Terence Blanchard on the state of jazz today
In this week's Rough Mix with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who is due at Dazzle this Saturday and Sunday, we spoke with him about recruiting younger players and how composing for film has rubbed off on his jazz playing. In this extended Q&A, he talks about new Blue Note effort, Magnetic, more about writing for film (he's scored more than fifty films), writing for his opera Champion, which premiered last month in St. Louis, and thoughts on the state of jazz today.
Westword: You've talked about how you always believed that in life what you keep in your mind is what you draw yourself to, and I was wondering if you could expand on that and how that relates to Magnetic?
Terence Blanchard: The short answer is that sometimes we don't realize that how much we affect our daily lives just by our actions and our thoughts. We always hear stories of how, "he's such a positive person" or "she is such positive person." A lot of times those mind sets can set the tone for the day. One of the things that I've always tried to do is to maintain a certain type of productive lifestyle. For me, chanting in the morning helps me stay focused. It helps me keep my mind in line for what it is I need to do for the day.
I know you've been into Buddhism for the last five years. How else has that affected your music and general outlook on things?
It just allows me to trust the unknown, basically, and taking my ego out of it. Sometimes you have to jump into deep waters just to kind of find something. But you know, if you have a certain amount of faith that something is there it will, find you.
You played with Art Blakey in the early '80s, and you've brought a lot of young players into your groups. You've got some young players on Magnetic, as well. Do you see yourself as sort of passing on that tradition that Blakey had, where he groomed young players?
Maybe. I didn't think of it like that, but maybe that could be the case. I've had a reputation of having young musicians that have gone on to have careers. In that regard, I know I'm like Art Blakey, because Art's whole thing was to create bandleaders. And one of the things that I'm trying to do with my group is give all of my musicians enough room to experience what it's like to create your own art.
Is that one of the reasons you let some of your musicians compose tracks for Magnetic?
You've quoted Blakey before, where he said, "Composing is the way you find yourself."
Composing is the way you find your voice, because when you have to commit those notes to paper, you have to make choices, and as soon as you start making choices, you start defining your musical identity.
You run your trumpet through some electronics on Magnetic. Have you done more of that in recent years?
Well, I've been doing it for a number of years; it's just that it hasn't made to a CD until now. It comes from my film career and just dealing with other types of sounds and colors, and utilizing those things for those strengths and not using them for their weaknesses.
Going back to when you first started playing trumpet, what was it about that first drew you to the trumpet.
Well, there was a guy named Alvin Alcorn, who came to my elementary school and gave us a demonstration of New Orleans traditional music. And I'd been playing piano since I was five years old, but I remember when I heard the trumpet that vibrato that he was playing with was very much like a human voice. I remember telling myself, "I never heard anything like that." And that's what drew me to the trumpet.
What is it about playing that is such a joy and such a passion for you?
There's an immediacy to it, you know what I mean? There's a certain kind of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants aspect to it. It's like being in a boxing ring. You study and study and study for a fight, but when the fight starts, you don't know what's going to happen, and it will take on its own identity and its own character. Well, that's that same thing that happens on the bandstand. We'll call some music, but we don't know what's going to happen with the music, because I know everyone is going to do something different.
You've worked on a number of films with Spike Lee. What was it that initially drew you to film?
I've always wanted to write for larger ensembles. That was something that always had in mind but I didn't get a chance to do it. When I was on the session for Spike's thing when his father was writing the music I just thought to myself that it would be cool to get a chance to write for an orchestra. And lo and behold, Spike called me to do that and all the sudden I had a career as a film composer, which has been a very beautiful experience to have.
Has writing for film rubbed off on your jazz stuff?
Yeah, definitely. When you talk about the electronic thing, the film career has a lot to do with that. When you talk about shaping an entire show over the course of an hour and a half, or whatever it is, film has a definite influence on that, because working in movies, you have to learn how to have an arc in the story that you tell. So film has changed my life creatively in a huge way
When you're working stuff that's not for film, do you ever get visuals when you're composing a song?
Sometimes. Images come across your mind when you're composing. I guess that's the cinematic side in me but I think a lot of people have a similar experience.
What are some of the more important things you've learned about film composing, maybe not trying to overpower the visuals?
Basically what it is is that you're enhancing a story and you have to take a quick assessment of what the story needs. So the music will change and evolve based on its responsibility to the story. Sometimes the music will lay back. Sometimes the music will be very aggressive. It all depends on what the film needs at any given time.
Was composing for film any different than for writing for Champion of some of the Broadway stuff you've written for?
The intuition of it is always different but the techniques are always the same. There was a very funny moment in one night of the opera because a lady came up to me and she was talking about her kid, and her kid was sitting at the opera and all of the sudden there was an instrumental playing and the kid said, "It sounds like we're at the movies." (laughs) I went, "Oops, okay. Good. I wanted you to feel like you were at the movies."
Do have any thoughts on the state of jazz today?
Jazz is one of those things in your life when looking as an outsider it seems to always have problems. But at the end of the day you start to think, "This is just the way this music evolves." And what I mean by that is there are younger musicians who hit the scene and some of the criticisms are that they don't deal with much of the tradition. And I would tend to agree on some things, but it's that whole thing of "do I need artists to be who I think they should be or should I just let it evolve?"
What I've seen happening is that there are a lot of young guys coming on the scene with their own musical identity and they're doing their thing. So, only time will tell. I think the great thing is that you have a lot of young musicians who are interested in calling themselves jazz musicians. That in itself is a very powerful thing.
It seems that even the word "jazz" has taken on somewhat of new meaning these days as well. Would you agree?
It always happens. Every generation is the same. And all that that means that the creators of the music are finding themselves and creating new identities that are different than from what occurred prior.
Where do you see it heading in the next decade or five years or so?
I really have no idea because frankly there a lot more pressing issues than that. When you look at the country itself, jazz might be headed toward nothing but the blues. When you look at the country, we're very polarized. Well, we're not polarized. I shouldn't say that. But if you listen to the pundits, it seems as though the country is polarized and that can always create a volatile situation. So, we'll see what happens with that first.