“Trumpet was my first love. It is my way of singing.” (T. Blanchard)
Life is strange and it often crosses unknown paths. A couple of weeks ago I had the incredible honor to interview Terence Blanchard, one of the greatest trumpet players and composers. An artist who is also considered unique in the jazz world and far beyond.
Terence Blanchard is also recognized for being nominated for two Academy Awards for composing the scores for Spike Lee’s films BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020) and for winning 6 Grammy Awards.
He came to play to the Grand Auditorium at the Philarmonie in Luxembourg together with his ensemble, E-Collective, and the Turtle Island String Quartet, as part of a tour where he is paying tribute to the great Wayne Shorter, one of the world’s greatest composers and one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time.
In this interview, Terence Blanchard tells about how he started playing the trumpet, about the way he composes music for film scores and about his challenging experience entering the world of opera (Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the best-selling 2014 of the New York Times journalist Charles M. Blow was the first opera composed by an African American composer to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC in 136 years of history of the venue).
Talking about his tour, conceived to pay tribute to Wayne Shorter, he also tells the reason why it is important to pay tribute to artists who are still alive.
Life is strange. When I met Terence Blanchard for the interview in his dressing room, before taking the stage for the soundcheck, Wayne Shorter was still alive (he died on March 3, 2023).
Q.: How did you discover music and why did you choose trumpet as your instrument?
T.B.: It’s not like I chose music, it’s like music chose me. You know, I grew up in New Orleans and there you are surrounded by music. My father was a vocalist. He used to sing in a church and when I was a kid I went down the streets and I listened to “brass bands”. I started playing piano when I was really young, at 5 years old. However, a few years later I heard a local musician, Alvin Alcorn, a trumpet player, and that’s when I decided to play the trumpet.
Q.: This is not your first time at the Philarmonie here in Luxembourg. What do you like about this venue?
T.B.: The Philarmonie has a great sound and it’s a great venue. It’s always a great pleasure coming back here so I’m looking forward to tonight. And there’s going to be a great crowd, a smart crowd.
You are here to pay tribute to the great Wayne Shorter.
T.B.: Yes, ma’m.
Q.: Why is he so important to you?
T.B.: For so many years I have been involved in projects where we paid homage to people who had passed. I did not want to do that. I really wanted Wayne to know what he means to us. As a matter of fact, this is what I say during the show. He needs to know that we love him. He needs to know that we appreciate his contribution not only to music but to the world, because his efforts as a buddhist and as a musician have really had a huge impact on a lot of lives. We just wanted to let him know.
Q.: Not only are you a trumpet player and a jazz musician, but you are also a film score composers, from your collaboration to Spike Lee’s movies to the latest “Herriette”, “The Woman King” and “Father of the Bride”. How do you deal with music composition for movies? Is it different from composing jazz music?
T.B.: I think the intentions are different. The technical part is pretty much the same. When you are developing a melody, a line of harmony and a rhythm.The intentions of the music are different. In films, I am helping somebody else to tell a story and try to keep all the pieces coherent. When I am approaching a film, I try to get the sense of it, the speed of it. I have to understand when I have to give space to conversations. For example, “Father of the Bride” is a comedy which is very different from “The Woman King”. In “The Woman King”, the intention of the music is really to push the story along and help Gina (Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film director) tell it in a way that is how she sees it and not me.
Q.: Do you read the script first? Do you decide what you are going to do together with the director or does it depend from movie to movie?
T.B.: It depends from movie to movie, because some directors don’t give me the script. Spike Lee is the only one who gives me the script before. Gina did that, too. But, here is the thing. Getting the script, I don’t know if it helps in the way I write, because I start writing on the basis of what I am reading, while if I don’t have it I compose on the basis of my own images. It’s my movie. It’s not Gina’s or Spike’s. I did that in the past. I had the script and then I start writing. Then, you watch the movie and you start thinking that it was not what you wanted to achieve. Sometimes, it happens that the movie moves faster compared to what I was imagining in my mind. There is one film that we did with Spike Lee – “Miracle at St. Anna” (an American-Italian epic war film, with Pierfrancesco Favino and Valentina Cervi among others) – where he started sending me still images of what he was shooting. That was really helpful because I could see what the film really looked like. I mean the “colors” of the movie.
Q.: We were talking before about you paying tribute to Wayne Shorter here at the Philarmonie and, of course, during your tour, but we all know that the Metropolitan Opera will pay tribute to you, to your achievement as a musician, your imprint to the music and arts in general, and of course to you as an activist, with “See Me As I Am: Lincoln Center’s Year Long Celebration of Terence Blanchard”. How do you feel about this?
T.B.: Well, it is one of those things I’m still figuring out. I have been so busy working on so many things that, sometimes I don’t even have the chance to see and to realize all the things that I have done. When they started putting all this together and my manager and my booking agent started talking to me about it, I was fascinated and overwhelmed that somebody actually allowed us to do this. It is a fascinating concept to have all these performances of all the things that I have done throughout the year. I am excited about it. I am excited about the opera. I have to go to New York next month for some rehearsals. I am always excited about that. Opera is one of those things I cannot really explain. For example, every time I do a film, the film itself is already done but then, when I am writing an opera, I have some images in my mind and I have to write to transfer those images into music. There are actors, dancers, costumes, and people on stage and you started realizing that you had not envisioned all of this. The cool thing about opera is the collaborative process about it. All of those people involved have an input on it. The more the singers get comfortable with the materials, the more they start to use their own inflections. It is a crazy experience. It is wild! I tell my friends: “Stop thinking about opera as that thing with Vikings with horns etc. It is not what it really is”. Opera to me is the highest form of musical theater that you could experience. I feel blessed to be part of it now, but, at the same time I want to see how this is going because it is the first time that we are doing it. I am just going with the flow and I am just going to envision it in my mind.
Q.: Do you like to take care of all aspects connected to the opera? I mean not only the music or composition part, but also being there and see, for example, costumes, set design etc. I’m asking because it is your project, it’s like your baby.
T.B.: When we did the first production, one of my big concerns with this opera – “Champion: an opera in jazz” – was the action of the actor who had to boxe. You know, there is nothing more horrible than a guy doing boxing but who can’t really boxe. It’s not that you should boxe but you should look like you are able to. Then, there is the singing part. Sometimes, opera singers have their inflections already written out. While I also do that, I still give them room to do whatever they want. I always tell them: “Don’t be afraid to take chances”. I don’t mind as long as it is musical. What I am trying to do is trying to bring jazz into the opera world and viceversa. When we premiered it, we didn’t know what the reactions of the audience would be. But, at the end, it was a success. As time goes by, I am starting to understand my role in that world. I don’t look at myself like some major opera composer. I just do what I do.
Q.: And this is probably because nowadays the right way to do music is to contaminate it. Do you agree?
T.B.: This is precisely what’s happening with this band (Turtle Island String Quartet and the E-Collective). I couldn’t envision this. I started thinking about doing a record and a couple of shows. That was one year ago! I am very excited about that.
Q.: Among all the things that you have done, if one day you had to wake up and you could only save one of these, what would you choose?
T.B.: Performing, without a doubt. This is a really what I have always wanted to do, from the time when I was a kid. I loved the music of Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and all of those guys. Trumpet was my first love. It is my way of singing. If I could sing I would probably do that, but I can’t.
Q.: Many people all over the world listen to your music, but what does Terence Blanchard listen to? What’s on your playlist?
[He shows me his phone and his playlist]
T.B.: The music I listen to changes from time to time. The other day, for example, I was listening to Dutillex. It was Herbie Hancock who introduced me to this guy.
Q.: I see you have “The Woman King” soundtrack among the music you recently have been listening to. Do you like to listen to your music after recording it?
T.B.: In general, I don’t like to listen to my music. I listen to it after recording it and then I stop. I only listen to it to check if everything is ok.
[He shows me again the playlist on his phone, pointing out to Jimi Hendrix]
T.B.: Oh yes, there’s Jimi Hendrix.
Me: I love Jimi Hendrix. I started listening to him when I was very young thanks to my father.
T.B.: Oh really? I love him, too.
Terence Blanchard E-Collective with Turtle Island String Quartet
Terence Blanchard E-Collective
Terence Blanchard trumpet
Charles Altura guitar
Taylor Eigsti piano
David Ginyard Jr. bass
Oscar Seaton drums
Turtle Island String Quartet
David Balakrishnan, Gabriel Terracciano violin
Benjamin von Gutzeit viola
Naseem Alatrash cello
Setlist (Philarmonie, Luxembourg – February 22nd, 2023)
I Dare You