by Giovanni Russonello
In the parallel universe that is the jazz world, trumpeters are the presidents, or maybe the ship captains. At the interstices of history, drummers tend to be the ones who push the music subtly into new stylistic territory, and pianists are often the bandleaders with the steadiest hand (think of Earl Hines, or John Lewis). But almost no major development in jazz has become official – from classic New Orleans polyphony to swing to bebop to post-bop – without finding a trumpet player to serve as its bold and declarative poster child. They are to jazz as guitarists are to rock ‘n’ roll: What would psychedelia have been without Jimi Hendrix, or hard rock without Jimmy Page?
So now let’s consider an alternative: Terence Blanchard, a workmanlike trumpeter who became prominent in the 1980s and ’90s but never eclipsed the stature of his childhood friend, Wynton Marsalis. Still, Blanchard has managed to have an enormous influence, and has shown natural ability to reflect the tectonic changes happening in jazz over the past 20 years. He’s done it by fanning out his net, staying open to a different array of influences than Marsalis. In the process, he’s become as renowned for his work as a mentor to fledgling stars and a composer of film scores as for his lithe trumpet playing – which is slithering and brassy, with an indelible debt to Miles Davis, and can’t be overlooked.
Blanchard, 50, who plays a four-night run this weekend at Blues Alley, got his start in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The group is jazz’s most legendary breeding ground for precocious talent, and Blanchard served as its musical director in the mid-’80s. Today, he’s committed to leading similar bands, filled almost entirely with young players who trail him by at least a generation. He doesn’t embody any purified strain of preservationism (no “this is that guy who played with Blakey, so he knows how the cats used to do things”); for Blanchard, a mentor ought to be helping younger players figure out how to grapple most nimbly with the present.
His albums range from Flow – an exploration of African Diasporic music with influences that include West African call-and-response styles as well as hip-hop – to the Grammy-winning A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), a large-ensemble work written for Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. After 10 years as the artistic director at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he led student ensembles and taught private lessons, Blanchard is now the artistic director at the University of Miami’s Henry Mancini Institute. He and I spoke over the phone earlier this week about the great educators who guided him; the younger players he now teaches and learns from; and how Spike Lee’s artistic goals intersect with his own.
CapitalBop: As a kid, you played trumpet for years before really starting to stand out. Ellis Marsalis and some other teachers helped you find your talent. Can you talk about the importance of an educator, and what makes a great teacher?
Terence Blanchard: Educating is very central for anyone’s development and growth; what makes a good teacher is a combination of recognizing talent and understanding what that talent needs to grow. I had great teachers – Ellis Marsalis and Roger Dickerson and Paul Jeffrey and Bill Fielder…. What they all had in common is they understood what I needed to learn from memory to get better, but also understood certain strengths and weaknesses I had, and they’d balance all those things. With Roger Dickerson we never studied out of a book, but I studied composition with him and learned a great deal.
CB: How did he go about teaching very young students about composition?
TB: The first thing that he did was, he related it all to having a conversation. So he made us write these paragraphs only using a certain set number of words, and then once we made those paragraphs, he related that to music and the correlation between the two. You can have a musical idea, but understanding how to develop it and take it in different directions [is crucial].
CB: Nowadays, when you teach, how do you blend the lessons you learned in the classroom from teachers like Roger Dickerson and Bill Fielder with the ones you learned from playing on the bandstand with Art Blakey?
TB: The thing that all of them have in common is that they’re all geared toward a common goal, and that’s getting us past the hump of theory and technique…. All of my teachers stretched fundamentals – even Art Blakey, when I played with him. Whether it be on the technical side or the fundamental side, they all understood what you needed to do to stretch…. Art Blakey was also a great teacher in terms of how to deal with people – all the musicians in the band – and how to keep all those musical identities in the band out in the open, and with a type of energy and enthusiasm to contribute. He was very brilliant at that.
CB: Tell me about how you apply those lessons to the band that you lead now and will be bringing to Blues Alley. It features mostly musicians who are a generation or so behind you.
TB: The thing is, we’re all trying to deal with the main objective: to make music that’s very personal, and understandable to anybody who’s listening. That means you’ve got to be very honest, no matter what it is that you’re feeling…. You can’t avoid paying attention to that. Because what it does is, it allows the musicians who are playing these tunes night after night not to become bored in what they’re doing, but actually to find something new in everything that you play night after night. The energy in what we’re playing is very real; there’s no manufactured emotion. It’s all new and different night to night. That takes a certain amount of trust with the other guys that you have in the band, so that you know that if you throw them a curve ball they’ll be able to adjust accordingly. And the same thing goes for me. I’ll respond…. It’s amazing what the guys will contribute to the band – and it becomes about discovery on a nightly basis.
CB: So tell us specifically who’s going to be with you at Blues Alley this weekend.
TB: It’s gonna be Kendrick Scott on drums, an amazing drummer – probably one of the most creative of his generation…. Joshua Crumbly on bass, a young kid from California, only 20 years old, but he’s a young talent, one of those guys who has a lot of potential. Fabian Almazan on piano, who is, I think, one of the most gifted musicians of his generation. Brice Winston on tenor saxophone, who’s been with me for a number of years and is one of the most underrated guys of his generation. But he just put out a CD called Introducing, and he’s starting to get noticed.
CB: I think it’s an open secret by now that jazz is experiencing a sort of blossoming at this point. In the documentary Icons Among Us, there’s a great scene where you say it’s “the quietest revolution in jazz I’ve ever heard.” Can you tell me what you think is different between the rebirth going on right now, versus what was happening 20 or 30 years ago when you were coming up?
TB: It’s hard to say; one of the big differences is that there’s not enough bands for these young musicians to be in, and get the type of mentorship that they need. That’s unfortunate, because there are some things that these guys could learn from older musicians. But the other thing is, these guys are fearless, man. They’re trying new things and they’re eager to get out there and find themselves. And that’s the kind of thing that you have to encourage in the community. It’s a fine line because understanding the history and the fundamentals and finding yourself. You don’t want to lean too much in either direction…. Those are the things that I try to impart upon a lot of these young musicians that I come in contact with, whether they’re in my band or I’m teaching them.
CB: You’ve done a number of scores for Spike Lee’s films, as well as many other movies. How do you distill jazz’s spontaneity and its constant sense of breathing and reinvention when you’re writing a long-form piece like a film score?
It’s really all about accepting. Sometimes, as jazz artists we feel like there’s such a longstanding tradition that there are certain things you may avoid. What I’ve learned from being around Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] is that those very things that you’re avoiding are what help you develop your sound…. That’s why you study and learn the whole industry – rhythm and culture. You may want to take all those elements and put them in your music….
You don’t forget what you come from, but you also don’t ignore what’s around you…. The thing is not to avoid the things that you love naturally so you can be quote-unquote a “jazz musician.” Deepak Chopra said something that blew my mind: We always like to label ourselves. We will call ourselves a doctor or a lawyer, and in doing so we will limit ourselves to what we think a doctor or a lawyer should be. And as a result you end up missing out on a lot of things.
CB: Have you found any particular ways that the messages or morals or concepts that Spike Lee wants to convey in his films line up with some of the messages inherent in jazz music?
TB: Of course. The first thing is that Spike is very much a lover of history – African-American but also history in general. He’s also a guy who wants to perpetuate the legacy of who we are. And that happens in jazz. It’s a direct correlation….
One of the things that I love about working with Spike is, he’s a guy that strives for excellence in everything that he does…. He’s a dude that works hard, and he does a lot of research. He’s not going to enter into some subject matter lightly. That’s very much what jazz musicians have been about forever. Think about Sonny Rollins: He thought his playing wasn’t up to par and he went up on the bridge for three years to practice…. So there’s a direct correlation to jazz.
Terence Blanchard performs tonight through Sunday at Blues Alley, and CapitalBop is giving away tickets to the 10 p.m. shows tonight, Friday and Sunday. You can automatically enter to win by sharing CapitalBop’s link to this article on Facebook, which can be found here.