuster, which was also the most intensely scrutinized project of his career. “That was the biggest film of my career, of a lot of people’s careers at that point,” recalls Blanchard. “So there was a lot riding on that one. I didn’t want to sound like a novice working on that film so I had to do a lot of homework to score that movie.”
Following the success of Malcolm X, Blanchard revealed his versatility in a string of subsequent releases, including 1995’s moody orchestral score for Clockers, which was wildly different from 1996’s Get On the Bus, which in turn was a whole away from 1999’s Summer of Sam. “And there were learning experiences with each of them,” he says. “Back when we did Clockers, there was a tendency to use a lot of hip-hop music in those movies. But Spike told me, ‘We’re not going to go in that direction.’ He said, ‘I want to bring a certain kind of elegance and respect to these characters. So we’re going to go with orchestra.’ And then when it came to Inside Man, I had to serve two masters, so to speak. It was a big-budgeted Hollywood thriller, so I had to serve the genre, in a sense. But it still had the cinematic vision of Spike Lee, so I had to still give Spike what he was looking for in his film.”
Blanchard has developed a kind of shorthand while working with Lee, which helps expedite his work on these film projects. “It’s gotten to the point now where we don’t need to have a lot of conversations,” says the trumpeter. “I know what he likes. Spike has always been a lover of melody. He likes having a number of strong melodic themes in his films. And he likes orchestra. I try to wean him off of that in some instances, but that’s basically where he’s at, that’s his thing. So we’ve gotten it down to the point now where we talk about concept and approach for a film and we don’t need to talk about much else. Like for Inside Man, he specifically wanted big drums for certain scenes. But other than that, we didn’t have much conversation about the music on that project.”
Blanchard believes that one of the reasons why he has such a good working relationship with Brooklyn native Lee is because Lee is extremely musical. “While he doesn’t play an instrument, you gotta remember who his father is,” he says. “He grew up around music. And he’ll never admit it but he has really good ears. I remember years ago we were in a recording session from a film score and he looked up at me and said, ‘Hey, Terence, those violas are out of tune. We need to go back and do another take.’ And I stopped and said, ‘How did you know the violas were out of tune?’ The violas sit in the middle of the string section. That means that you have to hear the violins above it and hear the celli below the violas and the basses below that to know that the violas were the ones that were out of tune. That’s part of his brilliance. And he doesn’t brag about his ability. But I’m here to tell you, he’s a brilliant guy to work with. “And I really appreciated that he gave all of these people a place to speak on Levees. Who else would’ve given them a chance to speak like that? And I told Spike, ‘Man, I love you for doing this.’ I’ve always been a fan of Spike’s but my respect for him as a humanitarian went sky high because he didn’t do what the news agencies do. He didn’t go out and find the most titillating or salacious person to talk to. He went out and found some very competent, very passionate folks and he interviewed them. They told their stories and I took my cues from them in terms of how to score this film.”
Meanwhile, Blanchard remains steadfastly incensed. “It’s outrageous when you see all of this devastation and it’s not fucking Iraq. This is my hometown, these are streets that I’ve been down, these are areas where I’ve hung out. And it still looks like a war zone. Who could’ve ever imagined that? And the real outrage is to think that it didn’t have to happen. It didn’t have to happen but for our own neglect in terms of the people who are part of the levee board, and how they take the money the government gives them, and they don’t really service the levees. And also in terms of how the governor and the president had their little spats so nobody was allowed to come in to help anybody. It’s just incompetence all around. And the sad part about it is we put our confidence in these people when we go to the ballot box and vote for them. Because when you cast your vote, you cast it with confidence and you think, ‘OK, these guys got it together.’ And to find out that they didn’t have it together, weren’t even in the fucking ballpark, it’s an eye-opening thing.”
Blanchard is on a roll now, burning with righteous indignation. “I find it insulting that the streets aren’t even clean,” he continues. “And I’m outraged that our national media has sort of turned the page on New Orleans. After Katrina hit, we felt that the media was on it. They were calling everybody in the Bush administration out and calling attention to our plight. They were like, ‘Look! This is outrageous!’ But where’s the media now? When the president did the State of the Union address a while back, he didn’t even mention New Orleans, you know? And I know he didn’t want to mention it because we haven’t gotten that $106 billion he promised us. So we tend to kind of move on as a country to the next issue, which is unfortunate. But the way that whole thing was handled, I think it’s grounds for a no-confidence vote, in my opinion.
“And here’s the thing that ultimately angers me about the entire situation: These politicians take the time and make time to come down to all of our cities to kiss our ass for a vote. You know what I’m saying? And when we needed them, after they had gotten the vote, they abandoned us. And that’s just a very fundamental thing in my mind that just really broke my heart when you start talking about Katrina.”
Though Blanchard currently teaches at the Monk Institute (now based out of Loyola University in New Orleans), he declined an invitation to perform with his students at the White House. “I thought it was a great opportunity for the Monk Institute and I’m glad that they went ahead and did it,” he says. “But I told them that I couldn’t be a part of it because there was no way in hell that I would sit down and play music for a person who let people in my hometown suffer and die. Let’s just put it out there … people died! And we can’t be afraid to speak out no more about it. We can’t!”
At age 45, Blanchard is considered both a respected veteran jazz musician and a seasoned composer of film scores. And throughout his career he has been successful in striking a balance between the two disciplines. With his 1998 CD release, Jazz in Film, Blanchard paid a personal tribute to some of the classic Hollywood film scores from yesteryear. “The reason I did that was because I got tired of hearing how jazz doesn’t work in film. I kept hearing that in L.A., ‘Jazz doesn’t really work in movies.’ And I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ I mean, there’s a vast history there, from Duke Ellington’s score for Anatomy of a Murder to Quincy Jones’ score for The Pawnbroker to Elmer Bernstein’s music for The Man with the Golden Arm, Alex North’s music for A Streetcar Named Desire or Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown. I mean, how many people tried to write a score like Chinatown since that movie came out? You can’t even count ’em, there’s so many! It was a hugely influential film score. And I wanted to pay tribute to that and to all those other great scores that changed the course of music in film.
“I love being a film composer,” he continues. “I’ve studied the genre and I do keep up to date with what’s going on currently with all of the composers who are in the business now. James Newton Howard is a good friend of mine. Miles Goodwin, who has passed on, was a very good friend of mine. So I’m constantly checking out what’s going on with what they’re doing. But at the end of the day, I’m still a jazz musician. That’s what my first love is and always will be.”
For his follow-up to 2006’s critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated Flow, Blanchard expanded on four key themes he utilized in When the Levees Broke as the foundation for A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), his third album for Blue Note Records. With his working quintet (saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Derek Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott) augmented by a 40-piece orchestra (the Seattle-based Northwest Sinfonia), Blanchard achieves a grandiose sweep on 13 stirring tracks that run the emotional gamut from despair and grief to catharsis and rage.
“In the aftermath of Katrina, everybody was asking me, ‘Are you writing any new music? Are you hearing anything?’ And I’d say, ‘No, man.’ Because the only thing I heard was silence. I wasn’t hearing anything. But my wife started talking to me about possibly doing some of that music as an album with an orchestra. I thought it was a great idea and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I could interject some more emotion into the piece, addressing some of the anger and frustration that people were feeling. So when you listen to the piece ‘Levees,’ that’s all about the water and people being stuck on rooftops. The trumpet represents those people crying for help and never being heard. And the strings kind of represent that water that’s just hanging around the neighborhood… You know, people are waiting for it to subside, but it’s just there. For five days.”
The reflective “Wading Through,” a simple, elegant melodic fragment played on piano that recurs throughout When the Levees Broke (and was recycled from a theme that originally appeared in Inside Man), is embellished here with flutes, horns and lush strings for a grand, sweeping effect. “The Water,” another key theme from Spike Lee’s documentary, is a darkly evocative meditation on the Crescent City submerged, with Blanchard’s keening trumpet conveying a sense of utter despair.
Blanchard’s talented sidemen each contribute potent pieces that capture their own sadness and frustration over Katrina and its tragic aftermath. “Mantra Intro” is a showcase for Hodge’s expressive chordal work on electric bass that segues to drummer Scott’s contemplative “Mantra,” a musical prayer for healing and renewal that swells to some dynamic orchestral flourishes, with Blanchard’s brilliant high note work riding on top. “The tune just builds and speaks to all of our reactions to Katrina,” says Blanchard. “And it also addresses our disbelief, like where you’re in a daze and you just get to this point where you want to scream.”
Pianist Parks contributes the uplifting, Coplandesque heartland number “Ashé” (which, translated from the Yoruban language, means “Amen”). And Winston’s melancholic “In Time of Need” showcases his fluid tenor sax playing alongside Blanchard’s superb trumpet work, against a haunting piano ostinato, mesmerizing tablas and stirring counterpoint from the strings.
A series of sparsely arranged “ghost” tunes serve as brief interludes throughout the album and help put the tragedy of Katrina into a historical perspective. The driving African-flavored opener “Ghost of Congo Square,” which incorporates the rhythmic chant, “This is the tale of God’s will,” represents the warnings of the past. The jaunty tumbao-fueled trumpet-bass duet on “Ghost of Betsy” is a reminder from 1965, the last time that a hurricane wreaked havoc on the Crescent City. And “Ghost of 1927,” a sax-percussion duet, is a reminder of the Great Mississippi River Flood from 80 years ago, when New Orleans bankers and politicians conspired to dynamite the levees upriver at Caernarvon, La., resulting in wide-scale flooding in the Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
“I had this idea of doing these little motifs and calling them ghosts,” explains Blanchard. “From a spiritual standpoint, it’s almost like some of these ghosts have been trying to tell us, ‘Put your house in order.’ And the trumpet actually represents some of the spirits that are screaming, trying to tell us what’s about to happen if we don’t put our house in order.”
Blanchard’s other compositions here are the aptly titled “Funeral Dirge,” underscored by Scott’s ominous march beat and Blanchard’s melancholy string arrangement, and the poignant closer “Mom,” a beautiful balladic tribute to the courage of Wilhelmina Blanchard. “I was just proud of my mom for doing what she did. I didn’t know how to say it … but I just would like something to kind of express how I felt.”
Regarding the album’s title, Blanchard turns philosophical. “When you start to ask the bigger question as to why this all happened, the only thing you can come up with is that it’s God’s will,” he says. “I grew up in the church and I’ve been a firm believer that God does things in mysterious ways. And there’s been a lot of tragedy, but there’s also been a lot of good that’s come out of this. For example, a lot of people in New Orleans now are realizing that they can’t go to the government for help. So you have church groups along with business folks, people who probably would’ve never worked together at all, coming together to try to make things better in the city. Those who stayed and those who are now moving back to New Orleans are helping to rebuild the city by making our educational system better and make other services in the city better.
“So in the bigger picture, I have to believe that this was done to learn something and there’s gonna be something better on the other side of it,” he adds. “I have to believe that. And I’m not trying to shove my beliefs on anybody, but I do think people should at least reflect on some other possibilities for why this thing occurred, and why people are suffering and going through this.”
by Bill Milkowski
Originally published in September 2007