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GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Terence Blanchard
(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
"Music is here around you from the time you enter the world," says GRAMMY-winning jazz trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard.
"Here," for Blanchard, is New Orleans, arguably the most musical city in the United States. And from the time he was born, Blanchard absorbed it all. His father sang in church and at recitals. His aunt was a vocal teacher and her first husband had a vocal group (which included his dad) and taught opera to neighborhood kids. Blanchard recalls just wanting to be as close to the music as he could when in his childhood his family would go to picnics, parades and pretty much any New Orleans occasion, as there were always brass bands around. And by the time he was a teen he was playing wherever and whenever he could, developing a voracious and all-embracing appetite for music.
"I never did a heavy metal gig, but I loved it," says Blanchard. "I wound up once filling in with some country-western dudes. That was the funniest thing! They were like, 'Just play!' I was 16 or 17."
Though he has four GRAMMY Awards for his jazz recordings, Blanchard also ranks among the most creative, in-demand film score composers, particularly for his collaborations with Spike Lee. He later took the music from one of Lee's projects, the four-part When The Levees Broke documentary on the 2005 New Orleans flood, and crafted the powerful A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina), which was honored with a GRAMMY for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in 2007. Showcasing his classical interests, he premiered "Concerto For Roger Dickerson" (dedicated to his boyhood composition teacher and mentor) in 2011 and is now putting the finishing touches on his first opera, commissioned for Opera St. Louis.
Blanchard has also assumed roles as a music educator as the artistic director of the youth-oriented Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and, more recently, as the artistic director for the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. The value he holds for his own music education forms the core of his five choices from the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
"One thing that made doing this hard was I had four of Miles' albums I wanted to use. [I] boiled those down [to] three, and to me they all could be lumped into one group, all about his innovations. I could say two, which changed the course of music: Birth Of The Cool and Bitches Brew.
"These two recordings kind of shaped my life. Listening to Birth Of The Cool you could get an idea of who Miles Davis was and what his contribution to music was. That is simply a perfect record — all the tunes, the arrangements, his playing.
"But once you get your head around that and then hear other things of his and then Bitches Brew and you go, 'Really? This is the same dude?' [With] Birth Of The Cool, I went, 'Wow.' I was also studying composition besides trumpet, [and I] listened to the introduction of 'So What' [from Kind Of Blue] and went, 'Whoa.' And then Bitches Brew made sense to me, because out of it I could understand Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze' and some of the electronic music I was listening to at the time. I saw the connection between Miles and Hendrix.
"Before that, I'd listened to a lot of big band music [and] a lot of R&B. When it came to instrumental stuff [I] was listening to Chuck Mangione and Maynard Ferguson. But when I found out about Miles, my whole life changed."
"It's A Man's Man's Man's World"
"I remember we used to have in the neighborhood the record man, the guy who would drive around the neighborhood and play records on a speaker and sell them out of his car. I remember him playing James Brown. 'Say It Loud — I'm Black And I'm Proud' — that would stop us doing whatever we were doing. When he did 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World' he made us think in a political fashion, made us conscious of what was going on, how we were being treated as second-class citizens — and in the middle of that to say it's a man's world, but it would be nothing without a woman.
"For me, James Brown and Louis Armstrong are very similar in that regard, because they were extremely popular people of their given musical genres, but also very socially conscious and aware of people and knew how to speak about injustice. Sometimes today we have people who are extremely popular in music and sports who don't feel the need to speak about social injustice."
"I was fascinated with these quartets. For me there's a certain mental limitation we think exists by saying 'string quartets.' These quartets are very liberating because you get engrossed in the musical skill displayed in that music. I was 15, 16 years old when I started listening to this.
"Bartók, and Stravinsky as well, dealt with folklore the same way jazz musicians deal with the blues: take that aspect of your culture, never forget it by expounding upon it. That's what Bartók was doing and [it's] one of the reasons his music has an identity, a presence. It comes from the streets, as we'd say today, based on the music of the people. He was brilliant in his portrayals and adaptations of that, but the core of his music came from the music of the [Hungarian] people and their culture, the folk music of the day. Exactly like the blues. You don't have to be part of that period to understand the angst and pain people were going through. The music is a great representation of a lot of that, whether it be in its basic form or in very elaborate depictions like Bartók's. The essence is the same."
"For instrumentals, it's one of those pivotal recordings. How do I explain this one? [It's] one of those recordings that challenges an artist's technical prowess and mental capabilities. In this improvisational world we live in, jazz was based on song forms with chords changing at a certain pace. It was told to me that John Coltrane had an issue with playing chords that change every two beats, so he developed [the title piece] as an exercise to do that. Who knew he would create one of the greatest jazz compositions to do that? Necessity is the mother of invention.
"Now it's one of those things a lot of musicians judge other musicians by. I don't, but it has become an important thing when one can learn to play that particular tune. And the thing is, he plays it with ease.
"Another thing that makes it magical for me is it came before all the recordings he did that allowed him to evolve into the spiritual side of John Coltrane. Giant Steps was a precursor to all that other music. You go to a tune like 'Impressions' where chords changed every eight bars, every 32 beats — this prepared him for everything later on.
"As a musician, you never feel you've achieved this. I was playing it in high school and a lot in college. After a while I dropped it — [I] realized it was not who I am. That was John Coltrane and his process."
Earth, Wind & Fire
"I was on the R&B train when I was growing up. Before I was into jazz I was going to be in some R&B band, traveling the country. At the beginning of this song is an F# [note] and everyone wants to hit that. [sings] 'Now's the time for you to see …' [It's] one of those iconic tunes, as soon as I heard it, it touched me. It moved me. [I said,] 'Who is that?' And when we were kids, you [would] play in R&B bands, [and] all the horn players said, 'Let's play "Shining Star," bro,' so we could play our horn lines. A lot of fun! [It was] something that resonated with me big time. And here's the thing, Earth, Wind & Fire [were] one of those bands with a social conscious element too."
(Four-time GRAMMY winner Terence Blanchard most recently won in 2009 for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for "Dancin' 4 Chicken." In 2011 he teamed with Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez for Chano Y Dizzy! and in 2012 he composed the score for Anthony Hemingway's film Red Tails.)
(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)