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American Routes Shortcuts: Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard
American Routes

Trumpet player Terence Blanchard’s career has taken him from the Big Easy to the Big Screen. After studying jazz at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Rutgers University, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1982. Eight years later, he left the band to pursue a solo career and begin playing on Spike Lee’s soundtracks, such as Mo’ Better Blues. Spike eventually thrust Terence into the role of composer and conductor, and asked him to score all of his films since 1991. Blanchard received an Academy Award nomination for best original score on Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlackKklansman. Terence tells about his first appreciation of music in movies.


Terence Blanchard: I think I was in Chicago, playing with Art Blakey, and I had an off-day and I wanted to go see Star Wars, and it just blew me away. Being a brass player, you know, when I heard those, those huge brass lines, you know, and the orchestra, and I’m going “Who is this, man? Where did this come from?”

Nick Spitzer: How did you first encounter Spike Lee and get involved working with him?

TB: Well, the first, the first time I encountered him, there was a guy named Harold Vic who was contracting the bands for Spike’s early films when his father was doing the music.

NS: Bill Lee, a jazz bass player

TB: Jazz, great jazz bass player, great composer.

NS: Right

TB: So they decided to have young and old musicians in the band, which I thought was a really cool idea. So I walk into the session, man, and the Lakers had just won the NBA championship. And I got on, I, man I had, Nick, I had the hat, I had the T-shirt, I even had the shoes, dude. You know, Spike looks at me and he goes, “Lakers fan, huh?” And I go “Yeah, what’s up?” You know, I didn’t know Spike at the time, I was like “Yeah what’s up?” I didn’t know he was a big Knicks fan, you know? So he started taking me to Knicks games, and then we became friends. And we was doing Mo’ Better Blues, man, we were doing the prerecorded music, and he heard me playing something at the piano and asked to use it, then after that he asked me to write a string arrangement for it. And we’ve been working together ever since from that one moment.

NS: Does he have a lot of input in what he’s looking for with you or do you just get the story and you come back with something? How do you actually work?

TB: Well you know, that’s been the interesting thing about working with Spike for a long time. I kinda know what it is that he likes. I mean, when I first started working with him he said “Listen, I don’t like underscore.” You know, he said “I like melodic lines. I like thematic material in my films.” He said “I want people to walk away humming the themes of the film and whenever they hear it, I want them to associate the film with that.”


NS: America is in a very difficult position in a lot of different ways in the social order and in politics. Can music bring us somewhere better than where we are?

TB: I think so. You know, we’ve gotten complacent. We’ve sit back and allowed things to happen. We can’t do that anymore. We see that we have to be active, you know, and if my little corner of the world playing music allows that to happen and maybe change some hearts and minds, then I think it’s worth it.

TB: When you talk about BlacKkKlansman, I think that’s one of the things that struck everyone about the film, it’s because you start out the film watching it as a period piece. And you get to the end of the film and Spike puts in the montage from, you know, Charlottesville, and all of a sudden, you start to say, well maybe we haven’t grown as far away from this as we thought.

NS:  What is the transition for you, say as a leader, to then have to work with a director.?

TB: Man, Nick, nobody’s ever asked that question that way. That’s a good question. I never thought about it really because you’re leading one situation and then in another situation you’re kind of like a side man. You know the thing about doing film, man, and being the composer, it’s like there’s a moment of fear when you see the film the first time. Because, you know, everybody’s done their job, man, you know, you know, the actors, the light and wardrobe people, everybody, editing, they’ve all done their job and you’re the last line of defense. And then people come to you and say “Okay, now take us across the finish line.”

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