Weekender: Grammy-winning composer Terence Blanchard talks film, jazz and the genre’s future

Terence Blanchard, American jazz musician from New Orleans, poses for a portrait with his trumpet. (Courtesy Terence Blanchard)

This week, Tufts welcomed jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard for a two-day residency. The multi-Grammy award winner — who has recorded over a dozen studio albums and written scores for more than 50 movies, including several for director Spike Lee — had two events scheduled at Tufts: a lecture on composing for film on Oct. 23 and a masterclass on Oct. 24. Unfortunately, due to a flight delay, the lecture was canceled, but Blanchard made it in time for the class on Tuesday.

The Daily had the chance to sit down with the socially conscious artist to talk about his residency at Tufts, how he uses art to effect change and what he thinks of the future of jazz, as well as listen to his words of wisdom for young aspiring artists.

The Tufts Daily (TD): I wanted to ask how this partnership with Tufts came to be and if you could tell me a little bit about what you’re doing for this program.

Terence Blanchard (TB): The school called me, and when they talked to me about the partnership, I was excited by it because I love working with students. I love sharing the experiences that I had growing up as an artist and the experiences that I’m still having, just to give people an indication of what it is we do, and show them a pathway that would allow them to discover their own artistic gifts. So once we talked about that, then the rest of it was just about scheduling and trying to figure out times to do certain classes. And today we just had a discussion with some students, and I hope it was productive. We talked about a lot of different issues, and they were very attentive.

TD: I know that we didn’t get a chance to hear from you last night [at the lecture], but could you just give me an idea of what you were going to speak about? I know it had to do with composition and composing for Spike Lee films primarily.

TB: Well with film, one of the things that I try to talk about a lot is structure. I’ll have preliminary conversations about compositional techniques, obviously. But in film, it’s really about how to look at the entire film and create a plan to help tell the story. For example, some films may slow down in a certain spot, so if that happens, do you want the music to push through that, do you not want to have music? Other films may have a payoff in a different part of the film. How do you build up to that? Other films, you may use a recurring theme and you have to look at the recurring theme as a piece that evolves over the entire film, not just scene to scene. So a lot of times those are structural things that I talk about. And [I also focus on] intent, which is probably the most important. How do you want to tell a story? What is the meaning of a scene?

TD: So I know your most recent album, “Breathless” (2015), was inspired a lot by Black Lives Matter and [the death of] Eric Garner. Could you just speak a little bit about creating music to effect change, [and] whether you think that’s important?

TB: I think it’s important, [although] it depends on the artist. Some artists are comedians, some artists are romantics, so I don’t think everybody should follow the same path. For me, I’ve just always been socially sensitive to certain things. Maybe because I was hurt in some form or fashion as a kid, I feel a need to help other people heal their hurt. And [I read an interview of an artist] where he said, “Man, I’m not trying to prove anything anymore; I’m just trying to help people heal.” And I went, you know what? That’s what my life needs to be about. I’m not trying to prove anything anymore. That doesn’t do anything. And that happened to me a long time ago, so my life has been committed to that. I think the most interesting thing about it, though, is if you’re sincere about it, people feel it.

For example, we were playing in Cleveland, and this guy came to the show … expecting to hear my music from [the Spike Lee film] “When the Levees Broke” (2006), which is all orchestral stuff and very lush and pretty, and he said when he got to the show to hear us play, he said, “Man, you sounded angry.” He said, “And then you got up and you said what the music was about. And I have to tell you, I figured if a guy that played that beautifully [before] is so angry now, it made me rethink my position on police brutality.” And this was an elderly white man in Cleveland, Ohio. And that was a very profound moment for me because sometimes you feel like you’re out here and you’re doing this stuff, and nobody really gives a damn. But when he said that, it reinvigorated me, because people are paying attention. And people do need to hear it … The way this country is going right now, there’s a lot more of coming together that we need than the division that’s being spread. So I want to be the antidote to that negativity.

TD: And when you sign onto movies, do you keep the same things in mind when you’re composing for movies and choosing what movies to do as when you’re creating your own music?

TB: Sometimes. I mean, some movies are just fun to do, and then there are other movies that really make a statement. I’m not trying to have an agenda. I’m really there to help the director tell a story. Now when the stories align with my personal beliefs, I mean, that’s a twofer as they say. And for the most part, they do, because of the things that get offered to me and the things that I choose.

When I first got into the film business, because I was black, you should’ve seen the films that they offered me. It was insulting because I know other white composers weren’t being offered those movies. And [the movies I was offered] were all blaxploitation silly movies. And I’m like, “No, that’s not who I am.” And my career suffered for it. [Now], it’s gotten to the point where people kind of know [what I’m interested in], but it’s not something that I have to put out there. Nothing really stupid has come across my desk in a long time … So I’ve been really good.

TD: And just sort of looking forward with jazz, do you have any ideas about what the future holds for the genre and … keeping jazz modern, but also bringing it into the future?

TB: Depends on the artist you listen to. There are a lot of progressive things that are going on. I think the future of the music is extremely bright, but I think it’s gonna be one of those things that happens all too often in jazz, [where] it’s not gonna come from where you expect it. Because one of the things about art is that you can never predict the future of it. [But this is] one of the reasons why I teach, you know? I teach to encourage young artists to find their voice and not be afraid to speak their mind. That’s the most important thing that we need in this country right now.

TD: So along those same lines, do you have any advice for the students here who are looking to pursue music or jazz? As they try to break into the industry?

TB: Well, the main thing you have to do is be honest. You have to be honest. You’ve gotta ask yourself what it is you like, what it is you don’t like, and be honest with yourself about the amount of time and effort that you’re putting into it. And you know, do your homework. Study.

You know, I was telling the kids earlier today, there’s no magic to this. There’s no magic pill that I could give you that is gonna make you a great artist. It’s like anything else. How do you get muscles? By doing push-ups. So it’s the same kind of thing. It’s the exact same principle. The more time and effort you put into it, the more you’re going to reap the benefits of it.

The problem is that everything is instant in our society today. Well, art doesn’t work that way. Art wants to see, “Are you dedicated? Don’t come spend a little time with me, kiss me on the cheek, and leave, no. Come over and spend some real time with me.” And the more you do that, the more you reap the benefits.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.