As a composer, the two-time Oscar nominee (for BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods), Terence Blanchard is mostly known for his work on film. However, scoring the HBO series Perry Mason brought not only new challenges but also new opportunities for the gifted musician.
In our conversation, we discuss how scoring Perry Mason allowed him to experiment and take chances in a way he has seldom been able to. Blanchard talks about what an invigorating experience it was updating the sound of noir – one he is thrilled at the thought of repeating with the upcoming season two
Awards Daily: So, this is not your father’s Perry Mason to put it mildly.
Terence Blanchard: [Laughs] That’s true. That’s the first thing that I thought when I saw it. I kept thinking to myself ‘The gloves are off!’ The original Perry Mason, while it was still intriguing for the time that it was created, if people were to watch today they would look at it and probably think it just avoids a lot of issues. When I first saw saw the new version, that was the first thing that came to mind more so than anything. The more that I got into it, the more I was really intrigued by this approach to dealing with this character. First of all, for us to just delve back into his past and him dealing with PTSD was just brave. I kept saying to myself ‘This is a very beloved character and now we’re going to show his flaws.’
AD: You’re right, because it completely upsets your expectations and turns them on their head. How did this project come to you?
TB: Well, Tim (Van Patten) called me up and I don’t know how he thought of me. I think initially they wanted a jazz score and maybe my name came up. We had a meeting and I read the script and sat down and talked to him and then I saw some parts and when I looked at it, I was just floored by what I saw. I think they had done a trailer for the show, and I remember looking at the trailer and it had a big band piece of music in it. There was something about it that just didn’t feel right, because the look of the show, while it pays respect to the past, there’s a certain vibe about it that’s very fresh.
One of the things that I kept telling Tim was I think the music needs to take the same approach. We don’t want to avoid the past, and it’s not like we wanted to come into Perry Mason and do a Hip Hop score, something current, but I did want to approach it in such a way that it allowed us to have room to express ourselves in a new way. Tim was all about it. The cool thing about Tim was, a lot of people when you go in these meetings they want to have concrete answers – one of the things I told him was I don’t know what that is but I’ll get in my studio and experiment and try to come up with what I think that would be. He was cool with all of that. I think we hung out for about an hour and we talked for about twenty minutes about Perry Mason and the next forty minutes we talked about living in Brooklyn.
AD: It’s always nice when you can turn that professional thing into a personal thing and then you start relating.
TB: That was the thing. I think that the thing that made us connect to each other was I think he got where I was coming from with the show early on and he was comfortable with that. It became kind of funny at some point we would have these meetings about the episodes and me and Tim had…not even a shorthand it was like a nohand. The editors would want us to explain the choices for music and what the scene needs and me and Tim wouldn’t say anything. He would look at me and he would go ‘You got it, right?’ And I would go ‘Yeah.’ And he’d say ‘Let’s move on.’ And that’s just basically how it worked. I told him ‘Dude, working with you on this television project has spoiled me.’ Everybody on the project was just very creative. Everybody was very smart. Nobody tried to jump in anybody else’s lane. Everybody did their job and did it at such a high degree that it inspired me, and I would hope that the same thing happened to everybody else – that we all just became inspired by what we were working on.
AD: You’ve delved into what I would call noire-ish material before and certainly period work as well – I was thinking like Sugar Hill or Inside Man – but those are more modern noires. While there is some of that lush, swoony sound that we’re used to in noir, you have different sonic palates that go on throughout. You were talking about how that was kind of intentional. When you made that choice, what were the things that you pinpointed musically that you wanted to do that were recognizable on some level for the milieu but also moved away from it?
TB: I still tried to keep the show within the genre of jazz. If you notice on some of the things you’ll hear a bass player repeat a phrase, it’s just a repeated note but with a rhythm to it, and then sometimes I would have the bartonei sax double that. Sometimes I would use the saxophone section itself in such a way that allowed you to think that this is big band, but that would be it. Everything else would be coming from a whole other perspective. I didn’t want to use strings, because I thought that would be too on the nose. Trying to find these textures and colors I thought was the real challenge for me, but it was a lot of fun. I don’t know how to explain it, I’ve been saying this in all my interviews but it’s really true, the wild thing about Perry Mason for me was everything was on the screen. There was no need for me to enhance anything. The only thing that I tried to do was to be right there with it.
Sometimes you work on projects and you can tell a scene is supposed to have a certain type of emotional content maybe that didn’t really come across and the music can help enhance that. In Perry Mason there was none of that.That really became apparent the more I worked on every episode. I told Tim “It’s crazy working on this piece because I’m having a ball just being right there with the actors.” There were times when I would do something in my studio and I would say that’s too much, let’s bring that back. That’s how I started to get away from the string thing. There are some strings, but it’s not a dominant thing in the score at all.
AD: I think because the time period is the depression era, and then the location being Los Angeles, the style of the show is more Chinatown or L.A. Confidential than anything. I know the time period influences certain musical choices, but between the time period and the location were there any specific choices that you made that were connected to either of those aspects?
TB: There were, but it’s hard to put into words because it’s all about trying to find those textures and colors. I know what you’re getting at and what you’re asking me, but literally it was like looking at it and saying let me throw these sounds up against the picture. Sometimes I would bring in some sounds that just wouldn’t work. There were other times I would bring in a sound and I would say ‘That’s part of it,’ but then I started pairing it with other things, and I started combining things together and I said ‘You know what, there it is.’ We started to use the term “Perry’s world.”
I remember there was one cue, it only happened twice, and the first time it happened Tim said to me ‘It’s beautiful music, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s in Perry’s world.’ That became my mantra for the rest of the show ‘Does this feel like it’s in Perry’s world?’ It was all about discovery. One of the scenes for me that really opened me up was the scene where Perry goes up in the plane and he flies across the city and there was a sonic palate that I had put together for that that I was a little nervous about because I wasn’t sure it was right for Perry, but I loved the way it felt in the scene. I think Tim made a comment about that scene and how he loved it and that was the thing that started to give me the green light. I’m like ‘Ok we’re going down the right path’ as far as approach.
AD: I’m always fascinated too how a score works with actual performance songs within a movie or a show. There were needle drops of swing type songs from the era and there’s the whole gospel aspect on the other side with the religious group that is part of the show. When you are putting together the score do you think about ok we also have these other types of music that I have to blend my score in with?
TB: Of course. The thing about it is that those needle drops…that’s the seasoning. Those are the things that let you know right where we are. Those are the things that say this is period. What I was trying to do with the score was to have people relate to the characters. The other part of this is that you are not trying to get people to change the channel. (Laughs) For me, I was trying to do something to (and I hate to use this term) modernize the show. The reason for that is, when you look at the old Perry Mason, the way they even delivered the dialogue is different from what happens in this show. That in itself was something that made it current. So I said to myself why should the music be something different than that. I had so much fun working on this show. I was tickled pink when I heard we got a second season.
AD: One of the things about the show that is surprising in terms of storylines is you have a lesbian subplot, you have a black police officer dealing with trying to better himself and also fit into a world that doesn’t really want him – there’s a tokenism he’s fighting against to make a difference- and then you also have this religious fundamentalism that surrounds the show. All of those plot lines that were happening in Perry Mason do still feel very current now.
TB: Here’s the thing about it that I thought was really cool – it also makes you understand that this was going on back then too. We just didn’t have to deal with it. For me, this Perry Mason was the Perry Mason that pulled the veil back, that pulled the curtain back on what was really going on. That’s the thing that I dug about this show. When I saw the lesbian angle, that was such a shock to me, but at the same time it was thrilling because it made sense. To see Paul Drake going through everything that he was going through (as a black police officer at that time), trying to spin it and trying to do what’s right and at the end of the series say ‘You know what? I’m gonna go with my man (Perry), I’m gonna let you guys have it, because I’ve got better things to tackle.’
And kudos to the production team for taking that approach, because I think if we would have sanitized it, people wouldn’t have been into it. Most people who watch this show, especially a lot of the young folk, they don’t know Perry Mason. They don’t know the original story. They have no idea. It’s only people like me – my age group – that remember that show and it’s only because my mom used to make me go to bed and I would hear that theme playing through the door while they were watching it. While it tackles all of these issues, it’s not preaching. I really felt that. It’s not hitting you over the head it was just part of the natural story line of what was happening in these people’s lives.
AD: You got to play with a lot of sounds with this score. The dynamic Evening Gentleman, the swoony Home Alone, and then their’s Shifting Priorities – which sounds very experimental to me. Like there’s a machine having trouble trying to start up and has a chicken stuck in it. What was that noise?
TB: [Laughs] It’s a little sample, a sequence. I told Tim I got the idea from the sound of that old milk truck. It’s hard to say this because you are working quickly, but then in hindsight you go: oh, that was my thought process. Aside from that, the whole idea of the military flashbacks, seeing as he was haunted by those things, that’s the thing that I wanted to have reoccur with that little sound. Not related to the war, but just related to who he is and where he’s coming from and his struggles. I think about E.B. when he sees him in that first episode and says ‘I promised your parents I’d look after you’ and stuff like that – stuff we never knew about Perry Mason. The more that he starts to delve into the area of becoming a lawyer, I still want you to remember where he came from. This was a journey for this guy.
AD: I don’t recall if when I was watching it I blinked and missed your credit at the beginning, or if it came at the end, or if I looked up your credit after the show ended, but I was watching it and thinking this music is different than what you would expect yet seemingly perfect for what I’m looking at. I thought this kind of sounds like the stuff that Terence Blanchard does – the way you make the score swell – but I hadn’t exactly heard you do this before. I felt a little special when I realized it was you!
TB: [Laughs] That’s the reason that I loved doing it. You can get typecast, people think that you just do one type of thing. I’ve always had interest in different types of music. One of the things this show allowed me to do was to create a score that I’ve always been wanting to create, something that was a little experimental, something that was daring, something that was brave. All credit to Tim and (Executive Producer) Robert Downey Jr. Time kept telling me to go for it. I think it was the end of the first episode, there’s a trumpet solo. When I did the first one, (I’m always getting comments that it sounds too jazzy) I did kind of a laid back thing and Tim called me up and said I think you should go for it there. Same thing happened on one of the end credits. I had taken a more conservative approach and he said just go for it, just wail, just do your thing. I don’t get that that much. That in itself encouraged me to keep going and pushing the envelope. I knew what felt good to me, but that doesn’t always mean that it translates to anybody else. It was an incredible experience, man.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.