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Trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s new album uses jazz to heal communities dealing with gun violence

The multiple Grammy winner talks about working with Spike Lee, listening to the universe — and the real-life hurricanes of this lifetime

John Coltrane used to say that we’ve got to learn how to play in tune — and he meant with the universe, not in terms of pitch,” says trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, a man who has created 40-plus film scores and played on 50-plus. “That stuck with me. It’s about learning how to pay attention.”

The four-time Grammy winner (on 13 nominations) listened to the universe as it reminded him that young black men, women and children across the country are dying because of gun violence.

So he took his musical talents on the road to four U.S. locations afflicted by the epidemic of that violence. Along with his quintet, E-Collective — Blanchard on trumpet, Charles Altura on guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano and synthesizers, Oscar Seaton on drums and David “DJ” Ginyard on bass — Blanchard created seven songs for his newest project, Live (Blue Note), released April 20. The locations included Minnesota (Philando Castile), Cleveland (Tamir Rice) and Dallas (where on July 7-8, 2016, five police officers were killed).

“We’ve been trying to keep the debate alive, so we … recorded music in four cities that had [experienced] atrocities,” Blanchard said. His goal is to further the conversation on gun violence, and he hopes Live will help. “We hope the music can help people heal. We hope that the music can help take away from the frustration and anger. We hope that the music can help other people reflect.”

“They were picking us up, putting us in a boat right off the porch of our house, that’s how high the water had gotten. Men were in the water pushing the boat, trying to help us find dry land.”

Blanchard, via phone from his New Orleans home, describes the last two hurricanes his hometown experienced, catastrophes that changed the culture of America and shed light on the country’s socioeconomic breakdown.

Until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 1965’s Hurricane Betsy was the largest storm to ever hit the city. Blanchard remembers both storms.

“I was a little kid,” he said. “We lived in the Lower 9th Ward, and … there was just a lot of rain, and they were picking us up, putting us in a boat right off the porch of our house, that’s how high the water had gotten. Men were in the water pushing the boat, trying to help us find dry land. We wound up at this woman’s house.” He said he doesn’t even know who she was. “We were sleeping in [her] front living room on the floor trying to get dry. And we couldn’t find my dad for a couple of days, didn’t know where he was. … I remember there was another little girl in the boat with us, just crying hysterically the entire time. The rest of us were like in shock, in a daze, trying to figure out what was going on.”

Forty years later, Blanchard was in the midst of Hurricane Katrina and became part of a documentary that detailed the crisis. His longtime colleague, Spike Lee, with whom Blanchard has scored films as far back as 1988’s School Daze, produced When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

“I was very angry,” Blanchard said. “Angry because Hurricane Katrina, to me, is the manifestation of everything we hate about politics. There have been politicians who will kiss your a– … kiss your baby and do whatever they need to do to get your vote, but once in office they don’t serve the public. They serve themselves.”

He says the tragedy for him was that New Orleans never even got hit by Katrina. “The hurricane bypassed us,” he said, “and we still had that high level of devastation. To me that means that somebody didn’t do their job. Somebody should have … went to jail for that. … Hurricane Katrina should have been a wake-up call for America. And it was. For a hot second. It was.”

Blanchard has always used his music to make powerful statements about race, culture and American tragedies past and present for most of his long career. His film scores include 4 Little Girls, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Jungle Fever, Eve’s Bayou, Chi-Raq, Jungle Fever, Red Tails and Inside Man and his own legendary discography. He also stepped into the opera world with Champion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

“I’m working on my second opera now, and when I sit down with my mind thinking that I have to write an opera, my ego freaks out,” Blanchard said. “It’s like, man, that’s a lot of work. But when I throw the ego aside and allow the creative process to take hold, then ideas start coming.”

When did you start working with Spike Lee?

It was probably 1989. I was hired to play a session for School Daze. I walked in and I had on my Lakers hat, a Lakers T-shirt, and purple and gold Converse. And Spike, he looked at me and says, ‘Lakers fan, huh?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ And next thing I know, he was giving me tickets to the Knicks. Sitting courtside. I played some solos and then he heard me playing the piano, and that’s when everything started with the relationship and me scoring his films.

What can we expect of your new score with Lee for the upcoming BlacKkKlansman?

It’s a really great movie with John David Washington. Spike always wants to have a good orchestra for his scores, which we did for this one. But we also have a little twist … we use electric guitar and … an R&B rhythm section for some things to create a ’70s type of R&B sound for some of the score. That’s going to be a little different.

How did you begin infusing culture and art in your work?

My influences were Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, so the people that I admire were people who contributed greatly to American culture. They did it by having a high standard of excellence … and being themselves and sticking true to life. I’ve tried to model myself after those guys. When I was at the Monk Institute teaching, I was working with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Herbie’s never shied away from tackling topics. And when you watch what he does with his music, he’s trying to manifest his beliefs into his music.

How old were you when you first picked up an instrument?

I started playing piano, my mom started making me take lessons, when I was about 5 years old. We lived in this double house, and the piano teacher lived in the other side of the house. So I could never miss a lesson. Every weekend. I’d come outside and go right next door to Miss Francis’ house and get my lesson and come on back. It was fun.

How did you become involved in education?

I come from a family of educators. My mom was a teacher’s assistant when I was a little kid. Her sister taught voice and piano in high school for years, and then I have cousins in Lake Charles, they are all educators. One of my other cousins, Lawrence, he’s Dr. Lawrence Blanchard. Education has always been big for me because it turned my life around. It introduced me to some great people, and those great people were very generous … helped turn my life around and allowed me to see a bigger world … have broader experiences. It’s through that that I see all things are possible for anybody who wants to work hard.

Where do you find yourself most creative?

Creativity can happen anywhere. You just have to allow yourself to be open to it. All too often our egos get in the way when we say, ‘Oh, this must be this way, it has to be that.’ But being an accomplished human being in this universe, you’ve got to constantly listen to the universe itself. It’s always talking to you. It’s always telling you what’s going on. You have to learn how to tap into that. I do it at various times through chanting, through prayer, whatever you want to call it. But the main thing about it is to let it do its thing.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.