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Complete Feeling: Quad City Arts Visiting Artist Terence Blanchard, at the Capitol Theatre, March 10 PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 07 March 2007 02:45

Terence Blanchard With all due respect to The Departed, the actual best picture of 2006 was one that didn't come to a theatre near you ... or, for that matter, to a theatre near anyone else.

Director Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, a four-hour "requiem" focusing on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, has a scope, grandeur, and emotionalism that put the rest of 2006's output to shame - the documentary, available on DVD, made its debut on HBO last August - and much of its power can be traced to the extraordinary contributions of jazz musician Terence Blanchard, the acclaimed trumpet player here as the latest Quad City Arts Visiting Artist. (Blanchard will give a public performance at the Capitol Theatre on March 10.)

In the film, Lee interviews politicians, sympathizers, and, most prominently, Katrina survivors, whose recollections (and continuing struggles) lend Levees an almost operatic timbre of outrage and grief. The anger and heartbreak of the work, though, is tempered with candor, humor, and the indefatigable spirit of the people of New Orleans; Lee's film feels like the final word on the subject.

Yet while Blanchard, who composed the documentary's original music, captures the dichotomous moods with stunning grace - in the Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich wrote that the "haunting jazz score" gave Levees "much of its rhythm and emotional tone" - the musician admits that he didn't attempt to memorialize the Katrina experience with any kind of definitive score.

Terence Blanchard "I didn't think the score mattered as much as the story itself," Blanchard said in a recent phone interview. "I thought the most important thing about the entire movie was the story, and those stories need to be told. Spike gave voice to a lot of folks who had interesting things to say, who went through a very traumatic period."

One of those folks was Blanchard himself. In one of Levees' most heartbreaking sequences, the New Orleans native accompanies his mother, Wilhelmina, to view (for the first time) the irreparable remains of his boyhood home in the wake of Katrina, and her devastation - wandering among water-damaged memories - is shattering. A clearly shaken Blanchard describes the unimaginable experience on-camera, and still finds it difficult to discuss.

"It was hard," he says of his New Orleans return. "It was extremely hard because, you know, those neighborhoods mean a lot to us. That's our home, our place of refuge, and to see it totally destroyed ... it knocks the wind out of your sails."

Blanchard's Levees work - a soulful, elegiac blend of brass and percussion, with Blanchard himself seen walking through dilapidated New Orleans neighborhoods, playing mournful trumpet solos - is essential to the documentary's frequently solemn tone yet, like the musician himself, is also suffused with an inspiring measure of hope. "I think the thing that was amazing about Katrina," he says, "was the fact that it made us realize what's important. Material things that everybody felt like they lost are not the most important things on the planet. You know, your family, your well-being, your mental state, your spiritual well-being, are the things that really mean more than any of that material stuff."

The musician's considerable contribution to Levees can't be surprising considering his upbringing. "Growing up in New Olreans," he says, "you can't help but be affected by music. It's just a part of our lifeblood." Nor can it surprise those aware of Blanchard's compositional accomplishments, particularly in the movies of Spike Lee; he has worked on nearly all of the director's projects since 1988's School Daze, scoring such Lee films as Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and last year's Inside Man.

Blanchard states, though, that he didn't originally intend on a career in film composition. "It started totally by accident," he says. "I never thought about being a [film] composer. That never really entered my mind. My focus was always on having a band, creating music, and performing live."

Terence Blanchard However, a job as a trumpet-playing session musician for School Daze led to subsequent work for Lee's Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues, and by the time of 1991's Jungle Fever, the director, impressed with Blanchard's skills, asked the jazz man to compose the original score himself. "It was probably the best film for me to start my career on," Blanchard says, "because there weren't a lot of cues; there's only 27 minutes of music, you know?"

Jungle Fever's 27 minutes of music led to Malcolm X's 60 minutes of music in 1992, and ever since, Blanchard has served as Lee's musical right-hand man. "He'll get me involved very early on in the process," says the musician of his collaborations with Lee, "but I really won't try to write anything until I see something."

Blanchard admits, however, that despite his considerable compositional success, it pales compared to the joys of live performance.

"Obviously, I can't give it up," he says with a laugh. "There's no cure for it. I mean, playing with great musicians, man ... it's indescribable. There are things that happen on the bandstand that are just magical. It's hard to get anybody to understand exactly what it is that takes place. You know, when it's happening, the experience ... ." He trails off. "I don't know. I can't describe it. It's like the first time that you have a child. It's a very complete feeling."

So we shouldn't expect Blanchard to abandon the blare of the trumpet for the glare of Hollywood anytime soon? "No," he says emphatically. "Never. That's what I've always wanted to do with my life. Be a musician."


Terence Blanchard performs at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 10, at Davenport's Capitol Theatre. For information on Blanchard's Visiting Artist appearances, go to (

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