The legendary jazz musician and two-time Oscar nominee shares his creative process.
A close collaborator with Spike Lee since the early 1990s, the sounds of composer and jazz musician Terence Blanchard are as much a hallmark of the director’s films as any dolly shot or colourful diatribe. From Harlem choirs to piano melodies to pretty much anything you can think of, his versatility is second to none. In light of Blanchard receiving his second consecutive Academy Award nomination for his work on Da 5 Bloods, we caught up to discuss his creative process and a unique working relationship.
LWLies: How did you and Spike first meet?
Blanchard: I was just hired as the session player. There was this guy, Harold Vick, who’s a jazz musician and worked with Spike’s father [Bill]. They wanted to put together a big band of young and old musicians back then, and Spike remembered me because I walked in with a Lakers hat, t-shirt, and I had the shoes. It was right after they beat Boston, one of those series. And he goes, ‘Lakers fan?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, bro.’ Then a few months after that, he’s got me sitting courtside yelling. All of a sudden, I’m a Knicks fan.
What sparked the move to you being a composer?
We were doing pre-recorded music for Mo’ Better Blues, and I sat at the piano, I was playing something from my album that I was going to record, and he heard it and he dug it. And he said, ‘Can I record it with just the trumpet?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ Afterwards, he asked me if I could write a string arrangement for it, and I did it. Right after that he said, ‘You have a future in this business,’ and he called me to do Jungle Fever. I wasn’t sitting down looking to be a film composer, but I always wanted to write. I actually called my composition teacher. I said, ‘I got this gig, I don’t know what to do.’ He told me: ‘Trust your training.’ And that’s what I did.
How has your partnership evolved over the years?
Spike really admires talent, and people who work at their craft. He doesn’t come in like a bull in a china shop saying, ‘It’s got to be like this.’ That’s not Spike. He’s going to give you room to do your thing. I’ve heard it from all of the actors, I’ve heard it from post-production people, and I’ve experienced it myself. The way our relationship has evolved is that we’ve gotten to the point that we don’t even have a shorthand; it’s like a no-hand. I know what he likes. He gives me the projects, and I’ll send him themes and he goes through them, and once he starts to isolate the ones that he likes then you just move from there. And it’s been like that for about 30 years now. It’s a great working relationship.
In the case of Da 5 Bloods, how did you land on what you wanted from the sound of the film?
Just by watching the film. That’s one of the things about Spike: it’s all on the screen. That first battle scene when they’re in the helicopter – that set the tone for me in terms of the score because that was the first piece I had to write. When I look at that scene, I was like, ‘Spike doesn’t want action music’. He wants very melodic, almost operatic music. But that scene is a little over four minutes, and that’s a long time to keep that music energised. So it took me a few days to really figure it out.
When you have great performers – Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isaiah [Whitlock], Chadwick [Boseman] – you just have to follow them. They’ll tell you, and Spike’s vision will tell you what the film needs. You just have to be open to it. It’s like, it would unveil more of itself the more I threw at it, if that makes sense. I love working like that.
Spike often reuses old pieces of yours: BlacKkKlansman has a cue from Inside Man. Did you ever plan for how the new pieces of music would interact with the older ones?
Not at all. That’s Spike. If he loves something, he loves it. I remember when we did that one from Inside Man that was used in BlacKkKlansman, when we did it in the studio, every now and then he would just ask the engineer to pull it up so he could listen to it. So I knew that he loved that piece.
I asked Spike about that too. He started quizzing me on where else he used that music cue. If I recall correctly it was When the Levees Broke.
Yeah, I think on the second set of documentaries. I think he used it on the first one too. In the case of When the Levees Broke, that was a means of resources. Spike was stretching every penny to make it a four-hour documentary, and HBO wanted two hours, but there was no way for him to whittle it down.
I thought everyone gave 150 per cent on Malcolm X, but man, when we got to When the Levees Broke, and the budget was shrinking, everybody just stayed on. We were like, ‘We need to do this, and let these people share their experiences with the world.’ It was a beautiful thing to experience. I remember when we were scoring it, there were new videos coming in on the news, and they were incorporating that into the documentary after we were scoring. Normally, when you get to the scoring stage, everything is already locked.
I’m always struck by the versatility of your work. How do you incorporate so many different genres and elements into your work?
Composition teaches you to take an idea and mangle it a million different ways to expand what the initial idea is. The simplest example of that I can give you [sings Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 5’], just those four notes. That’s a very simplistic example of the initial idea, right? The thing about composition is modifying the idea – not what your ego wants.
When I was doing my opera, you should see the scratch pieces of paper that never make it, but it’s where I take the initial idea and run through all these permutations to find other ideas. That’s where you can find other melodies, transitional phrases, and it stays within the context of the initial idea. But you have to be open to doing the work to find those things.
I asked Wayne Shorter, who’s a great jazz musician and my mentor, about composition years ago and he said: ‘You gotta go down into the basement and visit every note.’ You just can’t take anything that you come up with the first time and think that’s it. It’s a seed, and you have to nurture it and allow it to grow. That’s where the real work of a composer comes in.
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