Why Terence Blanchard’s “Live” Matters

With his E-Collective, the trumpeter makes the political personal

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The moment trumpeter Terence Blanchard remembers best from his last tour happened offstage. After a January 2017 show at Cleveland’s Bop Stop, an older white man explained his initial disappointment. He’d expected lush and beautiful jazz, something more like Blanchard’s Grammy-winning 2007 album, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)”. Instead, the trumpeter’s E-Collective band sounded angry.

“I’ll never forget what came next,” Blanchard said over the phone from Los Angeles, where he was scoring a Spike Lee film. “The guy told me: ‘When you got up and explained what the music was about, I had to check myself. I had to think — if the musician who made that other music is now this angry, then something serious must be going on.”  

Blanchard was angry. Something is going on — a steady stream of unarmed black men getting killed by police officers who most often are not prosecuted, and a deepening of already dangerous tensions between black communities and law enforcement officials. Three days before our phone conversation, Stephon Clark had been shot to death in his grandmother’s Sacramento, California, backyard — struck eight times, mostly in his back — by police in search of a suspect who’d been breaking car windows. The gun Clark was thought to have brandished turned out to be a cellphone. “It seems like a never-ending story,” Blanchard said. “And what makes it worse is that people seem consumed with the latest Trump tweet. So, if that guy in Cleveland had to check himself because my music sounded angry, that’s a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?”

The mission for Blanchard’s E-Collective when it formed, in 2014, was musical. The band was meant to sound loud and aggressive. In 2005, while working on Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Blanchard, who has scored dozens of feature films, wanted something groove-based, more electric funk than acoustic jazz. Among the musicians he called was drummer Oscar Seaton, who told him, “You could have a really killing funk band.” Blanchard liked the idea but set it aside. “When Terence finally called me about this new band,” Seaton said, “I told him, ‘Sure, it only took you about a decade.’ ”

For Blanchard, whose acclaim had centered almost exclusively on his acoustic jazz bands and his orchestral work, the E-Collective, which now also includes pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist David Ginyard, and guitarist Charles Altura, was a departure. He’d used synthesizers and electric bass and guitar before, yet this was his first embrace of a bottom-heavy funk sound with those instruments clearly in the foreground, and with his trumpet often processed through reverb and other effects. The band was, Blanchard said, “an attempt to show younger players that this type of music can be played at the highest musical level.” It was also a way to loosen up, have fun.

All that changed in Europe, on the group’s first tour. “Trayvon Martin had already been murdered,” Blanchard said. “Then Eric Garner got choked to death. Then Mike Brown got shot. Then Tamir Rice, who was only 12 years old. It was relentless, and it made us feel a bit helpless, especially so far from home.” That helplessness lent focus. On the road, musicians talk about all sorts of things,” said Tondrae Kemp, the band’s tour manager. “But at a certain point, there was nothing else to talk about.” Soon after, Blanchard brought the band into the studio. “We can’t make a feel-good record now,” he told the group. “Let’s play how we really feel.”

Blanchard’s first E-Collective release, in 2015, was titled Breathless, in reference to Eric Garner’s futile plea — “I Can’t Breathe” — while succumbing to a fatal chokehold from a New York City police officer in the summer of 2014. Blanchard was hardly alone in addressing police brutality against black men, and in focusing on Garner’s plea. “I Can’t Breathe,” a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, ended up emblazoned on NBA pregame warm-up shirts and rippled throughout popular culture; it was the title of a song released last summer by Garner’s siblings, Ellisha and Steven Flagg. Blanchard invited the Garner family to his 2016 concert in Staten Island, near where Garner had lived and died, with a letter that said, “I want you to know you are not forgotten and, in fact, you are an inspiration.” Breathless was less a finished statement than the beginning of an immersion — into new musical possibilities and, more so, the issues that had seized his and his band’s consciousness.

Blanchard’s new E-Collective release, Live, was recorded during January 2017 performances at venues in three communities marked by violence: the Bop Stop, near where Tamir Rice was shot in 2014; the Dakota, in Minneapolis, not far from the St. Paul neighborhood where Philando Castile had been pulled over and shot by a cop six months earlier; and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, in a community still making sense of the deaths of five police officers — Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patricio Zamarripa — who were assassinated while on duty at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

The music on Live mostly grooves tightly, with engaging solos from pianist Almazan and guitarist Altura — the former with notable lyricism, the latter with requisite fire — and from Blanchard, who, at 56, is now a defining presence on our modern jazz landscape. But it is hardly, even in aesthetic terms, feel-good music. Most tracks stretch beyond ten minutes. “Kaos,” whose entwined melody and countermelody are, Blanchard said, meant to evoke a furious tangle of real and fake news, rides an urgent and unsettling seven-beat meter.

There are some words, uttered, not sung — triggered samples drawn from an interview with scholar, author, and activist Cornel West on two songs, and from speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on another. But this is instrumental music, intended to tell stories through sonic imagery, sturdy themes (Blanchard excels at those), and improvisation. The narrative owes much to Blanchard’s residencies in these three communities, where, he said, “we tried to do some civic engagement. Before we played, we looked, listened, and learned.”

In St. Paul’s Selby-Dale neighborhood, Blanchard visited the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Philando Castile worked as a nutrition services supervisor. Castile’s friends told Blanchard how Phil, as everyone called him, often reached into his own pocket to pay for lunch for a child without enough money. “These kids came from all walks of life,” Blanchard told me. “Muslim girls with their hair wrapped, Asian boys, black and white children sitting next to each other. Some didn’t understand that Phil was never coming back.” On a frigid but sunny January morning, Blanchard stopped on Larpenteur Avenue, in nearby Falcon Heights, where only a few posters and balloons were left to mark the spot where Castile lost his life. At Ujamaa Place, a nearby nonprofit center for young and disadvantaged men “rooted in the philosophy of African American culture and empowerment,” Blanchard talked about his experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans. With an aspiring rapper, he discussed both the music business and the business of projecting pride and self-worth through art. “Artists can make a difference when it comes to empowering people,” Kedar Hickman, Ujamaa’s program manager, told me. “But it depends on the artist and the message. People in communities know when a message has been commodified. Terence could hear his mission when we talked about our work, and when I heard him play I could hear a bit of mine.”

More so even than his distinctiveness as a trumpeter — the curled notes that recall his New Orleans roots and the daring improvisations that signal modern jazz’s boundless ambitions — what has propelled Blanchard’s career for the past thirty years is an ability to tell resonant tales, to express empathy and purpose, through the language of instrumental music. That’s what drummer Art Blakey heard in Blanchard’s early compositions for the Jazz Messengers, and what a generation of younger players, schooled in Blanchard’s bands and at the universities where he’s taught, have soaked up. For Almazan, who began playing with Blanchard at 22, a dozen years ago, “Terence taught me that finding my voice as a musician has to do with listening to other people’s stories, and creating a point of connection with them.”

Blanchard’s music has embraced ideas about life and death, tragedy and morality, largely via other people’s stories. In 2013, he composed the well-received opera Champion, on a commission from Opera Theater of Saint Louis, based on the story of Emile Griffith, a three-time world welterweight champion boxer who dealt a lethal punch to an opponent that had taunted (and outed) him as gay. Blanchard was largely inspired by a quote from Griffith’s biography: “I kill a man, and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin.”

He recently received a second commission from the Opera Theater, to collaborate with librettist Kasi Lemmons for the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Blow’s book documents a complicated awakening in a small, segregated Louisiana town. “One truth that is pronounced in my book,” Blow said, “is how long and glorious the history of black people in the South is, and how removed that story is from the caricatures most people draw.” In conversation and in Blanchard’s music, Blow hears echoes of his South. “It may sound corny,” he said, “but, to me, Terence sounds like home.” Blanchard has scored three films directed by Lemmons, beginning with her 1997 triumph Eve’s Bayou. “I felt like he was telling my story with that score,” she said, “but the soul was his. Also, there’s something inherently political about my work, not explicitly stated. And I’ve always gotten that same sense from Terence’s music.”

In his film career, offscreen, Blanchard has been the trumpet behind Denzel Washington’s character, Bleek, in Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues, and the trumpet-playing alligator Louis in Disney’s animated The Princess and the Frog. Onscreen, he was Billie Holiday’s tuxedoed trumpeter in Lee’s Malcolm X. His most memorable role came in Lee’s HBO documentary When the Levees Broke, which documented tragedy in Blanchard’s hometown, in the wake of the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. In one riveting scene, Blanchard escorts his mother back to her home, where she breaks down crying in the doorway upon the realization that everything inside is destroyed. Suddenly, the story Blanchard was scoring was his own.

In 2006, at the Music Shed Studios in New Orleans, while working on the Levees score, Blanchard told me, “I’ve been looking at footage of these people pleading for help every day. They look like my family, not like what the news calls ‘refugees.’ It’s too early to process all this right now, but I think you’ll see in coming years that jazz musicians will create works that will speak directly to what’s gone on here.” Blanchard’s own process began with A Tale of God’s Will, the album for which he turned his Levees score into a suite for jazz ensemble and forty-piece string orchestra. Violins represented the storm’s fury, woodwinds the foreboding calm of its wake. His horn voiced the anguished cries of those left stranded. The music was lush, yes, but also urgent and full of rage.

If that recording released anger, 2009’s Choices suggested both stark challenge and nascent hope. The album was meant to express, Blanchard told me, “how the choices we’ve made as a community have led us to a number of predicaments.” This time, Blanchard needed words. He sought out Cornel West. He sent West rough tracks of music, and then recorded an hour-long conversation at West’s office — “about God’s will and man’s choices,” Blanchard said. He sampled some of West’s commentary, triggering these quotes within the music by using foot pedals.

The last, longest, and best track on Blanchard’s new CD is a seventeen-minute version of the title track from Choices. Well into the tune, after the cheers from the Wyley Theater audience die down and following a tender piano solo that slowly gains force, Blanchard states his theme — tinged with blues feel, gently soaring at first and then, urged on by his band, edged with rage. West’s voice — recorded in 2009, yet eerily timely — interrupts: “How would we prepare for death?… It comes down to what? Choice. What kind of human being you going to be? How you gonna opt for life of decency and compassion and service and love?”

At a panel discussion the day before that Dallas performance, Blanchard said, “People always ask us what kind of band is this, what we’re trying to do. We really don’t know what to say. That rage builds up in you, and it comes out however it’s supposed to. I don’t even try to guide it. It’s not my responsibility. I’m tired of talking. It’s about action. This is my action. This is our action.”

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