In mid-July, trumpeter Terence Blanchard was on tour in Europe. News from home came fast and hard. New Orleans, his hometown, had been spared another flood, this time from Hurricane Barry’s intense rains. Nearly five years to the day after Eric Garner’s death from a Staten Island policeman’s chokehold, U.S. Attorney General William Barr had ordered the case against Officer Daniel Pantaleo dropped; no federal civil rights charges would be filed. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s tweets had suggested that four female Democratic Congress members “go back” to “the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” (notwithstanding that three of them were born in the U.S.).
Such headlines touch on the animating story lines behind Blanchard’s music. His Grammy-winning 2007 album A Tale of God’s Will expressed the aftermath of the flood resulting from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina through jazz. In its lush but urgent music, his trumpet evoked the anguished cries of those left stranded on rooftops.
Breathless, the hard-hitting first release from Blanchard’s E-Collective band, was titled in reference to Eric Garner’s plea—“I Can’t Breathe”—while succumbing to that fatal chokehold.
His “Caravan” tour, which rolls into Miami on October 18, and St. Paul on October 25 and 26, blends that band’s high-energy music with visual art, dance, and community outreach.
Nearly all of Blanchard’s music during the past decade—his albums, his film scores, and his two operas—has been staked to themes of compassion and understanding, to the antithesis of what Trump tweets out.
“I’m embarrassed and heartbroken by so much of the news from home,” Blanchard said on the phone from Poland when I caught up with him in July. He felt reassured to learn that the New Orleans levees held up to a swollen Mississippi River. “Still, my experience after Katrina stirs up fear and mistrust anyway,” he said, “because I have seen the real consequences of ineptitude and bad intent, how that plays out despite the news reports.” He wondered aloud why another police officer entrusted with protecting citizens had to take another black life, and why he got away with it. And why a president charged with leading his country now promotes prejudice as policy.
“I’ve been traveling this world as a musician since I was 19 years old,” he said. “And the one thing I’ve learned is that everybody wants to be loved and to be respected. Intolerance lies at the heart of our problems. And complacency doesn’t cut it. Compassionate people cannot sit back anymore.”
More so than his distinctiveness as a trumpeter—the curled notes that recall his New Orleans roots and the daring improvisations that signal modern jazz’s ambitions—what has propelled Blanchard’s career for the past 30 years is his ability to tell resonant tales, to express empathy and purpose through music. That’s what drummer Art Blakey heard in Blanchard’s early compositions for Blakey’s Jazz Messengers more than three decades ago, and why Spike Lee has staked his film’s narratives to Blanchard’s music for nearly 30 years as well.
And if the context for Blanchard’s music has often been ripped from the headlines, his career itself has sometimes made for breaking news, as when the Metropolitan Opera recently announced its plans to present his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones—the first such recognition for an African American composer in the organization’s 136-year history.
Blanchard’s E-Collective band—“a groove-based kinda-jazz group,” he called it—began as “a way to loosen up and have fun.” That changed during the group’s first overseas tour. “Trayvon Martin had already been murdered,” Blanchard said. “Then Eric Garner got choked to death. Then Mike Brown got shot. Then Tamir Rice, who was only 12 years old. It was relentless, and it made us feel a bit helpless, especially far from home.” That helplessness lent focus. When Blanchard brought the band into the studio he told them, “We can’t make a feel-good record now.”
Blanchard followed Breathless with 2017’s Live, which was recorded during E-Collective performances at venues in three communities marked by violence: the Bop Stop, in Cleveland, near where Tamir Rice was shot in 2014; the Dakota, in Minneapolis, not far from the St. Paul neighborhood where Philando Castile was pulled over and shot dead by a cop six months earlier; and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, in a community then still making sense of the deaths of five police officers assassinated while on duty at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.
The longest and best track on that album was a 17-minute version of “Choices,” a remake of the title track of 2009 album; included in the mix, triggered by Blanchard’s foot pedals, were sampled snippets of Dr. Cornel West’s spoken words, drawn from an extended conversation with the trumpeter “about God’s will and man’s choices,” Blanchard said. Well into that tune, after the cheers from the Wyly Theater audience died down, Blanchard stated his theme—tinged with a blues feel, gently soaring and then edged with rage. West’s voice—recorded a decade ago, yet eerily timely—interrupted: “How would we prepare for death?… It comes down to what? Choice. What kind of human being you going to be? How you gonna opt for life of decency and compassion and service and love?”
At a panel discussion the day before that Dallas performance, Blanchard had said, “People always ask us what kind of band is this, what we’re trying to do. We really don’t know what to say. That rage builds up in you, and it comes out however it’s supposed to. I don’t even try to guide it. It’s not my responsibility. I’m tired of talking. It’s about action. This is our action.”
In April, Blanchard and his E-Collective band were back in Dallas, this time at the invitation of the Soluna Festival, an annual event created and anchored by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra that spans more than three weeks and a wide range of performing arts. The Soluna Festival admirably erases borders between artistic disciplines as well as between notions of high and low culture, and it engages artists and audiences well beyond the setting of performance venues. At Soluna, Blanchard’s “Caravan: A Revolution on the Road” was meant as both a continuation of his musical response to troubling issues and a fresh attempt to blend visual art and dance into his performance, through collaborations with artist Andrew Scott and choreographer Rennie Harris’s Pure American Street Dance Theater Company.
Two days before that performance, the Dallas Film Society, one of Soluna’s many partner organizations, hosted a screening of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, followed by a public discussion. Blanchard’s Grammy-winning score for that film, which was also nominated for an Oscar, extends a relationship with Lee that began in 1989. His was the trumpet behind Denzel Washington’s Bleek, in Lee’s Mo Better Blues. He played Billie Holiday’s tuxedoed trumpeter onscreen in Lee’s Malcolm X. During one riveting scene in Lee’s post-Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, Blanchard escorts his mother back to her home, where she breaks down crying upon realizing that everything is destroyed. (Lee, who is the son of jazz bassist Bill Lee, once told me that “in the pantheon of artists, I put musicians first.” Blanchard, he said, “is my secret weapon.”)
In Dallas, Blanchard reflected on this long association. He also recalled how, during early screenings of BlacKkKlansman, people questioned why a movie about racism set in the '70s ended with a montage of recent events, most notably the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed in a car attack during a peaceful counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. “Spike needed that in there,” he said. “It presented a certain type of grief that we feel too often in this country, because her death was senseless. And it hinted at a bigger narrative of American history: You realize that, in this country during the past four decades, in some ways, we haven’t really gotten very far.”
The next afternoon, Blanchard participated in a community conversation at Dallas Black Dance Theater. The panel included Scott, who teaches art and technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, and who first met Blanchard more than 30 years ago, when they both lived in Brooklyn. Scott recalled long-ago “midnight talks about making art that had meaning,” and, more recently, how their present collaboration took shape.
Scott had been working on images based on the mangrove, a tree and shrub common in tropical and subtropical regions that is remarkably resilient in harsh conditions. Around that same time, Blanchard was working on the music for Breathless. “We were both trying to come up with language in our respective forms that spoke to what was going on,” Scott said. Blanchard saw a Flikr post of Scott’s mangrove project, and it answered a need. “I had been struggling with how to explain to the record company the kind of image I would need to wrap together all the subtexts underlying the music,” he said. Blanchard sent Scott rough cuts of his album. Inspired by the music, Scott came up with something new—part raised fist, part tree trunk, evocative of both sturdy wood and delicate stained glass, and emblazoned with the image of a dove in its center—that ended up on the cover of Blanchard’s album.
At the Dance Theater in Dallas, the most moving panelist testimony came from Colette Flanagan, a former IBM executive who founded Mothers Against Police Brutality after her son, Clinton Allen, was shot to death by a Dallas police officer in 2013 despite his being unarmed. “When you lose a child to police brutality, it breaks the social contract,” she said, “so that’s a double grief.” She spoke about finding her own voice as an activist through artistic endeavors. “It has helped in a way that I did not understand at first,” she said. “What art does is, it gives a voice to the voiceless. It gives victims and communities a platform to be heard.”
Blanchard shared a story about how his grown son had been handcuffed and nearly booked for a robbery in a case of mistaken identity in New Orleans. He also mentioned that one of his best childhood friends is now a police officer. He talked about finding his voice, too. “I didn’t think I’d be an opera composer, that’s for damn sure,” he said. “And yet I am now. And I never wanted to call myself an activist, but you get to the point where you just have to say something.”
The audience for Blanchard’s performance at Dallas’s Majestic Theater the next evening was large, diverse and unusually responsive. The music was alternatively loud and tender, consistently hard-grooving and mostly intense. Harris’s dancers, grounded in hip-hop culture more so than any other tradition, didn’t so much move to the music as with it, telling stories with their bodies that were often quite literal and sometimes disturbing. An interracial couple falls in love and then slips into violence. A young black man dies by gunfire.
Meanwhile, Scott’s visual imagery, projected onto a backdrop, was in constant flux. The mangrove symbol from Blanchard’s “Breathless” album was now part peace symbol. And it kept morphing—containing something like a Third Eye, then an American flag, and on. Scott and an associate had cameras and microphones trained on the band and projectors, and synchronized to respond to the band’s sound so that various instruments, pitches and dynamics affected the colors, tones and feel of the stage and its backdrop. The projected images moved from abstraction to clear reference, sometimes of the very incidents and protests that inspired Blanchard’s music. At the end of the performance, as one dancer mourned another’s fallen body, Blanchard stepped forward, playing solo trumpet, essaying the melody of “Choices,” this time without West’s words—just sound, movement and color to evoke the feeling of one more senseless death.
“The best thing about ‘Caravan’ was that it pushed people out of their comfort zone,” said Gillian Friedman Fox, who directs Soluna’s programming for the Dallas Symphony. “That’s what we aim to do but more to the point it’s what these three artists from three different disciplines needed to do. And it’s what our community needed, too.”
Dallas is a city indelibly marked by gun violence. The day after witnessing "Caravan," I visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located in the former Texas School Book Depository and commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Near a grassy knoll, along an on-ramp, two painted white X’s mark the spots where Kennedy was struck by bullets, first in the throat and then, fatally, in the head.
But what American city isn’t so marked? In mid-June, Blanchard was at Opera Theatre of St. Louis for the premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. In the opening scene, the opera’s main character brandishes a gun. “Welcome to Gibsland,” announces an early lyric, “where violence is in our DNA, and the law ain’t on our side.” And later on: “A black boy from a lawless town / where everyone carries a gun.” (Gibsland, Louisiana, where Blow grew up, is famous mostly for the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde by police ambush.) Also, this: “Justice is but a fairy tale / to make children good.”
Blow’s story is a wrenching tale of a black boy growing up in a segregated rural Louisiana town, of a childhood shaped by cycles of violence and turbulence, and of the lasting wounds of childhood sexual molestation by a family member. In his tale, Blow doesn’t pull that trigger. The real violence is of a different sort, its damage less visible to the naked eye. And the focus is on healing. In a New York Times column after the opera’s opening, Blow recalled that Blanchard had insisted he not see or hear any of the material before the show, and how the resulting experience “remade me.”
Kasi Lemmons wrote the opera’s libretto, continuing a series of collaborations with Blanchard that began with her 1997 film Eve’s Bayou, and extends to Harriet, her next film, a biopic about Harriet Tubman, set for November release. Lemmons was drawn to Blanchard’s music initially for its inherent soulfulness, she said. “But there’s something more. There’s something inherently political about my work, not explicitly stated. And I’ve always gotten that same sense from Terence’s music.”
By August, around the time of the shooting massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Blanchard was holed up in a Manhattan music studio, putting the final touches on the score for Lemmons’ film about Tubman, the former slave, abolitionist, and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who, according to a May announcement by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, will not become the face of the $20 bill until after President Trump leaves office. (More prejudice as policy.)
Meantime, Blanchard was readying a new apartment in Los Angeles, where he will serve as the inaugural Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.
The last time we spoke, he described what he’d soaked up from his own mentors: from his high-school band director, Roger Dickerson; his early employer, drummer Art Blakey; and from the elder jazz statesmen he’s worked with, such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. “There was always the music and the history and the stuff you absolutely need to know,” he said. “And there was the demand to find your own voice, not to imitate. But they all also talked to me about my role as a human being and not just a musician, about bigger truths that go beyond art.”
Blanchard’s “Caravan” aims to further his combination of music, dance and visual art, and sophisticated take on funk. “But that’s hardly the real point,” he said. “We’re treating this as a group of like-minded people moving around the country with a message. If we can all repair the soul of this country, we’re going to have to get creative, and do it bit by bit. Get on the bandwagon, don’t fall for the okey-doke.”