Terence Blanchard Gets Live About His Music's Role in Social Justice
- Written by Wil Wander
In a world full of chaos and division, Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective continue to spark the conversation through music in “Live,” a celebration of hope and heroes.
With a career that started from childhood, musician and composer Blanchard has found himself and his music thoroughly connected to the mission of creating art with a conscience. From scoring the films of Spike Lee to his most recent arrangement, the E-Collective, the trumpet virtuoso has recognized the need for a new generation of social justice leaders to build on the foundation of those we've lost and set the stage for future efforts in uncertain times. Continuing the effort started with E-Collective's first album “Breathless,” a reference to Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement, “Live” seeks to depict the world we live in and those who are dedicated to a more just tomorrow.
I was fortunate and honored to speak with Terence Blanchard about his perspectives and new music in anticipation of the E-Collective's upcoming show at the Grandel Theatre, Sunday May 20th, 2018.
KDHX: I greatly appreciate the time that you shared with me or going to share with me today.
Terence Blanchard: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.
I don’t want to take up too much of your time, so while there’s certainly a thousand things to talk about from your career, you have a new album. So, we can certainly start there. The new album is called Live. Correct?
Yes, it is.
And I read somewhere that it’s not just describing that it was a live recording, but it’s actually a play on the word live and also live.
Yeah. I mean, the whole idea is that we’re trying to continue a conversation around gun violence in our country. And we want to force ... We want the three cities where we’ve had tragic events – Dallas, Minneapolis and Cleveland – and have some civic engagement in all of those places and try to record in all of those places. The interesting thing, I think, about it all for me that we’ve been getting really great acclaim for the album. We’ve been selling out shows wherever we’ve gone, but the sales of the CDs are kind of slow, which is interesting to me.
Right. That’s perhaps just a change of the times at this point.
Could be. I mean, I would try not to think that way. I’m still old-school.
Keep selling albums forever.
Yeah. I could have something physical in my hand.
I certainly agree. I have "Breathless," physically. I haven’t gotten a physical copy of the new one yet, but hopefully I’ll fix that in about a week when you come to town.
All right. You connected the live performances to those three cities where we had incidents and it’s not really a new thing for you to do what I saw described as artistic works of conscience.
Yes, while that seems to be ... Not seemed to be. I mean, it’s always been my goal to try to create music that reflects the time from which it was created. I don’t want to just do music that’s feel-good music all the time, even though, I think, this is an uplifting album. Let me just say that. I wouldn’t call it a feel-good album, but I do think for the moments within this project where I think it uplifts the soul, based on some of the stuff that the guys had played during the concerts. So, in that regard, I guess it is kind of like a healing thing.
Excellent. Certainly, I was listening to it earlier. Definitely, uplifting moments and some more ... I guess, chaotic is the appropriate one considering the track Kaos that took it into that. This last album that you did, "Breathless." That was in reference to Eric Garner, correct?
Yes, Eric Garner and Black Lives Matter, both. And with this album, we felt like we couldn’t stray too far away from that topic. When you look at the news and what’s going on in our country, it seems as though we just keep covering the same thing every day, unless there’s a huge tragedy. But for the most part, I don’t think we’ve ever talked about a president this much. And in the meantime for me the frustrating part about it is that a young kid gets shot 20 times in his backyard. Puerto Rico is still suffering, trying to get itself together, and Flint, Michigan’s water back together. But we’re more concerned about collusion and who’s sleeping with who, and who paid off whom. But there’s some very practical things that need to be addressed.
Right. The album definitely seems to be starting a conversation, making sure we can’t avoid talking about it.
I hope so. I’m proud of those kids in Florida, the Parkland kids. I’m proud of those kids for stepping up and doing something. I think it’s a travesty that we’re not calling these politicians out. So many of them who are resigning because they could see the writing on the wall, some of which is supposed to be the next coming or the next wave of political stars. They’re not even entering into the fight. And to me, that speaks volumes about their character, because these guys are so quick to talk about how much they’re willing to fight for people’s rights and people’s protection and so forth and so on. But when they see this storm coming and the wind doesn’t blow their way, they are just ready to just give up and turn tail and run.
And to me that’s a travesty. It’s an embarrassment, but it’s also a reminder to all of us who have been sitting on the sidelines, complaining about this. Can’t complain anymore, you have to get up, get involved. You have to be active. You have to get up and do something. You have to vote. You have to get up and let your voice be heard, because we see what’s happening with these guys who are waving the white flag. They’re waving the white flag because they see the numbers. So, what we have to do is make all of us heard so we can make sure that we have the right type of representation.
Right. I see the theme through a few of the songs on what you’re just saying of the idea of more or less the people that are the new heroes of what’s going on. The new people that are standing on the shoulders, you said in another interview, from the past and bringing into the future. I picked out ... obviously, "Soldiers" was on "Breathless" and is on the new album. And "Can Anybody Hear Me." And maybe to a lesser extent even "Jimi." You’re really cheering for these heroes. "Hannibal," of course, that’s Marcus’s song. But that’s still within the theme of the heroes.
Do you want to elaborate a bit on that theme and how you’re working towards that?
Well, to me, it’s a simple motion. For some reason, in our culture, we are inadvertently taught ... or maybe consciously. I don’t know, but I’ll try to be optimistic about it and say that it happens inadvertently. How we’re taught to think less of ourselves in terms of the impact that we can have. So, a lot of people won’t get involved. And the thing that I’m trying to say is that with this hero thing is that, no, it is totally opposite. It is paramount for you to get involved. That’s what a lot of our heroes always talked about. That’s what Martin Luther King talked about, demonstrated peacefully. To demonstrate, let your voice be heard. Look at what happened with the last election. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, but everybody had a gripe. Everybody’s been having gripes with politicians for the last 20 or 30 years. Granted, throughout history everybody’s had problems with politicians.
That’s part of the problem.
Yeah. But I’m talking about this gridlock kind of thing. At least since Bill Clinton was in office, it’s just been ridiculous. It’s been ridiculous how they can’t get anything done, but everybody talks a big game. And the hypocrisy is just stifling. You look at Ted Cruz who was a fiscal hawk. He’s being real quiet right now. And they’re spending more money than the law allows, but nobody is saying anything. But my main goal about all of this is just the whole thing about how unarmed Africa American and Latino people of color are being shot by police. That’s the reason why we did this record. We want to continue that conversation, because I think it’s very important as we’ve just seen, once again, a young man lost his life over nothing, while a man in Canada who actually killed people and actually tried to get shot couldn’t get shot. He made the motion like he had the gun two or three times, and the officer didn’t shoot. I told somebody I would like to have that chance given if I were in that situation. I don’t think I would get it.
Right. You had a couple of the tracks that seemed to be about kind of the state of the Union ... You had the "Heroes" track but like "Kaos" and, I think, "Unchanged" were both very much about the world as it is now.
Exactly. "Kaos" looked at it. Think about it. Look at where we are. Here it is. Everything is just topsy-turvy. We had Obama, who I thought was a very smart president. I didn’t agree with all of the things that he had done. I didn’t really like the way he handled the BP situation and none of these guys ever really deal with the banking situation in this country. But given that, I still think that he was a very smart, very capable president. And North Korea and South Korea wouldn’t even look at each other. Now, we got a president who is just a total abomination in terms of dealing with the integrity of the office. And look at what may happen under his watch. Probably, it has nothing to do with him, but it just goes to show you how topsy-turvy things are. It’s really crazy. And then we have a president who lies every day. Lies every day. And then encouraged police to be brutal with suspects. To me, that’s chaos. To me, that’s a world that’s just upside down. And the reason for it is because we’re the ones who feel the brunt of it. We’re the ones who feel the brunt of it.
A friend of mine ... her brother was in a car accident the other night and we went over there to just see what was going on. Obviously, they were upset and everything, but it wasn’t him. It was his daughter, actually, we found out. But in the midst of trying to get information because there was a drunk driver involved and he drove all over the city. And we wound up seeing where the drunk driver ended up. So, we didn’t see the initial part of the thing. And when we were trying to get information, cops are just being really rude with us, telling us, "step back, step back, you’re messing with my investigation. I’m going to put the cuffs on you." And the thing about that kind of stuff is, for me, it just seems like there is an air of agitation that’s a little different from what it was two or three years ago.
So, even more so than how things were when you were doing "Breathless" and everything that happened here in St. Louis with Mike Brown and all that. There’s even more of a building tension to that and more chaos kind of getting ready to boil over.
It’s at the point now I don’t want to get pulled over by the police for anything. You know what I mean? And I never had that feeling. I may have had that feeling when I was a kid, definitely, growing up. But I got past all of that. And I kind of figured as long you’re ... because I know. I have a lot of friends who are cops. And as long as your respectful and do what you’re told and just kind of know your rights and everything, you should be fine. But that’s not really the case now. That’s not the case. Everybody seems to be on the edge. And I think the main reason for it is because these guys don’t feel the repercussions for their actions.
I can certainly agree there. There have been no repercussions. You can’t feel anything that there isn’t.
Yeah. Well, here’s the thing. Any of those guys go to jail?
Right. Not that I saw any of them.
No. You know what I mean? And it’s frustrating. It’s one of the things we’ve been talking about with the record. I know we’ve been trying to tell people up in music: take your anger and let the music help heal you. Because that’s the reason why we created it. There’s one guy who came to the store in Cleveland, an elder white gentleman, who said that he wanted to hear ... He thought he was going to hear my "Tale of God’s Will" CD, which was a very pretty album, orchestral-based and very melodic. And when he heard what we were playing, he said it just seemed that as though we sounded very angry. But then he said ... When I told him what the music was about, his next thought was, "well, if the guy who created 'A Tale of God’s Will' is this angry, I have to retake my position on gun control." And I’ve been telling that story wherever we go. Because to me, that’s a person who’s dealing with honesty. No matter what your ideology is, facts are facts. Two plus two is always going to be four. That is never going to change, unless the universe explodes and we come up with a new system.
We might be close to that.
That’s true. But we have to ... I think there are a couple of things we have to do. We have to, first of all, learn how not to react, because we’ve become a very reactive type of country. As soon as we hear something that we don’t agree with, everybody wants to go full steam ahead. So, I think we have to learn how to be contemplative before we react. The next thing is to deal with facts, not conjecture, but to deal with facts. And then understand that ... I saw something last night. A sign that blew my mind. It said "unity through diversity." And I went, “That’s exactly what we need to really start dealing with.” Unity through diversity. Not trying to all be the same, but to understand and celebrate our differences between all of the cultures that exist in this country, because that’s not going to change. We’re not going to become a homogenous society overnight.
We don’t want to be.
Right. That’s what I’m saying. There wasn’t even a plan. So, people need to get over themselves and start to realize that this is a country that’s always forever evolving and changing. That was the goal to create a perfect Union.
I certainly can agree and feel all of the points there. And St. Louis is obviously ... You’re connected through a number of other experiences, like you had "Champion," which was made and premiered here and all that. Is there any kind of special connection that you’re planning with this show to bring that point to St. Louis, one of the cities that could be most benefited from such views?
Well, I think for me, I’m just proud to bring this music to St. Louis, because we’re very proud of what we’ve done with this album. And St. Louis, I do have a strong, strong connection with that city. When we were doing "Champion," I got a chance to go to a bunch of the schools and wherever a lot of young kids were. That was something that was an amazing experience for me. And to get to know all the people here that I’ve gotten to know that are in the arts community. It’s a very strong and vibrant community. And the thing that I love about it is that it’s very different for what people would think about St. Louis, because that arts community is very supportive, very liberal, in terms of coming up with creative ideas. Those people are truly about the arts. When I first did the "Champion" at the Opera Theater in St. Louis, Stephen Lord was telling me, he said, “Well, listen, man. We have never" ... He said, “Just in my opinion,” he said "we’ve never really defined what American Opera is." And to me, you can’t have American Opera without jazz, you know.
Now, this is a person who’s been in the opera world all his life. And you would think that a person like that wouldn’t have an idea about bringing something new, especially something so foreign to the world of opera. But he’s like, “No, no, no, no, no. It all should be a part of the cannon.” And the thing that I’ve come to learn is how much I’ve grown as a result of that experience of pushing me forward to do something that I’ve never done before, not being ashamed of my background as a jazz musician entering into that world and actually contributing to that world to the point where they’ve commissioned me to write a second opera. We’re working on that right now – Charles Blow’s book, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones," is what we’re going to do for 2019.
That sounds like quite a fantastic announcement there. I’m already excited. Is that supposed to be local, here in St. Louis, too? Or is that going-
Well, it’s going to premiere there in St. Louis but then it’s ... I think they did a partnership with two other cities, but I can’t remember the cities. But "Champion" has been doing extremely well. "Champion" has had four productions in St. Louis, San Francisco, the Kennedy Center in DC, in New Orleans. And now, it’s going to Montreal next summer and then Detroit after that.
That’s fantastic that it’s gone so much, not just through the experience but you made a bridge where there wasn’t a bridge before.
Well, I feel blessed. I’m telling you, that’s the whole thing about St. Louis to me that I feel very blessed about, that I started that segment of my career there because Tim O’Leary who just moved to the Kennedy Center, actually. Tim O’Leary, Jim Robinson, Stephen Lord, Paul Kimmer and all of those folks had opera there at St. Louis, really just grabbed me by the hand and stepped me through the process. And in the process, I’ve discovered a whole new expression that I absolutely just adore and love. I’ve been telling young people. I said, “Opera is the hippest 3D performance you’ll ever see live.” You have these people moving around stage with these sets and these gorgeous voices. You can’t beat anything like that. For every time I’ve gone to certain productions, it’s always been a moving experience for me. Something that I think a lot of kids could really enjoy.