Terence Blanchard - full interview

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Terence Blanchard's latest album, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), is about the abandonment of the people of New Orleans by the Bush administration. Here the composer, saxophonist and film-score writer speaks to Martin Smith about his new music, the US government and working with Spike Lee.

What made you record the album?

The initial thing that made me record the album was that when we were doing the documentary [When the Levees Broke] it was hard to let it go. I felt Spike [Lee] had done his job in giving his voice to the people of New Orleans and letting them tell their stories. But I was a New Orleanian - I am a New Orleanian - and I felt I needed to do something to help people talk about the issue. I didn't want to leave it at that, so my wife said, "Why don't you expand the themes from the documentary, put your hands behind an orchestra?" and I said, "Great."

Once we started it was really about continuing the forum on New Orleans, continuing the discussion on the Gulf coast, and it just kind of mushroomed and blossomed into this extended CD. Once we got into the studio we started to experiment with the whole idea of ghosts, and the first ghost, the ghost of Congo Square, I actually started to hear the title of the album as a chant.

Where did you draw inspiration from?

I drew inspiration from the stories that people had told me about their experiences in the aftermath of the hurricane. It wasn't so much about music for me, It was really more about what people had to endure. I think that's what I want people to gain when they listen to it, I just want people to reflect on what happened here and what people had to deal with and how things can go terribly wrong in what is supposed to be the richest country in the world.

The irony of all this stuff, of us fighting for freedom in Iraq, and people suffering and dying in their homes in New Orleans, was not lost on me. I think it's an interesting commentary on the times that we live in and how, I've been saying for the longest time, the country is on the brink of disaster because we've allowed politicians to run amok, we've allowed them to lie to us with no consequence, we've allowed them to just do what they want to do.

I thought this album was a qualitative shift in your style and development. It's way up there, and there seems a real depth to it which reaches back to some of the great American classic composers as well as jazz composers.

I think that's fair, but I think what you're hearing is a culmination of experiences that have come together for a purpose. It's like anything else. There was a purpose behind this CD other than just making a musical product. This CD is about a social commentary, this is about commentary about the spirit and the will of the people from this community, not only from New Orleans but also from the Gulf Coast. The thing that I kept thinking about when we were recording was that I wanted to keep my emotions in check because I didn't want my trumpet to sound angry, but I constantly heard stories about how people were stuck on roofs, how they lost loved ones, all sorts of crazy things that you wouldn't think would happen in a country like this. I think the main thing that made this album different musically was that, man, look, we were all extremely hurt. We're hurt.

You got to remember that most of us outside the city, once we heard the city was underwater, we didn't think it was serious because the city floods all the time. Then when we realised how serious it was we were expecting the government to spring into action and fill in the levees and drain the water out of the city immediately, but that didn't happen. They didn't know how to rescue people; they didn't know how to plug up the holes. My mother's house sat under 12 feet of water for five days. It was terrible; I didn't know what to tell her.

What you hear on this record is something that goes way beyond music. My compositions teacher used to tell me all the time, he said, "It's great that you're doing film work, but that's just a means for getting experience for writing for orchestra." He tried to make me realise that there was a bigger purpose behind me gaining experience working in film, and I kind of believe this album is a culmination of a lot of that because it allowed me to draw musical pictures that would hopefully let people reflect and give them just a little bit of insight on what people were experiencing and what we were still experiencing.

You know, after that, my mom and me were talking about her wedding one day, and we were talking about the people at her wedding party. My mom's in LA in an apartment, and she got up and she said, "Let me look at the pictures" and then she stopped, and got extremely sad, and she realised the pictures were gone, they were destroyed.

I was shocked to see New Orleans in the summer. Could you tell us a bit about what the city is like now?

It's not as desolate as it was after the hurricane, but it's nowhere near what it should be. The reality of it is that it didn't take this city a few months to grow to be this size, I understand that. But at the same time you would think the powers that be would allow the money to flow much more readily to people here. There are people who are living in surrounding states who drive here at the weekends to work on their homes, but then they go back to these other states because their kids are in school and they have jobs there. But they still want to come home, and they're running into obstacles at every turn.

That's one of the things I think is very important about the coming election. People are talking about the economy, they talk a little bit about the war, but no one's talking about the Gulf Coast at all, and I think it's really amazing because at the same time as we're being ignored in that way there are people here fighting to come home, we have a long way to go. On my mom's block there are only three people living there, and they are three elderly ladies, my mom being one of them. The thing that's crazy about it is that the others must have a desire to come home because even though I don't see them, someone is cleaning up their lawn, someone is cutting their grass. They haven't started the rebuilding process but they've cleaned out the homes, so they've taken all the debris and put it in the trash. There's a desire for something to happen. Our government is not making us a priority. Politics didn't play a role in this, this is about survival and I'm very disheartened, I'm very disappointed in our government and how they've handled the entire thing.

Do you think Barack Obama offers anything? Is he going to be different?

Hillary Clinton came to New Orleans and she said, "We're acting as if we live in a poor country" and I thought this was an extremely important statement to make because she's exactly right. We spend so much money on this war, and it's a war we lied to get into. Do you remember how Afghanistan was the focus, and it seemed like a far, far stretch to go into Iraq? That seems like it was so long ago, because we don't even talk about Afghanistan any more, but that's where the initial conflict started. So that means we spent trillions of dollars on a war that didn't need to be fought, and they can't spend a dime to help rebuild these homes on the Gulf Coast. It's a serious tragedy. But I think the real tragedy is that we haven't woken up as a country to really just demand, and I really mean demand, more from our leaders.

What's your next project?

I don't know. Spike has just finished shooting a film called Miracle at Santa Anna that I'm going to start working on, and I'm on tour right now with the Monterey Jazz All-stars, with James Moody, Nnenna Freelon, Benny Green, Derrick Hodge, Kendrick Scott and myself. So I'm doing that for seven more weeks. Once I finish that I'm going to get back to my group and we have some ideas for some things.

Are you planning to come to the UK with the album?

We're planning to but there are no dates as of yet, we were trying to mix it up and do the Spike Lee show again at the Barbican, but I don't know right now.

How come you got to work with Spike Lee?

I met him years ago. As you know Spike's father was doing some of his early movies, he was a jazz musician and wanted to put together a group and we were called in just to be session players. It's kind of funny actually, Spike remembered me because I walked in with a Laker baseball hat and t-shirt, because we just won the championship. Spike said, "You a Laker fan, huh?" and I go, "Yep."

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Well the one thing I'd like to say is that I appreciate everything that people have done for the Gulf Coast, because after the hurricane we got a lot of well wishers from all round the world, London too. I know people wanted to do anything they could to help the situation here so I'd like to take the moment to say thank you.


Martin Smith's review of A Tale of God's Will is here.