Terence Blanchard is one of the most prolific composers on film. While he has scored a variety of films, he is best known for his work with Spike Lee, dating all the way back to School Daze in 1988. In a wide-ranging discussion, he shares with us intimate details about their collaboration, as well as his love of jazz, the music he makes outside of film, and the state of the world. His latest work on film can be heard in Spike Lee’s Oscar contender, BlacKkKlansman.
How did you and Spike first connect?
I was playing a gig in Chicago when I had my band with Donald Harrison and I went to go see Star Wars. It was the first time I ever paid attention to the score. I wondered who was the guy playing the trumpet? After that, I went to another movie and there was a newsreel playing. Spike was featured. I remember thinking I’d really like to work with a dude outside of my own genre who’s as committed to his art as I am. The next thing I now I get a call from Harold Vick, who was the contractor for Spike’s father (jazz musician, Bill Lee) at the time. They wanted to put together a big jazz band full of young and older jazz musicians for School Daze. When I went to the session, I was a big Laker fan at the time. I had on a Lakers hat, a t-shirt, and the shoes. I walked in and Spike said “Lakers fan, huh?” He remembered me because of it. At the same time, Lenny White was producing this track for a singing group and he wanted Miles Davis to play on it. When he couldn’t get Miles, he asked me. That track ended up on the (School Daze) soundtrack. Spike said, “is that you playing the trumpet?” So, he started to pay attention to me. Then he asked me to coach Denzel Washington for a movie about musicians.
Mo’ Better Blues, right?
Right. We had to do some pre-recorded material for Mo’ Better Blues for them to shoot to. While we were doing that we took a break and I sat down at the piano and I started writing this little melody for my first album I was going to do on Columbia Records. It was a song written for kids massacred in South Africa. Spike walked over and asked if he could use it. And I said, “sure!” We recorded it just as a solo trumpet piece. It’s the scene on the bridge with Denzel playing the trumpet. When he got back to the editing room, he kept trying to fill it in with other things and it wasn’t working. He said, “Hey man, you think you could write a string arrangement for it?” I said, “…sure.” (Laughs). I saw my composition teacher and said, “Hey man, I need to write a string arrangement. How do you do that?” (Laughs). I had studied composition and Roger (the teacher), told me to trust my training. So, I wrote the arrangement. Brought it in and handed it to Spike’s father. Bill said, “You wrote it, you conduct it.” I went “Oh my god. Okay.” (Laughs).
Escalation upon escalation! (Laughs).
At that point I went back to my (composition) class in high school. Okay, 1 is here, 2 is here, 1 is straight down, 2 is to the left, 3 is to the right, and 4 is straight up. If I knew the pattern, I could do it! So, I did it and Spike came over to me and thanked me. Told me it sounded good. He told me I had a future in this business. I was riding on a high. It’s funny how the universe works, because just as I was riding on that high, I was at BMG studios in New York. I walked up the hallway to the bathroom and this guy was mastering The Rite of Spring. It was one of those real rhythmic moments in the score. As soon as I hear it, my little ego went (down). (Laughs). Dude, If you want to do this, you got some work to do. But, Spike called me after that and offered me Jungle Fever. That’s how the relationship started.
I think there are two impressions of what Spike Lee is like. There’s the brash Spike in interviews and the Spike on a film set who runs a harmonious production. What is it like working with him?
First of all, you are right on both impressions. The wild part about it is that people confuse the abrasive part with anger. It’s not anger. What they miss is that’s the New York way of communicating. That’s a New York thing. If you’re ever in a bodega and you’re trying to order a sandwich and there’s a line and the guy yells “whaddaya want?” and you go “…mmm, let me think”, they go “NEXT!” (Laughs).
You gotta be ready!
Don’t waste my time! That’s New York. Spike is a guy who knows what he wants. He’s also very artistic and practical. One of the things I’ve admired about him is he has never blown a budget. He’s so smart in how he does things. He tries to save money on the budget for some of the post production. I remember when we were doing Mo’ Better Blues – that’s the movie I was on set every day – they’d do a take and he’d say, “Back to one! Back to one!” Real quick, they were going again, and if you weren’t ready, shame on you. He spends a lot of time setting up shots. You can stop the movie at any frame and it will look like a perfect picture.
I often think there are two kinds of film scores. The kind that support the film but don’t draw attention to itself, and the kind where the score is almost like another character in the movie. I feel like the latter is the kind of movies that Spike makes. What is like to compose a score that is intended to be so out front? I’m thinking particularly of the swoon the score takes as John David Washington approaches the police station in BlacKkKlansman.
What I feel happened in BlacKkKlansman is that between all the people who have worked with Spike over the years, it’s the culmination of all of our efforts we’ve been making over all of the films. When I work on other films, I don’t get the same vibe. Soon as Spike sends me something, I think, oh, okay. I know what this is. I know what he needs. I know what he likes. I know what he wants. When he tells me I want music in this scene, I look at the scene, I know what that means. Melodic, orchestra…but on this one, he wanted an R&B band inside the orchestra. I thought cool because I had just put together an electric band called E-Collective in the last couple years. That’s who’s playing on the score. The thing I have to always be mindful with Spike is I know for some of those scenes he’s going to push the music up. Out of all of the directors I’ve seen, I think he plays his music louder than any of them.
Did you approach the BlacKkKlansman score any differently?
I think the only thing that was different about it was using an R&B band made me write a certain way. Because of the story I tried to use certain types of progressions. I used a lot of power chords and moved them around in a simplistic fashion. While the theme is melodic, the underpinning has more of a strength, a sound of power to it. I really thought Ron Stallworth’s story was one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard in my life. When Spike first told me, I thought it was fiction. I didn’t think it was real. (Laughs).
So did I!
And then you meet the guy. For a rookie cop to have done this speaks to his courage and integrity. I wanted the music to reflect that. That was a different approach than what I usually do with Spike. I usually go for a more melodic, different type of harmonic approach. This one I tried something a little different. Bringing in the guitar was something that was different for me. But thinking about the 70’s, I kept thinking about Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem. I think Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem was one of the most patriotic things I’ve ever heard. At the same time he’s playing the anthem it’s almost as if he’s screaming “we are all Americans.” I kept thinking that’s what we need here. We need that sound in the score. I didn’t want us to try to mimic Jimi’s sound. I wanted its own sound, but that’s where the idea came from.
People forget Jimi played that at Woodstock in the middle of the Civil Rights movement.
When I heard it that was revolutionary to me. Everybody back then had the pleasant voices, “Oh say can you see…”, and this guy…I can still remember my reaction hearing the first couple notes. I was like, damn! (Laughs).
Spike’s movies are often uncategorizable. Like what is Do The Right Thing? Is it a comedy, is it a drama? What is it. Spike is known for making a lot of tonal changes in his movies. What kind of challenges does that create for you?
I’ve grown accustomed to it with Spike. Go back to Summer of Sam. That was a serious story, man. But in the midst of that, there’s comedic shit all over the movie. If you look at the opening of the film (BlacKkKlansman) when John David is walking up, we have the melody playing and then when he starts to pat his afro – the thing about Spike’s films, you can’t make try to make that much of a differentiation between what’s serious and comedic – so, when he pats his hair, you hear some pizzicato strings while the melody is still going on. You can’t make the shift from serious to comedic like that. Spike wants the music to play melodically under all the scenes. He doesn’t like underscoring at all. I’ve gotten to the point where I try to support what’s going on in the scene, but I try not to draw a whole bunch of attention to it. The thing about Spike is he always has great actors. So, they carry most of that weight anyway. They don’t need much more from me. I think what makes things funny in Spike’s movies is that they happen in the middle of something serious. So, for me, don’t try to oversell it.
In your IMDB bio, it lists you as the most prolific jazz musician in the history of scoring films. Did you know that?
No. It’s interesting to me too. I’ve always looked up to Benny Golson and Quincy Jones and those guys. I just did the 85th birthday celebration for Quincy. Those are my heroes. It’s funny. Years ago I did an album called Jazz In Film. I did The Pawnbroker and I sent it to Quincy. I didn’t know this, but he told me it was the first film he ever scored. He started out on a high. (Laughs).
I know awards aren’t always the most important thing, but I’m shocked to see that you’ve never been nominated for an Oscar. I mean, you scored Malcolm X. Does it matter to you? Are you hopeful for BlacKkKlansman?
I don’t know if hopeful is the word. I’m realistic about it. Frankly, I’ve become a little numb to it actually. I like what I do. I don’t work on a film thinking about what’s going to happen at the beginning of next year. I’m always grateful for the opportunity. The thing that’s been a blessing is I’ve been able to work on some really great movies. That’s the thing that gets me excited. A friend of mine is shooting Harriet Tubman right now and I’m chomping at the bit. I’m like a racehorse in the gate ready to go. Because I understand you don’t get these opportunities all the time.
You’ve always been a socially conscious artist. The latest E-Collective album is about gun violence. Is that something that’s always been in you, or did that develop as you got older?
It’s always been in me in terms of my awareness. When Hurricane Katrina hit there was a shift in my personality. There was something about watching people on television who looked like me being called refugees. Them screaming for help and not being able to get the services they needed at that moment in time. How the levees were breached. There had been warnings about it. I started to see my small little corner of the world as a platform to create discussions. When I put the E-Collective together I wanted to inspire kids who didn’t necessarily want to play jazz, but I wanted them to see they could play instruments on a higher level. When I put together the band, all these kids were getting shot. Mike Brown, Tamir Rice. We couldn’t just ignore that. So, with (the album) Live we went to those various communities that had had tragedies, We went to Dallas where the cops were shot because we didn’t want it to be a one-sided thing. It’s literally all about gun violence. This country has a fascination and a love of guns that’s not healthy. Look at the shooting we had at the synagogue. The president turns around and say if they would have had an armed guard (it wouldn’t have happened). You look at that community and it’s one of those sleepy town communities where people leave their doors unlocked. Why would they think they’d need to have armed guards?
You ever notice that the answer that those on the right always have for gun violence is more guns? It’s like saying the answer to your house being on fire is a flamethrower.
(Laughs). I’m going to have to use that! When I was a kid, my dad never let me play with guns. Like toy guns. I can see why now. I don’t see that as a resolution to anything. I think most people who become civic-minded, you don’t choose it, it chooses you.
Experience changes you.
It does. Here’s something people don’t know about Spike. We were working on Inside Man during Katrina. I was teaching a class at USC and I had an apartment in LA. Usually Spike would fly me out to New York, but he knew I hadn’t found my mom (in New Orleans) for two weeks and my kids and my wife were out here with me. He said listen, man. You stay with your family. I’ll come to you. He came to my apartment and he didn’t even say hello. He said I’m going to do a documentary on those levees and I’m going to give those people a chance to speak. To me that’s what a true artist is about. A person who is cognizant of what’s going on in their environment and their community and is willing to do what they can in their corner of the world to create a positive change in other people’s lives.
He’s always been a filmmaker who is willing to go into areas other people aren’t.
Look at the amount of research he does. If you go back and watch When The Levees Broke – and I told Spike this – I’m from New Orleans, and I had never seen anything that comprehensive in terms of capturing all of the different cultures and communities that exist in that one little town. Most documentaries are only about one thing. Music, food, whatever. But when you watch Levees, all of those things are in the doc. He went out and touched everybody. It blew me away watching it as a New Orleanian. To see it all in one particular piece was phenomenal to me.
It’s an amazing work. It’s four hours long and you never feel the length of it. Every second is riveting. That’s not easy to do!
(Laughs). No it’s not! You know, we were only paid to do a two our documentary. That was all we were budgeted for. We all did that because Spike kept saying this is not two hours. This can’t be done in two hours. I was like, cool. Let’s keep going. Everybody was like that. You should have seen the room that compiled all of the footage. I’ve never seen so many hard drives in one spot! (Laughs).
You mentioned the Harriet Tubman project. Is there anything else you are working on that you’d like to talk about?
I’m working on my second opera for Opera Theatre Saint Louis. It’s going to be based on Charles Blow’s book Fire Shut Up In My Bones. I have another piece I’m getting ready to do in Cleveland that deals with the Civil Rights Act written for the E-Collective orchestra and choir. I just had a piece for violin and cello that premiered at Carnegie Hall, and I’m getting ready to go back on tour with the E-Collective next month.
You know, you and Spike are developing resumes that are just insane. You just look at it and say how does one person create so much great work?
(Laughs). Thank you for the conversation, bro. I really enjoyed it.