When trumpeter Terence Blanchard blows his horn, the notes articulate a feeling about life and how it’s lived.
“The beautiful thing about art, there’s so many ways to express a feeling,” Blanchard said. “Classic music is timeless, but recreating it is not. You have to find your own vibration, your own hue, your own color to add to the conversation.”
The Grammy Award winner plays across genres and even moves across mediums, having composed the music for dozens of movies, including all of Spike Lee's.
On Saturday, Spoleto attendees will have the chance to hear Blanchard’s eclecticism when he brings his E-Collective to town.
A native of New Orleans, Blanchard views the city’s storied music scene as a collaborative sonic laboratory.
“New Orleans has a vibration that is really unique,” Blanchard said. “There’s a humility, a certain type of realness and honesty. The city has a really strong musical community. It’s all about the people coming together to have a shared experience."
Blanchard picked up the trumpet at age 8 and learned the instrument at summer band camps alongside his childhood friend, Wynton Marsalis. It was Marsalis who would eventually give Blanchard his big break, handing him the reigns to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers as musical director at just 20 years old.
“He’s a perfect blend of composer skills and improvisation,” said jazz bassist Richard Davis, who worked with Blanchard early in his career. “I recognized the talents of Blanchard at that time. Originality, it’s hard to come by, but he didn’t sound like anybody but himself.”
Blanchard grew tremendously during his time with the Messengers, leading the group through the Jazz Resurgence movement of the 1980s. His success with the group launched a solo career, eventually leading to forays in film composition after meeting a young upstart director named Spike Lee.
Blanchard’s compositions can be heard throughout Lee’s filmography, from “Do the Right Thing” to “Malcolm X” and beyond, and he has been part of numerous Hollywood productions including Disney’s nod to New Orleans culture, “The Princess and The Frog.” All the while, Blanchard has continued to release award-winning studio albums with Columbia, Sony Classical and the iconic Blue Note jazz label.
After a stint living in New York City, Blanchard returned to the Crescent City in 1995 to be closer to family. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city just a decade later, the city’s native son sought to use his art to help with the healing process.
He reconnected with Lee to score the HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem," where he appeared onscreen visiting his Katrina-ravaged childhood home. The compositions from this film would serve as the catalyst for his album "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)," which would go on to win two Grammy Awards.
His actions off-stage helped breathe new life into the New Orleans music community. In 2007, Blanchard used his newfound position as artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA to move the esteemed master’s program to Loyola University in New Orleans. The University's Chair of Film & Music Industry Studies, John Snyder, was one of the faculty members who advocated for the move.
“Terence’s presence as a cultural ambassador shows what can be accomplished when musicians use their platform to push culture forward,” Snyder said. “The most prominent artists are the most prominent educators. They are emblematic of the power of creative energy.”
Blanchard continues to push the boundaries of jazz, incorporating more groove-centric funk and R&B rhythms into the band’s “Breathless” album.
The album’s title pays homage to the last words (“I can’t breathe”) of Eric Garner, a black man who was choked to death by a New York City police officer. The album, which was nominated for a 2016 Grammy, is a meditation on the impacts of racism.
The album’s 13 tracks showcase Blanchard’s musical versatility, but also a deep well of emotions.
“It’s all based on a reaction, it’s one of rage, of exasperation,” Blanchard says. “You get tired of hearing these stories. There’s outcry. There’s protest. Then, there’s nothing. That starts to wear on you. The whole idea behind the music is, there are no words. It’s a feeling.”
Christian Media Beltz is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.