In conversation with terence blanchard
By Ted Panken
About twenty years ago, when he was writing the music for Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, his first film score, trumpeter Terence Blanchard took a hiatus from a successful career—at 28, he could already look back on a four-year stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and several years with the contemporaneously influential quintet he co-led with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison—to change his embouchure.
"I wasn't developing technically," Blanchard told me a decade later for a Down Beat feature connected to his selection as 1999's Jazz Artist of the Year. "Emotionally and musically, I was growing. I kept hearing ideas in my head that I wanted to play but couldn't execute, and that was very frustrating. My bottom lip was rolled over my teeth and I was cutting my lip. Art Blakey's whole thing was, 'Don't lie to yourself; just tell yourself the truth.' He meant that when you lie to yourself, you're covering up inadequacies, and you can't grow that way. Once I figured out what the problem was, I had the opportunity to fix it. Then it was a matter of being diligent, staying on course, taking my time and being disciplined. When I made the change, it immediately allowed me to open up my sound. Technically I got to the point where I could play over the horn from low to high with a certain amount of ease. That allowed me the freedom to explore more musical ideas. Before I would put in the time, but I wouldn't gain the results I wanted. Now there's no excuse. If there's something I want to do, then I have to put in the time to develop the ability to do it."
The fruits of Blanchard's diligence are apparent in a glance at his musical and cultural production. His website cites 13 recordings as a combo leader and four with Harrison-Blanchard, as well as nine in-print soundtrack recordings that represent an output of several dozen, many of them for Spike Lee. Furthermore, he is Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, a position he assumed at the turn of the decade, when the Institute opened for business. He subsequently influenced the Institute's 2007 decision to move its base of operations from Los Angeles to Loyola University in New Orleans, where it plays a consequential role in the Crescent City's cultural reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In the aforementioned Down Beat article, Clark Terry remarked that Blanchard "is trumpeter of genuineness." He continued: "You can tell who are the name brands and who are the off-brands and substitutions. Terence always would be recognized as a name brand, not an also-ran. He's a leader. He has his own sound. I can recognize him right away. If you work diligently enough and go through the right channels, all the beautiful things within you are capable of coming out. Terence was smart enough or gifted enough to choose the right channels, and you can't hold talent down when it's given the right nourishment."
That Blanchard has made wise decisions is reflected by both the title and contents of his new release, Choices, an artfully produced collaboration of spoken word, hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. The album features his sextet (comprising new additions Fabian Almazan on piano and Walter Smith, III on tenor saxophone, with Blanchard veterans Lionel Loueke on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums) playing a suite of pieces that springboard off Professor Cornell West's spontaneously generated meditations on the core jazz aesthetics that sustain the idiom's continuing vitality and relevance. The excellent singer Bilal contributes a pair of counter-signifying vocals, and Blanchard's own technically audacious improvisations again reveal his position on the highest branches of the contemporary trumpet tree.
The group (minus Loueke) stretched-out on this repertoire during a week-long run in late July at Manhattan's Jazz Standard. On the morning after night three, Blanchard joined Jazz.com to discuss this latest project.
Choices is your first album for Concord, and also your first that incorporates spoken word as such into the narrative arc. Can you speak about how you conceptualized the date, how it was put together?
I hate to keep throwing Herbie Hancock's name out there, but that's basically where it came from. When I started working at the Monk Institute, I would periodically have conversations with Herbie at various functions, and he'd hear me say, "I should have done this," or some such thing. He responded: "Listen, it's just a choice. Your career and life are a collection of choices. In the world of art, there are no wrong choices. Make the choice, experience the ramifications, and move on. Don't belabor the negative side of what could or should have been. Experience this, learn from it, and move to the next thing."
That became my rallying cry, in the sense that I started examining my entire life that way. I started thinking about my role as a father, husband, person in society—hopefully a productive person in society. Then I started thinking about the community. I started even thinking about the jazz community—that the entire jazz community makes choices that affect us. I wanted to put together an album addressing that idea, to create a little bit of a debate. I was on the road with Herbie again, and I started talking to him about the process of making CDs ...
This happened over about two months on the road last fall?
2½ months. We had a lot of fun. One thing Herbie said is that, for him, making records is much more than just music. It's about what the record is trying to say, the ideas it's trying to convey to an audience, and the thought process that it can generate as a result of its creation. That's when I started to formalize the idea about Choices, and how I could go about doing it.
I'd already thought about doing an album where the band would do an album of one tune, because the band plays so differently every night. But I thought that would be kind of crazy. I didn't think a label would go for that. And how do you sell it? But we did give three versions of the title track, to illustrate the various forms music can go into if you allow yourself to be free enough to think in those terms.
That was the first thing. The second part was to allow the guys to make their own choices on what to bring to the project. I knew it was all going to be cool—they know how the band operates, the thought process behind how we play every night and what we want to do when we make a CD. So I didn't have a set thing about, 'Ok, I need this type of music.' I told everybody to bring two tunes. We did Flow and A Tale of God's Will that way.
Was Aaron Parks still your pianist when you presented this to the band?
No, Fabian Almazan was in the band. But Fabian had bought into the concept.
Walter Smith, III, is also a new member.
Yeah, but Walter had been at the Monk Institute.
Then after that, we started rehearsing the music. But I knew that I wanted to deal with the topic with more than just music. I thought about lyrics, and I said, 'No, but that's going to get involved in writing melodies, finding a lyricist,' and I didn't think we had enough time to go through that process. So I thought about spoken word as a means of sparking this debate, and the first person I thought of was Dr. West. We sent a request to his office, and he immediately got back to us and said he would be more than happy to work on the project. He was very gracious.
We had rehearsals, we recorded the music, started mixing it, and sent him rough mixes just to listen to. Then we scheduled a day where we flew to New York and drove to Princeton. I hung out with Dr. West for a couple of hours, and we videotaped an hour-long conversation. The album contains excerpts from that conversation. The thing is, I presented the whole concept of what we were doing with Choices. You can see that on the uncut videotape (we're still trying to figure out what to do with that). He hit on all of the topics that we wanted to talk about. Next I had to figure out a way to edit those into the CD. His whole thing was, 'You're going to take snippets of this, right?' He had done some other records with some hip-hop artist. I said, 'Yeah,' but I didn't think in terms of snippets. I thought in terms of at least one-minute pieces. I spent a lot of time cataloguing the various topics and making notes. Then I whittled away. I started to extract stuff, set it aside, and played around with certain ideas that he expressed in relation to the various titles and meanings of certain tunes.
You've done a number of recordings with singers, both male and female, and during the latter half of the '90s in particular there was about a five-year period where you weren't doing so much original music. Perhaps that had something to do with the label you were signed to.
Very much so.
But this is the first recording since Let's Get Lost where you use a vocalist, Bilal. How did he come into the project, and what was his role?
Again, it goes back to my conversations with Herbie. Herbie was telling me that he tries to bring together different people to make the statement that we're all different, and we all can come together to do something in a harmonious way that can be beautiful. I kept thinking about that, too. I could have gotten any of the jazz vocalists that most people would expect me to work with, but I really didn't want to do that. I had a relationship with Bilal. We'd worked together on a couple of Spike Lee concerts, and I knew that he's a big fan of the music. He told me he grew up listening to John Coltrane and all of that stuff.
He's very tight with people like Robert Glasper and the musicians who attended the New School at the end of the '90s.
Exactly. He's also tight with the Philly crowd—John Blake, Jr., that whole line. So we knew we wanted to work together, and I thought this would be the perfect project to pull him in on. Then I thought more about it. Lionel Loueke was on the road with me on Herbie's tour, and I hadn't played with him in a while. I was trying to bring together different people to create something a little different for me, and hopefully something for others.
This was recorded in New Orleans. The question arises whether one should consider this a sort of companion piece to A Tale of God's Will, which was a powerful response to Hurricane Katrina, recorded two years after the disaster.
When we did A Tale of God's Will, you're right—it was very much a reaction to what had happened, my attempt to pay homage to the people who persevered, to those who perished. It was also to give the rest of the world a glimpse of all of the mixed emotions that you experienced as a native New Orleansian at that time. All the hurt and feelings of hopelessness, feelings of embarrassment—astonishment really—at the way our government treated us. But also a source of pride. I feel that I come from a unique community that has given a lot to the world, and in our darkest moments, our government wasn't there for us. That CD dealt with all of those issues, and it stirred up a debate about many things. Survival. Government. But a lot of negative things, too, about what was going on in New Orleans.
On Choices, I didn't want to talk about the negative, even though we still have a long way to go, I've realized a few things. For one thing, as Wendell Pierce said in Spike Lee's documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, our impression was that right after the hurricane you would hear nothing but hammers and buzz saws going off all over the city—and that didn't happen. Aside from all the corruption and all the other things that happened, we started to realize it takes a long time to rebuild a city. It takes a long time to build a city, let alone rebuild it. That was a stark dose of reality that we all had to swallow.
But then, too, looking at the overall picture, with all the stuff that we still have to do, I'm very proud. A lot of people have persevered throughout extremely tough times, basically an impossible situation, encountering obstacle after obstacle that our own government has put in front of them in terms of trying to get money and resources to rebuild their homes. Some neighborhoods still don't have services, in terms of drugstores and daily necessities. But with all that, people are still rebuilding. People are driving to New Orleans on weekends from Atlanta and Houston, working on their homes. That to me is a positive, in that it speaks volumes about people's passion for the city.
Another thing, too, is that I saw on CNN that New Orleans is one of the largest-growing cities in America. That's amazing to me, given everything that was said about whether we should rebuild New Orleans. Frankly, that incensed me. I was infuriated by those comments, because I knew that a lot of the people who said that probably were partying all the time, every time they came to New Orleans. And the whole notion of New Orleans being a decadent city, and so on ... It was preposterous. Most of those people in the Lower 9th Ward were homeowners.
There's also a racial subtext to this. Most of the people who couldn't come back to New Orleans, who didn't have the means to, were African-American.
Poor African-Americans. Working class African-Americans who were living the American dream in the sense that, although they were still poor, they were homeowners, and they were struggling to maintain their homes and paying their taxes, doing everything that responsible people could do in very tough situations. So for me, they are true Americans, in the sense that they are not out there doing anything illegal or doing anything to hurt their communities. They were doing everything to support and make their communities thrive. To leave them out in the cold like that I think is an embarrassment and makes a mockery of what it is we've said we're supposed to be about as a country. But that's a whole 'nother debate.
But it's certainly the context in which you created Tale of God's Will.
Certainly, these themes were evoked in When The Levees Broke, which you participated in the making of, and which A Tale Of God's Will was associated with.
Yes. But in regard to Choices, I also want to talk about other positive things I'm involved with. One thing is the move of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute to New Orleans, and the effect it's had on some students in the middle schools and high schools. Also partnering with the Lieutenant Governor and some other folks on a panel, along with the National Park Service, to revamp the U.S. Mint in New Orleans and make the third floor a high-tech, modular performance space that has seven or eight different configurations that can be used to put on different types of performances, and then to turn the second floor a jazz museum. The National Parks Services has been revamping parks all over the country, but New Orleans doesn't have a national park—our national park is virtual. It's a $6 million venture. We have all the funding. Now we're figuring out the scheduling, in terms of when to break ground, and so on. The designs are done. Alan Askew, the architect, has completed the designs, and my wife, Robin Burgess, and I helped mold the concept—we answered a ton of questions about what we look for in performance spaces when we travel, what we think people will look for in this space. They called on my expertise on the technical side, and Robin's expertise in terms of managing such a facility, and what you need to do to bring in high level artists.
Then also the National Music Initiative, which the Obama administration started, where we'll try to do something similar to Teach For America, having graduate students commit to New Orleans for two years to help raise the level of music education across the board in the New Orleans school system, starting from grade school on up.
Let's return to New Orleans later. I'm interested in how you recruit bands. Your pianist, Fabian Almazan, who is of Cuban descent, is the second pianist from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora that you've employed, after Ed Simon during the latter '90s. You've always shown an affinity for pan-Latin rhythms.
If we can transition to musical choices: It's my opinion that, in your bands over the last twenty years, you've embraced younger musicians who have been at the forefront of moving jazz expression forward. Certainly, expanding the rhythmic palette was a major component of the '90s and early '00s.
It's not something that I set out to do specifically, or that we set out to do. Elvin Jones told me something years ago. [Elvin and I] were in Japan doing an all-star thing with Art Blakey. We went to dinner one night, and Elvin started talking to me about hiring musicians in your band. He said: 'Listen, man, when you hire somebody, don't tell them what to play. Because whatever you heard is what made you hire them. Let them do that.' I guess it's something he went through in his development as a young artist. He said, 'People will hire you, and then tell you not to do what it is you were doing when they heard you.' That stuck with me.
One thing I've learned is that we all grow as a result of that policy. When I heard Ed Simon play for the first time, I didn't think about him being of Latin descent. I thought, 'Man, this guy can really play.' What's interesting is that, as he was in the band, he started to bring more of his heritage to the music … I had the same conversation with Ed and with Fabian that somebody had with me about New Orleans. I told Ed and Fabian both, 'Don't forget where you come from.' Their thinking was that they wanted to learn how to play jazz, and jazz was a specific thing. I was like, 'No-no, no-no-no, bring all of that to bear.' That's what Fabian is doing now. We've been running into people of Cuban descent in a lot of places we've visited; I think in St. Louis we ran into some people who are friends of Fabian's father. One guy came in and gave him some scores to great classical Cuban composers. It made him realize that he needs to deal more with his own heritage. That's the reason why 'Hugs' is on the album. Even now, when he starts to play his solo pianistic things, you hear more of that influence entering his music.
But it's nothing that we set out to do. I think what you described is the result of that conversation with Elvin, where I allow these guys to bring what they feel is pertinent to what we're doing, and everybody's growing from it. Like Derrick Hodge, for example. Derrick grew up in the church, and you feel the breath of all of that coming through when he plays and when he writes. Kendrick Scott grew up in an area in Houston where he was involved in many different types of things. That's why he's so versatile, why he'll go in a lot of different directions, because he brings this quality to bear from his background. To put all those things together sounds like it could be a train wreck. But the thing about these guys is that they're all so sensitive, and what makes them brilliant, in my mind, is that they don't try force their thing upon anybody, but in the spirit of making it fit in with whatever somebody else is doing.
If I might just remark, with all respect, you're still the bandleader. Can you discern any common threads you're looking for among the players you recruit to play with you, whether stylistic or in terms of sensibility?
It's all sensibility. It's the ability to listen and to change. It's like being a boxer. When you get in the ring with somebody, you've got to adapt to their style. If you don't, you're not going to be successful. One thing I talk about to the guys in my band is a method I learned from Roger Dickerson, my composition teacher, called 'If I Could Tell You, I Would.' He would write out this phrase, and have you permeate it as many times as you can to create a dialogue, even changing the meanings of the words. When you first do it, everybody's trying to use the words, 'I would tell, if you could tell,' all those types of things. But he showed me that you need to think outside the box. So you could say 'I could tell if, if if could tell would,' and 'would could tell could if would could,' and 'could tell, tell.' Right then, you start to see how limitless the possibilities are. He made me do just that on a sketch pad for weeks, and then we started doing it with music. He'd show me how to manipulate phrase in so many ways, to treat the shape as malleable—you can reverse it, work with different portions, and come up with ideas that are directly related to your original idea. Everything that you write starts to have continuity. We also talk about that method in terms of improvisation and playing as a band. Somebody will throw out an idea, and Kendrick, 'Oh, ok, boom,' and he starts to make something out of it, and Fabian figures out a way to fit into it. So if there's anything I'm bringing to the band, it's that concept of listening and making sure that we all move in similar directions.
That would be different than the process you follow in scoring or composing for a film?
Not necessarily. The thing is, that's where I've really honed the method. In a film, when you have a theme, you don't want to beat it to death. Some directors (Spike being one of them) who love melody will want to hear these themes throughout the movie. So I need to find a way to take the theme and keep it interesting throughout. For example, there are subtle shifts in the intervals that you may not discern as a listener, but which allow me to change color. Changing color means that it never comes back totally the same way; there's always a little variable that makes it slightly different. I really got it on the closing credits of Summer of Sam. Spike loved that cue. It's a long cue, and I started to write a chorale based on this concept. Then I realized we could play the way I described. Then I started teaching it at the Monk Institute, talking about it with the band. Then it started to grow into this thing. A couple of years ago, on Wandering Moon, we did a tune called, 'If I Could, I Would.'
Did you encounter Roger Dickerson before you started getting really serious about the trumpet, or did it coincide with being really serious about the trumpet?
It was a little bit before.
So you were playing mostly piano then.
Yes. I had the trumpet, and I was playing it. I was in the marching bands and school bands, and so on. But I was still mainly taking lessons on the piano. Even though I wanted to be a trumpet player, I hadn't taken lessons yet. I first met Wynton when we were in sixth grade at a summer music camp. Then in sophomore year in high school, I heard him play again, and he was playing up a storm. I went, 'Wow, what happened to him?' He told me he was going to NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] and was studying with John Longo. Then I decided that I had to go to NOCCA find me a trumpet teacher. John Longo left for New York the next year to play with the Ellington band, so I started studying with George Jensen.
Describe the NOCCA experience.
It was a very intense period of my life. It was the first time that I got a high level of musical tutelage on a consistent basis—the piano lessons had only been on the weekends. This was the first time that I wanted to go to school every day; I was having fun doing it, and the stuff was useful and practical. The practicality was the most important thing for me, because I could see a way to use the stuff. I started devoting all of my time to studying and listening to music and practicing at home, and I started playing in some pop bands and learned how to play. I saw my development grow by leaps and bounds during my first year there. Later, although I didn't have a chance to play in the New Orleans style bands, I did get a chance to play more modern stuff. Dick Stabile had a big band at the Fairmount Hotel, and I'd sub there for Emory Thompson. I'd to sit with people at a club called Tyler's (it's closed now), and Snug Harbor, which had another name at that time.
But my piano studies were because of my father. He wanted me to be a classical artist. I'm grateful now that I studied as much piano as I did, because obviously it's helped me immensely with my writing skills and my film career.
Wasn't he an opera singer? He sang professionally for a while and was into the older cats.
Yeah. Oscar Peterson, he had Count Basie, Pops ... He loved jazz, but he loved the earlier stuff. When it came to the bebop era and the things beyond that, he wasn't interested. He said, 'Oh, man, those guys play too many notes.' He said, 'Listen to Pops. You can hear melody there.' And he was a stickler, too, for singers and their diction. He said, 'Look, I can't hear what they're singing.'
Did he pass on to you that quality of diligence?
Oh yeah. My father was kind of a self-made man. He was an insurance salesman, and he sang, and he belonged to the church choir and a couple of other groups. Whenever he would have a performance, this guy ... I thought he was nuts, because he would be at the piano all day. He was a one-fingered piano player. He was a baritone, and he would play his part and learn it, then he would play the tenor part and sing his part against the tenor part while he was playing it—stuff like that. I'd go out and play, be out for hours, come back, and he'd still be at the piano. I'd think, 'Man, this cat is strange.' But after a while, the older and more mature I became, you start to love that kind of love and passion that a person can have for something.
It's interesting that when I started playing with Art Blakey, he started talking about Louis Armstrong—he was the last guy that I expected to start talking about him. That's what made me go back and really research that music again. Because my father kept talking about Louis Armstrong and all those guys, but I was saying, 'No, man, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, that's the shit!' But when I got in Bu's band, he was like, 'Yeah, they're cool, but Pops had a sound.' What are you talking about? This made me realize how important he was.
You make your process of leading a band sound completely natural. But not everyone who's an established leader is so laissez faire. Just to mention three people you grew up with who are prominent in the sound of jazz today: Branford Marsalis, say, is pretty specific how he wants things to be played; Wynton is specific how he wants things to be played; Donald Harrison is specific about the beats. What influenced you to be so accepting of other musicians' input?
Well, I still want to be surprised. You know that feeling you get when you hear a specific record for the first time, and it goes in some directions you didn't expect, and it's exciting to listen to? That's the feeling I want to capture myself as I'm playing with musicians. If I know what they're going to do all the time, I'm not going to be excited by that. If I know that this tune goes this direction, or that tune does this, I get bored. I had prior bands, early in my career, where the bands were getting tired of playing the tunes, and I started to realize that the reason why those bands got tired is because they weren't being inventive. Dr. West says it on the CD—what he loves about certain artists is how they always step out on nothing, expecting to land on something. That's exactly how we feel most of the time.
It's interesting to me when we're recording, because we can do a take, and some magic can happen, but it won't be a full take, because there's a technical problem, or someone misses something, or we have to stop for whatever reason. When we start to do the next take, they don't try to recreate what we just did. We might see if we can make an insert, try to figure out a way to make it work. But if it doesn't work, they let it go and move on to something else. That's really what playing in the moment is about.
You made the exact same point to me a while ago about the '50s Miles Davis Quintet, that they restrained their egos to play exactly what needed to be played at the moment.
What I loved about that band is that there were no wasted notes from anyone, whether they were accompanying a soloist or out front. They really seemed to play in tune with the music. The thing about it is that, as a group, the band so much control. Anybody can step out and play some stuff that's melodically hip or rhythmically hip. But it takes a lot of control to restrain yourself and be able to play what's perfect for the moment, which may be different from what you intended to play when you walked into the studio or walked into the club that night.
I saw that for myself with Herbie Hancock on the road for 2½ months. He blew me away every night. He would do these solo piano things, and I finally got to the point where I'd leave the stage, because every night I just wanted to sit by the piano and watch this guy. I'm like, 'Is he for real?' Every night he took it in different directions. Every night he was enthused about playing. He never came to the stage with a bad attitude. It was always, 'come on, man, let's go.' Excited to play. That was another reaffirmation and reconfirming of what we just talked about. That's why his records, why his career has been this way. He's always searching. And he was 68 years old! I said, 'that's the model for me.' That's always been the model for me, to constantly move forward and try some new things.
Your bands seem to bear out that principle. Over the last decade, you've recruited players—Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott, Lionel Loueke, Aaron Parks—who are very much at the forefront of what people are thinking about in New York.
When we had the band with Lionel and Derek, and Eric Harland had just left, I had a conversation with those guys. The thing that I love about them is that they may just be finding out how great they are—they really didn't have a clue. I said, 'Let me tell you something. You guys can really make a mark on this business based on the way you're playing and developing, but the thing is, you have to keep your ego out of it and make music the priority. Staying on that path and doing what you're doing, watch—you'll see things start to turn around.' That's exactly what's starting to happen now. All of those guys, and others, Miguel Zenon, Glasper, Jason Moran, who's older, but still part of that crew, and this younger kid coming along, Ambrose Akinmusire ... I've been speaking out about this. There's a whole new movement of young artists who are not doing what people expect, but a lot of people aren't paying attention. They're courageous and they're trying a lot of different things. It's going to be rough for them, because it's a different time now ...
How would you describe what they're doing?
Adventurous. They're not allowing themselves to be put into a box, whether it's the jazz or the hip-hop box, either one. They're really trying things, trying to create. For example, on Choices, there are a couple of tunes, my tune, 'Choices' and Walter Smith's 'Byus,' where the introductions are basically the changes played in reverse! I can't even remember who came up with the idea. 'Why don't we play this from this section to this section; why don't we play it backwards, from the back to the front?' 'Ok. Cool.' I love ideas like that. It's got to the point now where a lot of ideas are unspoken. On Kendrick's tune, 'Journey,' we start the tune with Lionel and drums, then Bilal starts to sing. Somebody asked me one time, 'man, how did you get Derek to come in ...' I said, 'Dude, I let him do his thing.' It wasn't my decision. He listened to what was happening, and he felt that was a perfect musical spot for him to come in. It makes the moment extremely dramatic. That's what I love about these musicians. It's not about the self. It's really about the music.
There's another important thing that we've learned through this process. You know how you see guys try to play it all in one tune. No! If you stick with a thing for this tune, and you get to something else on another, you wind up having more to play. A drummer told me one time, 'what it is, younger musicians want to play their entire vocabulary.' It's not about that. It's about selecting from the vocabulary, because it's appropriate for this tune at this particular moment in time. Art Blakey used to call it letting the punishment fit the crime.
Speaking of Art Blakey, the notion of having a bunch of young musicians in a band, all contributing pieces, mirrors a remark he made to you. When you joined the band, he said, 'I know you've got a box of tunes; pull them all out—we're going to play them all!'
I realize you've been asked this eight million times, but did those four years have an effect on the way you approach being a bandleader?
Oh, yes, indeed! With everything that Art Blakey had to offer musically, which was immense, he was still a very humble person, man, to allow all of us to write music for that band.
Well, he needed material!
Of course. But the thing about it, you've got to remember, at the time we came along, there was still a ton of great records.
But most of them were out of print.
Yeah, but he still had Walter Davis, Jr., all those guys who were still willing to give music to the band. He didn't want that. Well, we played a couple of Walter Davis things, but Art wanted us to write. He always said, 'That's how you really find yourself.' I look at that as being a model in terms of how to lead a band. Not to lead a band with a strong hand, because then it's not a democratic thing. It's more of a dictatorship. Unh-uh, I don't want that. I like the democratic process. I want everybody to feel they have just as much stake in what's going on creatively as I do.
You're speaking about how adventurous this generation of musicians is. When I asked you ten years ago about how the sound of jazz had changed, you were more pessimistic. You said it had become too conservative for your taste. So things have changed over the last decade.
Oh, I think things have changed a lot. But it's still a hard road. The conservatism in the music still exists, and it's still being held up as what jazz is. I've always tried to move away from that because of Art Blakey. I remember one time I was in the dressing room, and I said, 'Man, I've got to work on my fingering' or something like that. Art told me, 'You'd better be working on something, because if you don't, this music will become like a museum piece.' These are his words. Not mine. He said, 'You'll see jazz bands pop up around like symphonies, and there will be one place that plays the music of Bird, and one place that plays the music of Monk, and one place that plays the music of Duke.' Those are his words. He said, 'So if you guys who are not contributing anything, that's what's going to happen to this music.' People have all of a sudden started to see jazz as being this national treasure, which it is—but this treasure that's confined in a box. The true nature of jazz has always been is it's the art form to break outside of the box, never to be conservative. Ok, we've always had high standards in terms of professionalism and craftsmanship, and I think those qualities get confused with tradition. But the main thing has always been, 'What do you bring?'
Stanley Turrentine told me something once, about ten years ago, when I was hanging out with him a lot. He said, 'Man, I remember if we walked into a club and a cat was playing like Sonny Rollins, we'd leave. Say, "Oh, man, he's playing like Newk. Let's go hear somebody. We don't want to hear that. We can go hear Newk!"' To me, that's a hell of a statement. That says a lot about where that generation was and the reason why so many different personalities existed in that period. You're starting to see it now with these guys.
You've mentioned to me that as a young guy in New Orleans en route to school, you'd stop by Bourbon Street and hear musicians like Emory Thompson and Teddy Riley and Willie Singleton, who were born in the '30s and '40s, and were playing the older music for a living, but were also informed about modern music. You came up under Ellis Marsalis, also a modernist who played professionally in the traditional music scene.
New Orleans is thought of as a conservative community, in a certain way, and yet it produced a lot of radical musicians. Ed Blackwell, Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis, Kidd Jordan, I think of Wynton and Branford and Donald as radical musicians, Herlin Riley and James Black, and so on. Can you talk about how those tensions—my word—filtered into the development of your own sensibility?
What has always interested me about New Orleans is that New Orleans has been one of the most Christian fundamentalist towns in the South. But wherever you see that type of dogma when it comes to religion, there always is the extreme counter to that.
Well, once upon a time there was a Red-Light District!
[LAUGHS] Then in that counter-class society, for lack of a better phrase, that subculture, a lot of things spring up as a result of the frustrations of being put into that framework. You see it all around the world in various places. Look at Brazil. In Brazil, they have that big crucifix on top of the mountain. Man, it's huge! Then you see all the glorious music that comes out of that community as well.
So it's always been interesting to me that New Orleans is a very conservative town, but in the midst of all of that conservatism has been this rebellious movement, in terms of saying, 'Yeah, you all got that. But we need to express ourselves with wild abandon.' It goes back even to slavery, when you look at Congo Square, where free people of color would gather as a means to sit and testify and do whatever as a means to express what they needed to express. That carried on through the music. The interesting thing in African-American culture is that there started to be a split, where you saw that quality enter the spiritual and move through to the secular. So while you still had this Christian fundamentalism in New Orleans, inside of that was the Baptist movement that channeled all that wild abandon into the spiritual realm musically. We are natural offsprings of that evolution. Interestingly, along the way the whole educational portion entered the picture—we started to learn more about our instruments, learn more about music.
New Orleans was destined for this, anyway. At the turn of the century, New Orleans was one of the main stops for musicians who were on their way to Havana. There was this constant back-and-forth between Cuba and New Orleans. So New Orleans was the logical place for all of these cultures to come together to create this music. Big Black once said to Art Blakey, 'jazz is African,' and Art Blakey said, 'No-no-no. If it was African, you'd see a bunch of clubs in Africa where people would be swinging all over the continent. No-no, no-no-no. Jazz is a distinctly American art form.'
During the '80s, when Harrison-Blanchard was happening, I wasn't aware of how influential it was. I wasn't aware until musicians started telling me how it influential it was on their ideas. Can you speak to the impact of that experience on your subsequent musical production?
The thing is, we didn't realize it until some younger musicians started telling us about our albums. We were just making albums because we loved playing music, and Donald is a very adventurous guy. So we were always trying to do something different in the way we manipulated form, structure and rhythm. We weren't trying necessarily to play 4/4 all of the time, and we were trying to bring in and fuse different elements. Sometimes I brought in African 6/8 things, and Donald would bring in things that fused different rhythms on top of each other. We weren't trying to write in 32-bar song form. Frankly, we didn't know that many people were listening to the records. But when we started to hear all these young guys recounting things that happened on records that we had forgotten about, then we said, 'Wow, maybe we did have an impact on some of these younger generations.' But the key thing is that those guys have picked it up and taken it to a whole new place. These guys play different meters and shifts like it's 'Mary Had A Little Lamb,' like it's nothing. For me, it's exciting to see.
That brings out another way in which the young musicians you're playing with are a little different from the cats of your generation. You came in on the beginning of the codification of jazz education. You went to Rutgers and studied with William Fielder, but you also were playing with Lionel Hampton on the weekends, and split to go with Art Blakey. Each of you guys experienced something of the old-school way of doing research and development, through the bands, through the hierarchy. Is the type of R&D that these musicians are able to do having an impact on the way the music sounds?
I think so. What I've seen that's been interesting to me ...we had a chance ... There was Woody Shaw's band, Horace Silver's band, Art Blakey's band. Joe Henderson had a band, Elvin Jones' band, and all the various cats who had bands around New York that I can't remember right now. So you're right. There was this hierarchy, and there was this kind of proving ground that existed, and it's a little different these days. But now, Wynton has his band that he has young musicians coming in and out. Dianne Reeves, my band, and there are a number of others where people can go out and gain experience. But I think what's really interesting is that the education has moved down the rung. NOCCA, the arts high school that we came from, and then that other school in Houston, Texas, where Jason Moran and Eric Harland and Kendrick went, seemed to be where a lot of things changed on the high school level. The bar has been raised a great deal. A lot of these kids seem to be entering college extremely prepared, and they are coming to these professional situations well-versed in the history of jazz, well-versed in your music, and extremely capable and inventive. It's been really fascinating to watch the development of it. I remember there was a period after Jeff [Watts] and Smitty [Smith] and Ralph Peterson, where there was a bit of a drop-off—a little bit. But now you see this whole new thing. You've got Eric Harland, Jamire Williams, Kendrick, Marcus Gilmore. The bar has been pushed extremely high.
You've composed over a dozen movies for Spike Lee, most recently Miracle at St. Anna. Are you working on anything new with him now?
Not with Spike. I'm doing one called Red Tails with a young director named Anthony Hemingway. It's a George Lucas production, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. I haven't seen anything yet. We had to do some prerecords for three scenes. Well, three songs. They may not all be shot. They've finished shooting. He's just starting to edit now.
This is another question you've been asked eight million times. Under what circumstances did you begin to associate with Spike Lee?
I owe my career to two people, [saxophonist] Harold Vick and Spike. Harold Vick was the guy who contracted me to play on School Days, and then Do The Right Thing. The first session I walked into, I was a Lakers fan, so I had the hat, I had the t-shirt (I forgot which championship that was), I had the Converse, purple-and-gold.
Spike Lee was not a Lakers fan.
No. And I didn't know that, man. I didn't know him. I'm walking into the session, and he's standing at the door, greeting everybody, and he sees me walk in with this stuff, and he looks at me up and down and goes, 'Lakers' fan, huh?' I go, 'Yeah, man.' I didn't know he was a Knicks fan. So we started off on that type of footing.
Then he remembered my playing. I played a few solos. Then we had to do Mo' Better Blues. I always think it was just fate. We took a break, and I sat at the piano and started playing a tune called 'Sing Soweto' that I was going to record on my first solo project for Columbia. He walks over and says, 'Man, what is that? Can I use it?' We recorded it just as a solo trumpet thing. Then he asked me to write a string arrangement for it. I looked at it as an opportunity, because I'd always wanted to write for bigger ensembles, and I figured I'd gain some experience by doing this, and then it would allow me to take that experience and maybe write something for a jazz record. His dad made me conduct, too. Bill said, 'You wrote it, you conduct it.' I went, 'What? No!!' Spike walked up to me right as I stepped off the podium and said, 'You have a future in this business.' I said, 'Thanks.' I thought he was just being nice and encouraging. Well, literally a few months later, he called me up and said he was doing a movie called Jungle Fever, and he wanted me to write the score. That's how our relationship started.
What do you think the affinity is?
He loved melody, and he fell in love with that first tune so much that, when we did Jungle Fever ... If you watch the scene in Mo' Better Blues, that's the same theme. He gave me the direction when we first started working together, and I've followed it ever since—it's probably why I'm still working with him. He said, 'I don't need the music to hear the door closing. I don't need the music to be that specific.' He said, 'I love melody. I want people to be able to walk out of the theater singing the themes from the film.'
So in a certain sense, he wants the music to brand the film.
Oh, yes. He may say that. He says some of his favorite films, Godfather, On The Waterfront, when you hear that theme, you immediately think of those movies. So that's the philosophy we've followed throughout the years, but at the same time, always trying to do something different. Always trying to change the scope, the color, or the sound of the orchestra. Always using an orchestra. On one film, Bamboozled, the movie about blackface, we started without an orchestra. The movie started in black-and-white, and I said, 'Why don't we start with a small ensemble, and let's bring in more color when you bring in color.' So that's what we did.
Do you think cinematically about your records?
How does that factor into your albums? This album, say, which to me had the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.
I've always viewed music that way. Even when I would listen to Trane, when I'd listen to Miles, I'd always conjure up certain images, whether it be images of them playing live, or images ... Once in Perugia, David Chertok was doing video presentations, and he showed a film of Trane playing 'Alabama.' That image stuck with me for the longest time ever, every time I would hear the song. Then Spike used it in Malcolm X—then those images stuck with me. So I've always related music to imagery. On Tale of God's Will, that's obvious. But in much of what I do with music, it has to have that sense of drama. It can't just be an exercise. It has to tell a story, basically. What good is art without having a story? Even when you listen to John Cage's one-note piece, that's a story being told, in some form or fashion.
Or what in academia is called a 'narrative.'
A narrative. There you go.
Your personality seems to be such that when you decide to study something, you go whole hog. In 1995 we did a radio show on which you played and described music that had influenced you, and you sang every part of every song that you presented. Did you do the same when it came to addressing the art of film scoring? There's that very interesting recording, Jazz on Film, that addressed iconic film themes.
I felt I was so behind the 8-ball. You know, I have a certain concept of teaching jazz. A lot of first-time students are told to listen to the breadth of the music. But I think that can be a daunting task for young folks. I tell them, "don't do that—get one CD." For me, it was one album, Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine Live [My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert]. I listened to it over and over and over and over again. I'd listen to it one time, and just listen to Tony [Williams] play. Then I'd run the same tune back and listen to Herbie play, run the same tune back and just listen to Ron [Carter].
You told me that you thought there must be a formula.
Right. 'I've got to figure out what it is. What is this thing called jazz? I don't get it.' But I learned a lot by doing that, and that springboarded me to go out and experience the breadth of the history of this music. But initially, I needed to engross myself and just delve into this one thing. Anyway, that's what I did with the film thing. Spike loved the score of Glory, and, man, I picked that thing apart. I listened to it over and over. There was no physical score for me to look at, but I would take down some of the passages ... Well, let me back up. Prior to that,. I started studying The Rite of Spring, which is one of my favorite pieces. Well, I got the movie, Jungle Fever, when I was studying The Rite of Spring, but none of that stuff would really work on that film! So I said, 'Wait a minute; I've got to approach this another way.' After I had done the movie, and it was time to do Malcolm X, that's when I listened to Glory a great deal—wrote down notes, picked it apart, and extracted certain things. Then I went to the premiere with Denzel Washington, and that was eye-opening. By then, I knew the music, and I could see how the music was being used. That helped me a great deal.
Then, from that point on, I just would study other composers. Thomas Newman is one of them. I still do it to this day. Harry Gregson-Williams is a guy that I really love. I think he's a very inventive composer. Cliff Martinez is another one. He doesn't score a lot of films, but he's very inventive. The thing is, I listen to them because I just appreciate their ingenuity. It's the same thing in the jazz world. I listen to Ambrose play, and I think, 'How the hell did he come up with that? Where did he get that from?' It's that same sort of thing.
You and Branford and Wynton and Donald are roughly the same age as President Obama. Could I ask you to retrospect (which perhaps is apropos to do in light of Choices, which was animated by such self-reflective impulses) and reflect on the position of your music within the broader intellectual and cultural currents of your time, those that shaped Obama, too?
What we probably put out is that it was cool to deal with your own history. Over the period prior to our appearance on to the scene, there was a certain forsaking of history—although not totally. When we came on, we were called ... what's the term ... 'neoclassicists' or something ... Somebody mentioned that term to Donald, and he used it as the title for a tune. I think that was probably the first thing, where you saw young African-American males who were articulate. That's the thing that was constantly spoken of with us, that we were articulate and that we knew our history, that we were well-studied, and we were craftsmen.
Always appearing in suits on the stage.
Quite a difference from standard attire of the '70s.
I know. With us, race was still an issue in the jazz world, but from what I see with these younger guys, it doesn't exist like that now. Somebody asked Wynton whether he thought white people could play jazz. Who would ask that question today? And why would you ask that question? But I remember somebody asking Wynton that question in the '80s, right when he had left Art Blakey, before the Lincoln Center thing. I forgot what he said. But I the reason I remember is because I was talking to Ron Carter about it, and Ron said, 'What you guys have to learn is that they're trying to sell magazines and they want to bait you into some things.' But still, the question stuck in my mind as being irrelevant. But race was still talked about in terms of this guy achieving this, or this guy not getting that, etc. You don't see that too much these days. These young guys here, it's all about 'can you play?' I don't hear them speaking of race in the same way. I don't hear them having the same issues. The same thing is true in terms of the cultural lines, the cultural divisions in music. As we alluded earlier, I don't see this notion of pop and hip-hop and R&B being over there and then jazz being over here. I don't see that existing in that way any more either. There's this constant cross-pollination. You see Q-Tip, you see Mos Def, Common, all of these guys, working with these young guys in various musical associations.
It's interesting that a lot of the younger black players who are doing interesting things in jazz emerged from church experiences that had them perform in public when they were very young. Maybe that's one way that race still does play into musical production today.
I do think so, in terms of their development. That's part of our culture. I grew up playing in the church, too. Not a gospel church, but I grew up playing in a church, too.
In Catholic church?
Ah, you went to a Catholic school, so I thought ...
Yes, I did, but no. That was a deep thing, too. Going to Catholic school and being a Congregationalist, two different philosophies.
So you had concrete experience with that tension you described to me before.
Oh, yeah. I remember the first time the Catholic priest told me that to think a thought was just as bad as a sin, so therefore it is a sin. I went, 'Excuse me?' That never made sense to me. But that's something that was taught to me in religion class, and something I never experienced in the church that I was going to growing up.
But one thing that we brought to the world of music was a sense of pride and a sense of ownership. I see that being exhibited in this current generation of political leaders. But I think it's really about to explode.
Do you mean a truly multicultural, perhaps creolized way of thinking about the world?
It's interesting that each of you who emerged from New Orleans with Art Blakey in the early '80s—you, Wynton, Branford, Donald—went through a process of finding your identity, and it seemed to involve first associating with other people from your background, and later branching out.
Definitely. Initially you associate with people from your background because it's your comfort zone. It's what makes you feel really at home. You want to carry that with you wherever you go. But then you start to feel secure in yourself, and you realize, 'Well, maybe I want to branch out.' That's when you start to see true exploration. It's a maturation process for all of us. But the thing I think that's key to it all is the daring to engage in the process. Because a lot of times, society is telling you the exact opposite—that you're not the norm. When I was growing up, man, I constantly heard that I was going to starve being a musician. I constantly heard, 'You need to think about this; how are you going to support a family,' all those kinds of things. To me, that seems so weird, because it seemed like you'd be setting yourself up to be unhappy, because you would be doing something for the wrong reasons—you'd be doing it just to make money. I never wanted to live my life like that. Still don't want to live my life like that. I want to do things, and I want to enjoy life. Our time on this planet is short. You may as well enjoy it. Jim Brown said that in a documentary that we did with Spike. It blew me away, man! The way he said it, too, blew me away. He said, 'It would be a shame to go through this life and never really find out what turns you on.'
You seem to have found a way through your film scoring both to make pretty good money and also keep the creative side going with the band. You also talked about this ten years ago. You said people accused you of giving up jazz, but you spent 35-40 weeks on the road that year. Do you still want to stay on the road? You have two kids, you have a place in Los Angeles, a place in New Orleans ...
I gave up the place in Los Angeles. The Monk Institute's not out there any more.
I'd have thought that would helpful for the film scoring.
We did, too. I kept a rig out there, the whole nine—but no-no.
Well, over the next period of time, do you see yourself continuing to do what you've been doing over the last decade?
Actually, that is the road that I'm going down. I still feel there's a lot more to say. I'm still having fun playing live on the road. It's still a learning process. I feel I'm just breaking the surface of some things. That tour with Herbie last fall blew me away. It retooled my thinking about being an artist. It started with a conversation I had with Wayne [Shorter], too. We constantly put shackles on ourselves, thinking that we need to accomplish A before we get to B. Well, the thing is that we make A insurmountable. I think that's a defense mechanism because of fear, and the fear is that B is totally unknown. But as long as we stick with A and we say we know we have to cover this ...well, we're secure in having something concrete to deal with. The thing I've learned is that Herbie and those guys have always gone to B and C, and they've always been pushing ahead.
I guess Miles made that possible for them.
Oh, definitely. He told us that it definitely came from Miles. He didn't talk about Miles that much on the tour, but when he did, you could see how much impact he had on all of them.
So your association with the Monk Institute has afforded a lot of collateral benefits.
Apart the process of teaching—aside from giving you an institutional position, and having the stature of a major cultural figure in your home town by dint of that institutional position—has made you reflect on choices you've made.
The process of teaching. The process of having these conversations with Herbie and Wayne. During the auditions, we would have these conversations. The first one was really bizarre. We were having the conversations in the conference room, and then I'd have to go out and judge these kids, but then I'd think, 'no, wait a minute; I need to reflect on some shit you all just said.' So I felt like I've been growing, too—a lot. It's been a great experience, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I don't feel like I should have gotten this kind of exposure to those guys earlier in my career. I think I would have responded differently to it. I'm glad I'm getting it now the way that I've been getting it. Watching Wayne on a lot of events that we've been part of together has been a real learning experience, and it's been amazing to observe that information trickle down through me to the students and see how it impacts them.
Once at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Wayne was talking to me about this violinist whom he'd read about someplace. You know how Wayne is. He goes, 'Hey, man, you heard about this violinist?' I said, 'No, Wayne, who is it?' He mentioned the name, and he said, 'She had this real aggressive playing style, and every time she auditioned for an orchestra, she lost the audition, and she got to the point where she was real despondent, depressed, and she was at the point of committing suicide, and she had a conversation with her mother about everything that was going on in her life, and her mother said, "Well, baby, you know, it takes courage to be happy."' It blew me away when he told me that, because right at that particular moment I was being the 'jazz musician.' I was being what I thought a jazz musician should be in terms of what I thought I should be doing creatively. There some things I felt really sincere about that I was not bringing to what it is that I was doing. When he said that, it turned my life around. I wrote a tune about it called 'Passionate Courage' on Bounce. Then also my conversations with Herbie. Certain things they said to me were just like opening a door—that simple. Then other times, Wayne would be talking about some far-out shit. He said, 'Man, you hear about this guy? The government was after him, they were following him around, they were shooting at him.' 'No, Wayne, I didn't. What?'—then he pulled a book out of his case. It was some science fiction.
So I feel very blessed to have had the experiences I've had—I've gotten a chance to meet all of my heroes who are still living, and to have amazing experiences learning about music.