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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
Jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard has six Grammy Awards, but this year, he's received his first Oscar nomination, for his original score in the 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman.” Jeffrey Brown sits down with Blanchard, who grew up in New Orleans, to discuss the role of music in film, why writing it requires “putting your ego aside” and how he feels about being considered for an Academy Award.
Renowned jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has been nominated for the best original score Academy Award for his work on the film "BlacKkKlansman."
Tonight, Jeffrey Brown continues our feature on Oscar nominees as part of Canvas. That's our new focus on arts and culture.
In the film "BlacKkKlansman," we meet police officers, members of the KKK, various characters. And then there's a different kind of character, the score, composed by Terence Blanchard.
The role of the music is to — like, first of all, to bring some of those intangible things to the fore, if there are things that don't — we can't put into words, there's emotions we can't really describe, but the music is there to kind of help us experience that.
"BlacKkKlansman," directed by Spike Lee, tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black officer with the Colorado Springs police force.
John David Washington:
Who am I speaking with?
This is David Duke.
Played by John David Washington, he infiltrates a KKK chapter by impersonating a white man over the phone.
My mouth to God's ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn't have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.
His partner, a Jewish officer played by Adam Driver, goes undercover to gather evidence against the Klan. It's set in the 1970s, but Lee makes direct connections to today.
And it's based on a true story, which amazed Terence Blanchard when he first joined the project.
When Spike first told me, the first think I thought of was, man, you need to put the bottle down.
Yes. I mean…
Like, where is this — you're making this up.
Yes, a black man infiltrated the Klan in Colorado Springs? Really? That grabbed me.
Blanchard has long been known as a top jazz musician, with six Grammy awards. He grew up in New Orleans, began playing the piano and Trumpet as a youngster, joined the Lionel Hampton orchestra while still in college, and later Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
He then went solo, eventually heading the group E-Collective. But he's also now being honored for his decades-long work in films, composing more than 40 scores. He first performed on Spike Lee's films "Do the Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues" — that's Blanchard you hear when Denzel Washington plays the trumpet — and has scored almost every Lee film since "Jungle Fever," including "Malcolm X."
What was the hardest thing about learning to write music for a film, as opposed to your other life?
The hardest thing was putting your ego aside.
Putting your ego aside?
Yes, because I come from a world where all the music was about me, it was about what I wanted to say.
Because you're not front and center now.
No, it's not about me. It's really about the story, and it's really about helping the director tell a story in the way he sees fit.
He typically begins his work with a first cut of the film, after a great deal of work by actors, director Lee, and another longtime collaborator, editor Barry Alexander Brown.
When they hand it to me, it's like a lot of things are done, and I'm one of the last pieces of the puzzle. So when you get it, so, then you go, oh, my God, everybody's done a great job. I can't be the guy to drop the ball.
So it inspires me to work hard.
You can make it better, or you could mess it up, I suppose.
Or really mess it up.
Look for new work.
Well, the thing is, the first thing I have to do is let the film tell me what it needs, because, even though it's a great story, there's lighting, there's editing, there's acting.
And when I get a cut, with Spike, you never know, because you can read a scene one way, and then he will shoot it another way, with emphasis on other things in the scene. So, when I watch it, the pace of it, the look of it, it will all speak to me. It will say, oh, OK, well, it slows down a little bit here, maybe we need to pick up the pace here.
Oh, you know what? Maybe that's a very powerful moment, and maybe we need to back away from that and let the actor have that moment. There are a lot of little things like that, that start to play a role in how the overall thing takes shape.
The other part of it, too, because of Spike's unique love for melody, I had to learn how to structure those melodies and orchestrate them onto dialogue in a way that still could be heard, but not get in the way of the dialogue.
These are things that I'm probably not — I'm not aware of as they're happening, right?
You shouldn't be.
I shouldn't be.
Yes, you shouldn't be.
In "BlacKkKlansman," Blanchard worked with an orchestra, as well as his own small ensemble, and for the first time featured the electric guitar.
Spike always does a great job at giving you the taste of the period with the source music, you know, all of the songs that's there.
I wanted the score to be universal, first of all, but still have elements of the '70s, and colors of the '70s, and that electric guitar was one of the ones that we used a great deal.
and the Oscar nomination, it's a first for you, right?
Oh, yes, yes.
A lot of attention because it's the first for Spike Lee, after so long.
Does it feel like just a long time coming for both of you?
I have been asked that question a lot. And it's hard to answer it, because I never expected it. You know what I mean? I have been telling people it's kind of hard to miss what you never had.
It's great. It's awesome. It's been an overwhelming experience. It's been a humbling experience. I look at this movie as being like the culmination of what we have been doing for the last 30 years.
Terence Blanchard's next big project? He's working on an opera, his second.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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