Trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard

The five-time Grammy winner reflects on pushing musical boundaries with his new CD, “Magnetic,” and composing his first opera, the jazz-infused Champion.

One of the most celebrated trumpeter-composers on today's landscape, Terence Blanchard has recorded more than 30 albums and won multiple Grammys. He's also an acclaimed bandleader and scorer of TV and movie soundtracks, including Red Tails and the documentary When the Levees Broke. The Big Easy native began playing trumpet in elementary school and studied at the famed New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Blanchard is also artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute's Master's program and the University of Miami Frost School of Music's  Henry Mancini Institute. In addition to dropping his new release, "Magnetic," he's composed his first opera, Champion.


Tavis: Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has always pushed musical boundaries to find new ways of communicating with listeners. Considered one of the most innovative jazz artists today, his work has ranged from movie scores to Broadway to a jazz-infused opera titled “Champion,” which will debut next month.

His newest album, about to be released, is titled “Magnetic.” Let’s take a look at Terence Blanchard and his quintet playing a cut from that CD.

[Film clip of musical performance]

Tavis: (Laughter) I was asking Terence, “Do you remember that performance?” He’s like, “Kinda sorta.” (Laughter)

Terence Blanchard: Oh, man.

Tavis: Does it get to a point where you do so many gigs that you don’t recall where you were?

Blanchard: Man, I’m trying to figure out where that’s from now. (Laughter) I’m trying – I’m going, “Oh my God, that’s not good.”

Tavis: Yeah. Well, it sounded good.

Blanchard: Yeah, it was cool.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Blanchard: We were having fun, that’s a good thing.

Tavis: Tell me about this new project, “Magnetic,” for starters.

Blanchard: Well, “Magnetic” is a new album comprised of mostly original music, and we have a couple of great guest artists on it – Lionel Loueke, Ravi Coltrane, and the great Ron Carter’s playing on it.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.

Blanchard: But the tune itself is – I became a Buddhist about six years ago, and it’s all centered around the whole notion of drawing positive things to your life and trying to have more enlightened experiences in life.

Tavis: Yeah. You’ve said two things I want to go back and get now. First I’ll start with “Magnetic.” This is – I could be wrong about this. I figure myself a relatively good student of your corpus.

Blanchard: Okay.

Tavis: I don’t know that I’ve seen a project where the writing was this collaborative. Your quintet – everybody seems to have gotten a writing – these guys are talented, obviously.

Blanchard: Yes, mm-hmm.

Tavis: But am I reading that right or wrong that this time you shared more on the writing?

Blanchard: No, you’re right, you’re right.

Tavis: Whew. (Laughter) Okay. Just checking.

Blanchard: Well, right, right. It’s because I think all of these guys have a voice, and I’m taking a page out of Art Blakey’s playbook. He always tried to encourage us to write, to help us to develop as an artist, and I think why these guys are in my band, it’s kind of a safe haven for them.

They don’t have to worry about some other things. So I always try to encourage them to write and create.

Tavis: Yeah. Another thing you said I want to go back to is – for a couple reasons – is your being a Buddhist as of six or seven years ago.

There are a number of great artists who we know who are part of the Buddhist tradition. Anybody who saw the movie “What’s Love Got to Do with It” saw –

Blanchard: Yes, mm-hmm.

Tavis: – saw the transformation that Tina Turner made.

Blanchard: Right.

Tavis: My dear friend, your dear friend Herbie Hancock, I just had him on my radio show not long ago talking about the International Jazz Day in Istanbul.

Blanchard: Exactly.

Tavis: We’ll talk about that in just a second; I know you were a part of that this year.

But Herbie, of course, famously a Buddhist. I’m wondering, since you raised it, how comfortable you are telling me what the influences were that pulled you there, how you got there, because you weren’t raised that way in New Orleans.

Blanchard: No, not at all. (Laughter) Not at all, not at all. Well, it was Herbie Hancock, actually. I did a tour with him six years ago, and we were on the road, we were in Europe for 10 weeks, man, and we changed every night. I just saw the benefits of it.

One of the things that was interesting about growing up as a Christian, I still hold on to my belief in Jesus, but the practice of Buddhism gives me something every day to physically do and engage in, and I saw the benefits of it and I saw how it turned my life around instantly.

So it’s been something that I’ve been pursuing ever since, and when I say I’m a Buddhist, like I said earlier, it’s not that you throw away any other beliefs that you have, but it just kind of enhances everything.

Tavis: Right. When you say it “turned your life around,” I don’t want to get too personal here, but for those of us who are fans of yours, I’m thinking six, seven years ago you didn’t want to turn around. (Laughter) You were doing pretty good. You were doing pretty good, winning Grammys and scoring movies and the like.

You were doing pretty good six or seven years ago, so I’m just curious when you say it turned you around what you mean by that.

Blanchard: Well, sometimes when you become successful the success takes on a life of its own.

Tavis: Sure.

Blanchard: Then you start to forget some of the things that are more important, and one of the things that being a Buddhist made me realize is that while I’m a musician, that’s not all of who I am. I love being a husband, I love being a father, and the practice of Buddhism kind of really enriched both other parts of my life.

Tavis: I’ve never talked to you without taking the opportunity to ask how my family and friends are doing down in Nola. You spend most of – at one point you had a house out here.

Blanchard: Yes.

Tavis: But now you’re pretty much back in New Orleans. Was there a conscious decision to do that, to go back to – yeah?

Blanchard: Oh, yeah, definitely. I had a place in both cities, and I knew that I was going to make my primary residence New Orleans, just first of all because I just love the city, but also because of the statement that I think it makes in terms of how we believe in bringing the city back.

The city’s doing extremely well. We still have things we have to accomplish, obviously, but Ms. Landrieu and some of the city officials there, and mostly the public, have done a lot of great things, man, to help revitalize that city, and I’m very proud of the citizens of that city for everything they’ve done.

Tavis: I’m glad you said mostly the public. Knowing you, I figured you’d get there.

Blanchard: Right.

Tavis: Mitch is a wonderful mayor, I love him.

Blanchard: Right.

Tavis: But I’m glad you said the public, because I think even Mitch would admit, would have to admit that they’ve been pushed by the people –

Blanchard: Yes.

Tavis: – more than they’ve aided the people (unintelligible).

Blanchard: Right. Well, that’s been a beautiful thing about what happened in the aftermath of Katrina. We all became activists of some sort, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Right.

Blanchard: We never viewed ourselves that way. I’ve always considered myself to be socially conscious, but never an activist. But after Katrina, we had no choice. We had to become active and we had to hold peoples’ feet to the fire, because we kind of felt like we were betrayed.

There were a lot of people who were elected to office who didn’t do their job, so we felt like it’s incumbent upon us to either make a chance or hold the people’s feet to the fire who were there.

Tavis: I talked to so many people over the years since Katrina who, for a lot of different reasons, have moved to New Orleans. Now this is your birthplace, this is home for you.

Blanchard: Yeah.

Tavis: I’m not saying this to cast aspersion. I’m delighted that people have “discovered” New Orleans since Katrina, and for a lot of reasons, some who have moved there started out volunteering and fell in love with the city as a volunteer, and they moved.

Blanchard: Right, mm-hmm.

Tavis: Which raises this question for me. It’s one thing to have an infusion of people who appreciate the culture, but that infusion of people isn’t steeped in the culture.

Blanchard: Right.

Tavis: Which raises the obviously question, what happens to the culture in the coming months and years? Does that make sense?

Blanchard: No, it does, it does. It makes a lot of sense, and it’s a tricky issue, because it’s one of those things where I’m totally engrossed in the culture of New Orleans. I love the musical history, I love the culinary arts, I love the visual arts.

But one of the things that you worry about with the infusion of new people is that all of those things becoming a caricature of themselves.

So one of the things that I constantly push for is for us to really realize that this is still a living art form and it’s still evolving, and there’s still young musicians who have a lot to offer who are not – they are of the tradition but not totally part of that.

That’s perfectly fine, because while Louis Armstrong was the father of it all, it has to move and grow past that, and it’s been happening generation after generation. But we want to make sure that people keep that in the forefront of their minds.

Tavis: There’s some rereleases of some old Miles stuff.

Blanchard: Oh –

Tavis: They’ve come out on album, so it’s vinyl.

Blanchard: Okay, yeah.

Tavis: So in honor of National Record Day this year, the Miles Davis estate put out three rereleases of some of his best stuff.

Blanchard: Oh.

Tavis: So I just got these LPs, I was playing them the other day, just got these LPs the other day, and Miles, of course, known for pushing boundaries, for trying new things, for being an innovator.

Whatever that was that drove Miles, I’m glad it drove him, but what is it that has driven you or drives you – I want to get to this jazz opera in a second – but what’s driving you to be so innovative, to push the boundaries so much?

Blanchard: Well first of all, it’s Miles.

Tavis: Yeah.

Blanchard: Miles and Herbie and Wayne and all of those guys, Thelonious Monk, because they never accepted the status quo.

Tavis: Right.

Blanchard: Another thing too is that, man, I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music, so I’m always trying to infuse those things into what it is that I do. Growing up listening to Parliament Funkadelic, Mandrel, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, all of those things have an influence on what I feel my musical statement is going to be, and I try not to shy away from it.

It’s one of those – you get into trouble when you say, “Oh, I’m a jazz musician, so that means that I do this.”

I think that always pigeonholes a lot of artists. I don’t view myself that way. I am a jazz musician, but I’m a jazz musician who encompasses a lot of other things.

Tavis: “A lot of other things” includes this new jazz opera.

What does a jazz opera sound like? Describe it for me.

Blanchard: Well, you’re going to find out in June. (Laughter)

Tavis: You’re about to find out. (Laughter) Because you’re writing a jazz opera, you’re writing for solo voices when what you are known for is improvisation. So I’m trying to figure out how this is going to work.

Blanchard: Me too.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Blanchard: Man, (unintelligible). It’s been a big labor of love, man. I went back, Roger Dickenson, my composition teacher in New Orleans, I called him up and he said, “Listen, man, you know what to do. Just trust your training, go ahead, and let the music in the libretto speak to you.”

So it’s been a bit of a challenge, because writing for voice is, just for the technical thing for a second, when you write for a trumpet or a violin, the range is like this wide, but the voice is like this wide.

In that range there’s this much of it that can really project. This other part may not be able to project as well. So you have to keep that in mind when you’re writing all of these things. So when I’m writing for film, when I want to write something dramatic, a big, sweeping thing, I have this range that I could use for the strings to go up and down.

Tavis: Right.

Blanchard: I don’t have that range for the voice, so I have to use other little tricks, and the thing that’s been really great is the Opera Theater of St. Louis have had a number of workshops for me where I sat down and worked with some young vocalists so I could get accustomed to hearing what the voice sounds like and how it operates.

Tavis: Right.

Blanchard: So once I got that under my belt, then I had to go back and readjust my thinking.

Tavis: Yeah. Finally, I know that you and Herbie and a bunch of other great artists are participating this year in this international celebration of jazz. This year – I wish I were going with y’all this year.

Blanchard: Man, you should come, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: I love Istanbul. Love Istanbul. Tell me your sense, as you travel the world, of how jazz, which is our creation, it is ours, and yet it’s being celebrated now around the world.

Blanchard: Well, it speaks to you. The whole idea of an International Jazz Day speaks to the profound impact that this music has had on the world. When you travel the world, everybody knows who Louis Armstrong is, you know what I mean?

You can hear the influence that jazz, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, has had on a lot of other people in the rhythm, the harmonic approach, the melodic approaches.

So for us to celebrate this thing this way to me is a huge testament to the efforts of a lot of other people, like Herbie, Wayne, who’ve been, like, staunch supporters in trying to get everybody else to understand how important this is.

And I think – when we did it last year, which was the first year, I was surprised at the impact that it had on people here in this country, so I’m eager to see what’s going to happen this year.

Tavis: So the jazz opera, “Champion.”

Blanchard: “Champion.”

Tavis: Comes out when? Will premiere when?

Blanchard: Well, it premieres on June 15th. It’s Opera Theater of St. Louis.

Tavis: Opera Theater of St. Louis. And the new project “Magnetic,” of course, May 28th, in stores, the new project from Terence Blanchard. I’m always glad to see you, man.

Blanchard: Good to see you too man.

Tavis: Come back any time.

Blanchard: Always, always.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: January 26, 2014 at 12:41 am