Terence Blanchard is the powerhouse composer and master jazz trumpeter, who has crafted the musical universes of groundbreaking films including Inside Man, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Clockers, Crooklyn, Love & Basketball, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Summer of Sam, 4 Little Girls, Cadillac Records, Barbershop, and Chi-Raq. Reuniting once again with director, Spike Lee, Terence created a staggering, palatial score for BlacKkKlansman, an exploration into the life of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to work in the Colorado Springs police department and his mission to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. To date, the film has garnered the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival, received rave reviews from critics worldwide, and is well positioned to dominate this coming award season. As a solo artist, Terence’s recorded works have been honored with five Grammy Awards, celebrating his subversive artistry, unparalleled musicianship, and fearless activism. Earlier this year, Terence shared an impactful album called Live featuring the spoken word poetry of Dr. Cornel West. Passing down insights from his prodigious career and the musical traditions of his mentors, Terence has served as an instructor at the University of Miami and Thelonious Monk Institute and currently acts as a visiting scholar at Berklee College of Music. In our deep discussion, Terence reveals the poignant messages that informed his approach to scoring BlacKkKlansman and the power of truth, in art and life.
You are originally from Louisiana and come from a family with diverse musical passions. Can you elaborate on the early experiences that inspired you to explore your artistry on a deeper level? What attracted you to play the trumpet?
Well, I don't remember life without music. It was always around. My father sang in church every Sunday. My mom's sister played the piano. Her husband had recitals with my father. My grandfather had stopped playing guitar by the time that I was born, but he still had one. There was a piano at my grandmother’s house. Music was always something I had been surrounded by, so it was a no-brainer for me to sit at the piano, picking out melodies and notes to try and play by ear from the time I was about five years old. When I was in the fourth grade, there was a local musician, Alvin Alcon in New Orleans, who came to my school to do a little workshop, playing with a jazz band. I’ll never forget hearing that trumpet. That was the moment where that instrument caught my ear. Around that time, my parents started getting me lessons. My father had just rented a piano for me to have at our house, but I came home that day talking about how I wanted to play the trumpet. Man, that was some funny shit.
In New Orleans, you can go outside, go to a parade and you’ll hear marching bands and jazz bands. I heard music all the time all over the city. It was my impression that the whole country was like that. I didn’t know that New Orleans was special in that regard. It wasn’t until I became much older that I realize how different this city truly is. I'm thankful to God every day for that.
During your meteoric rise as a musician, you performed extensively with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. What would you say were the most valuable aspects of playing, recording, and improvising during this time in your life? Who were the core jazz players in your midst that pushed you to take your skills higher?
It was like going from college ranks to the pros. I was hanging around with great musicians in Lionel Hampton's band. Curtis Fuller was a great influence on me; he was a great trombonist. I played with the Jazz Messengers at a young age. Frankie Dunlop was a drummer who actually played with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. Oliver Beaner, a great trumpet player. I was just 18 years old at the time, hearing stories about all of the greats from these guys. Just being around them, watching them practice, watching how they warmed up, watching how they performed on the stage, witnessing their level of professionalism. There’s something that was indoctrinated into me from a very young age.
Art Blakey’s band was filled with a bunch of young guys who were just as dedicated to the craft as I was. Man, it was another blessing to be in a band with a legend like Art Blakey. I was surrounded by young energy that was eager to grow and make their own statement. I’ll never forget when I first started playing with him. I had to go back and look through all of my Art Blakey records again because he possessed a certain practical realism, which influenced everything that I was doing. This made his genius even more impactful to me. I was watching how he shaped all of our compositions, how he learned them in rehearsal, and how he would perform them live. It was amazing to see the whole thing develop. That was very valuable information.
I tell people all the time, I was in that band for four years, but I felt like I’d aged 40 by the end. It was an intense masterclass, but not through lecturing; it was sheerly through the example he set. Of course, we would have conversations. There were some things he told me that I still live my life by. For example, he would always say, “Never speak above your audience. Never speak beneath them. Speak straight to them.” He would also tell us all the time, “If you have something to offer, the world will beat a path to your door. So, don’t be bitter. Work hard at your craft”. I learned so much from being around him. I watched him quote the Quran in Arabic. I saw how he dealt with certain issues and learned about his belief system, his religious beliefs. He was also just a funny guy. All of those things played a role in who he was as a musician.
You are a highly prolific, 5-time Grammy winning solo artist with a rich history of using your music as a vehicle to stand up for your beliefs. Your most recent album, “Live” is an intense and moving commentary on gun violence, discrimination, racism, and hate crimes in America, which features spoken word from Dr. Cornel West. What drives the social activism in your music? What have been some of the most profound ways you’ve seen the power of your music manifest?
This goes back to my orientation in jazz. I grew up listening to the greats, Miles Davis, John Coltrane… All those guys were very socially conscious. I’ll never forget being in Farrugia, Italy where David Chertok, who was a filmographer, would host these sessions and play jazz videos. Back then, we didn’t have YouTube. When I was there for a festival for a week, I would go there every day to watch them. I remember he put on the one of John Coltrane playing Alabama and told everyone how it was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and in tribute to the ones that were killed there. I cried like a baby in that theater because I could hear the pain and frustration in the music.
That has always been a part of me because I've always believed that art in itself is supposed to chronicle and document the societies from which it was created from. I've had so many experiences like this, so I'll just tell one of the ones that stuck with me. While performing this music live, a guy came up to me after the show, and he said, “Hey man, I thought you were gonna play the music from A Tale of God's Will. At that moment in time, a lot of people were coming up to me and telling me how they wished I still had my jazz band. I thought this was going to be one of those conversations, and I was getting to do battle with this guy, and he goes, “When you started playing, it was very lush, pretty, thematic music until God’s Will…When you started playing, you just sounded so angry, then you took a break, introduced the band, and told us what the music was based on and why it was created.” Then he said, “My next thought was, well if the guy who created A Tale of God’s Will is this angry about gun violence, then this country should rethink its position on gun control.”
BlacKKKlansman is based on Ron Stallworth’s 2014 biography, which examines his experience as the first black detective at the Colorado Springs police department, who embarks on a mission to expose a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. How did you drop into the ethos of this project and what were the themes within the narrative that resonated with you most?
First of all, I was just amazed that it was a true story. I couldn't believe it because it so reminded me of a Dave Chappelle skit. This story was incredible to me. To think that this guy had the bravery and integrity to do what he did — it was amazing. I was very thankful to be a part of it. I knew if I was going to be a part of it, I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do everything in my power not to disrespect this man’s journey. One of the things I kept thinking about was the statement it makes about America. The ending of the film makes you think, “What does it mean to be American?”
For me, I still think that Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem was so emblematic of underrepresented people and how they feel in this country in terms of how many others were not considered an American. To me, Jimi Hendrix is screaming that we're all Americans. His playing evokes the outrage and frustration of being born in this country, not being considered an American by people in this country. We’ve all contributed to this country, and we all have a vested interest in it. So, that's the reason why I thought it would be appropriate to have the electric guitar — to harken back to that period in our culture where we were fighting just for the right to be seen and heard.
To think that people want to turn back the hands of time under the guise of bringing the country back, it’s like, back to what? Exactly what is it that you’re looking for? A time when underrepresented groups were even less represented? There’s a certain type of audacity in the mere notion of that claim. It’s the most outrageous thing you could ever think of. When people start saying, “we want our country back,” we know what that really means for most people.
So, I thought, musically, that we had to make a statement about that throughout the entire film. Given that it is a period piece set in the 70’s when you see all those Afros, bell bottom pants, I thought the guitar would be the perfect complement to Spike’s vision. Charles Altura was the guitarist. It was actually my band, the same players on the album, Live, that performed the score.
What led you to create innovative juxtapositions between expressive, organic instrumentation and opulent orchestral arrangements? Considering that BlacKKKlansman is designed to balance hard truths with humorous moments, how did that factor into your compositional approach?
Well, Spike doesn't like a lot of underscore. He wants that thematic music. There are some portions of the score where I just tried to not get in the way of the humor. The thing that makes this film work is the amazing performances by the actors. The editing by Barry was incredible, so there is ebb and flow to all of this stuff. All you have to do as a composer is follow the story and don’t try to make too much of your own statement. The thing I try to do is use everyone for their strengths, not their weaknesses, and have all these elements organically intertwine. Hopefully, that takes it to a bigger place than what you originally perceive.
Spike loves music, so I knew that there would be moments where the score would stand out. I didn’t have to try to make everything a huge musical moment. My main priority was making sure that, emotionally, I covered what we were trying to say with this film, in terms of how we’re all American and how we all have to come together to make a perfect union.
Your cue called “Gone With the Wind” nods to the old classic Swanee River. The drums have an innately militaristic flavor. Is there a deeper story behind the construction of this piece?
It goes back to what we were discussing earlier about people wanting to reclaim their country. Back to what? Back to a time where you didn’t even consider me a citizen or a human being? What we were trying to do is to draw the contrast between that way of thinking and Ron Stallworth's integrity. For me, I think that's the contrast that people are facing with this film. They're faced with what people used to call integrity. What people thought was integrity was faux integrity because it was basically nationalism. When they are chanting, “America first!”, What they mean is us first. By contrasting these ideas with the story of Ron Stallworth, we debunk the entire concept.
Musically, Spike wanted to do it, and I said, “Ok, if you want to do this, we can’t make it sound like it’s a part of the rest of the score. It has to be something totally different.” Subconsciously, we were trying to draw the audience back to this notion that in order to be an American, you had to be a certain way and do specific things. I was sitting there, thinking to myself that it was BS for the most part because it wasn’t representing anything truthful. To this day, we are still disrespecting Native Americans in this country. We still don’t have respect for anybody else who isn’t Anglo in this country. We wanted to draw these parallels.
You have a long and enduring working relationship with director, Spike Lee that dates back to the late 80’s. What sets BlacKKKlansman apart from your previous collaborations? What are the most significant similarities and differences between the two of you in terms of creative process and personal taste?
I think BlacKkKlansman is a combination of all of those projects. There's a little bit of Malcolm X in there; there's a little bit of Clockers…The suspense from Inside Man. The honorable approach to storytelling from Miracle at St. Anna. The whimsical nature of Bamboozled. I think all of those things are present in BlacKkKlansman. That's what I felt when I was working on it.
The interesting thing about working with Spike is that I always felt like we've been on the same page socially, in terms of how important it is for us to tell stories and pay respect to people who have given their lives. Because of that commonality we share, there is a mutual drive to get it right.
Would you say this also has to do with greater social responsibility?
Of course, of course. It's not just about being African American, but it's about being a part of an underrepresented group in this country. I was glad to see the success of Crazy Rich Asians as well because it’s proof that people want to understand other cultures and there are a plethora of stories out there that we can all experience and enjoy.
The reason why BlacKkKlansman is important because it is scary. The rhetoric that people are espousing is not based in truth; it’s based on fear of losing power. At the end of your day, what does that mean? I’ve been living on the bayou for the last two years, and I get a chance to wake up and see nature every day. It’s amazing to me because you sit down and watch this film. You watch how these animals interact and how everyone leaves them alone to do their own thing. Secretly, you’re saying to yourself that they’re just trying to control their area and live their lives in peace. When you look at the foundation of racism and bias and all these old ideas, it’s about trying to take control of what God created. They used to tell us all the time, the only thing you take to the grave is respect.
Over the years, you have served as an instructor at the Thelonious Monk Institute, University of Miami, and Berklee College of Music. What are the most essential teachings you hope to convey to your students? How does your participation in music education enhance your artistic work?
The most important thing is, to tell the truth, based on what their truth is, not to lie to themselves. Sometimes, people get into the music business for the wrong reasons. They think that there's a pot of gold waiting for them at the end of the rainbow. For me, that’s not the case. There's a burning desire to say something. There is motivation to help people heal. That's the most powerful gift we can give to anyone through any art form. Music has helped me grow as a person, and I just have this desire to share that with other people, to show them music. I’m constantly trying to teach my students that.
I think we have to get over this notion of equating being wrong with being weak. It’s not true. We can all learn from each other and help others learn. It’s a two-way street we have to be open to. Kids and adults will respect you when you can admit you’re wrong.
I remember watching the great James Moody, a great jazz saxophonist, in a rehearsal. He heard the piano player do something and he goes, “Hey, man! Hold on. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Go back. What was that bit you just played? Show me that!”. This was a guy who had a famous song that everybody sings based off of one improvised solo he played. You know, Moody’s Mood for Love. To see a guy that great still ask questions like that in his 80s — that moment was a lesson for me. We’re constantly trying to find our voices and go deeper into that, which is one of the things I love most about teaching. I’m always fascinated by the process of giving students the tools to develop their own ideas and seeing what they come up with. I’m here because I had great teachers.
Of course, we deal with the techniques of developing ideas, and how you arrange, and how you compose, and how you use structures to tell the story. That’s just the fundamental part, but I also try to convey to them that there must be a purpose behind anything you create.
If you could re-score any film in history, what would it be? If you could collaborate on a full album with any deceased musical luminary, who would you choose?
That’s a rough one. As far as re-scoring a film, there was one that I really wanted, but never got a chance to do. It was called Devil in the Blue Dress. I would have loved to have done it because I had an idea to score it with a big band, but using all the colors in a more orchestral way.
The musical thing is also hard, but John Coltrane and Miles Davis are the first artists that come to mind. I would love to collaborate with them, or even just be alone with them.
If you could only perform one more song live, what would it be?
That's a good question. Man, I have no idea. There are two medleys I'm playing with a band. It’s based on an album I did after Hurricane Katrina called Choices. We have Dr. Cornel West spoken word on that album. He talks about how the choices we make have an effect on our community and dictate what kind of person you’re going to be.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Ruby Gartenberg, Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Terence Blanchard and Alisse Kingsley of Muse Media.