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Heavily Entrenched 

Big Easy Awards Entertainer of Year Terence Blanchard is glad to bring his Grammy-winning talent back home.

When 80 percent of New Orleans flooded after Hurricane Katrina, the good-times persona of the town sank in a news drama of devastation to rank with 9/11 as a flashpoint of the new century. Scenes of flooding, poverty and looting turned New Orleans into a Third World backwater. Politically, the city's response matched the image of a lost island in a scandal of inept leadership.

Culturally, the response has been just the opposite — a surge of paintings, concerts, documentaries, photographs, recordings, second lines, staged plays and books that grapple with the flood and its aftershocks, showing the resilience of a culture politicians take for granted but the rest of the world cherishes. Much of the city's musical community lay in downtown wards where flooding was deepest and many people were displaced.

Jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard experienced both sides of the divide. Blanchard, the Big Easy Awards Entertainer of the Year for 2008, had a nice home in the Garden District, which stayed dry as he evacuated first to Atlanta, then to Los Angeles with his wife (and manager) Robin Burgess and their children. He also carried the anxiety that coursed through people whose homes went underwater: his mother, Wilhemina Blanchard, lived in Pontchartrain Park, portions of which took as much as 9 feet.

When Blanchard came back home in November 2005, he accompanied his mother to her water-ravaged house. A Spike Lee camera crew followed mother and son in what became one of the grimmest scenes in Lee's four-hour documentary, When the Levees Broke. The return of Mrs. Blanchard and her accomplished son is a heart-stabbing moment in the film, their faces grim at the surreal mosaic of upended furniture, mud-caked appliances, shards of clothing, pictures scattered and the brown flood-line etched across walls.

This was the neighborhood where Terence Blanchard's worldview was formed. He took his first piano lessons with a neighbor, "which meant I could never be late," he says with a chuckle. This was the house in which his late father, Joseph Oliver Blanchard — an insurance salesman, weekend hospital orderly and passionate singer — sang opera arias in the evenings and on weekends rolled with rich harmonies of quartet singing.

Months after the day they were filmed in the flooded house, Blanchard watched the rough-cut of When the Levees Broke, his mind spinning with ideas for the score. He remembered the sensation he felt with his mother that day, the blanket of overpowering silence — vast, empty silence.

'You hear birds, cars and streetcars, and those are sounds we all take for granted," Blanchard reflects on a warm April afternoon. "Then you're standing in front of a place that was full of life and you don't have that life, and it's almost like the soul has left. That's a scary thing. The neighborhood was there — what was left of it — but the only thing I heard was the wind, no birds, no insects, no cars, no dogs barking, no lawnmowers, it was just the wind. You heard the wind coupled with the visual of the watermarks along the rooftops, and you put all that together, with the cars being overturned, and it's like you're on the moon. People who saw the film have asked, was I hearing music when we went back that day, and the answer is no. My first experience was the opposite: silence."

Out of that silence he threw himself into the score, sketching scenes on piano, shaping the instrumental voices that would ebb and flow off the melodic line, fashioning chords to movement of the pictures, laying out the long floating passages with blue undertones, an aura of restless quiet, stillness to break when the water surges in. Four hours long, When the Levees Broke is a stunning epic that won acclaim for Lee. Many critics also praised Blanchard's score.

Film scores rarely get mentioned in reviews of movies, and they just about never make for successful records. Music that people hear in clubs, concerts, at home or in a car is stuff to make you dance or sing, not draw you into a drama on the screen.

Last August, Blanchard pulled off a minor miracle with the release of A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), a Blue Note CD of orchestral jazz — 73 minutes, 13 suites — that builds off four songs from the score for Lee's film: "Levees," "Wading Through," "The Water" and "Funeral Dirge."

In moving from sound studio for the big screen to concert hall symphonics, Blanchard gave more improvisational room to the core of his accompanists on his jazz albums — Brice Winston on saxophone, Aaron Parks on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. Blanchard added new compositions on Congo Square, the Great Flood of 1927 and the Hurricane Betsy flooding that devastated the Lower Ninth Ward in 1965. "He succeeds because his melodies are so plangent in their sadness, anger and resilient affection, because his harmonies expand those moods to the epic proportions befitting the theme," noted a Washington Post review.

He also is a hit with his hometown fans and critics, last week winning two Big Easy Awards for Best Contemporary Jazz artist and Entertainer of the Year.

'This year has been an amazing year because with this album (Tale of God's Will) we've gotten a lot of attention, but the city and the citizens made that album," Blanchard said in accepting his awards. "We're just trying to keep the story alive and make sure the rest of the country doesn't forget."

A Tale of God's Will, with its currents of churchsong and stirring meditations on grief, won high marks from critics and a 2008 Grammy for Blanchard, 46. For better than two decades, he has moved seamlessly between composing soundtracks for films, which pays handsomely, and the long haul of road tours as a jazz recording artist, pushing CDs that veer toward tight ensemble units. Writing film scores, he once said, means "you are basically helping somebody else tell their story."

By contrast, Blanchard's jazz work has ranged across a terrain of many musical sounds. On the 2002 Let's Get Lost, he took standards by the composer Jimmy McHugh and refashioned his own arrangements for a cluster of superb female vocalists: Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Jane Monheit and Diana Krall.

Blanchard's big break came when he got a session-player's call to lay down tracks for Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues in 1990. As he experimented on piano, he had a spontaneous exchange with Lee — "Spike loves melody," he said later — that opened the door to a long-running collaboration that has included Blanchard's scores for Malcolm X, Bamboozled, Jungle Fever, Summer of Love and Lee's HBO documentary Four Little Girls about the Birmingham civil rights bombings. Had he never met Lee, Blanchard would have pursued a front-line career as a composing trumpeter, building on the success of his 1984 launch, New Orleans Second Line, with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., a sidekick from their days at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts studying under Ellis Marsalis.

Blanchard's epiphany happened earlier, in the third grade, when the youngster taking piano lessons saw traditional trumpeter Alvin Alcorn play for a school event. "I knew I wanted to do that," he says today.

As he moved through St. Augustine High School, he took piano lessons under Roger Dickerson, whom he credits as "the person who turned my life around by asking questions, getting me to think about my future. I owe a lot to Roger. "What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?' he'd ask. I was 15." Dickerson's prodding questions caused Blanchard to focus on goals beyond the music at hand and where he wanted to go in life.

Blanchard's classes at NOCCA conflicted with his schedule at St. Aug, so he transferred to John F. Kennedy High. On graduation in 1980, he enrolled at Rutgers on a music scholarship but soon left when Art Blakey offered him a trumpeter's chair in The Jazz Messengers, taking the place of Wynton Marsalis.

Blanchard credits the voices of his childhood — his father's arias and harmonizing with the Harlem Harmony Kings, a barbershop quartet, and the rolling tides of the choirs at his Congregational Church — as a primary influence on his compositional skills. "I always wished I could sing," he says. "Voice is the ultimate instrument — it seems directly connected to the soul; you not only have timbres and colors, you have words. Vocal music can give a very clear picture about whatever it's trying to convey, much more than instrumental music."

Like many of the young lions who emerged from New Orleans in the 1980s — the Marsalises, Harrison, Harry Connick Jr. and others — Blanchard settled into a comfortable life in New York, working on Spike Lee's movies, moving deeper as a composer on his own records. The constant in his life was relentless travel. One night he found himself on a concert tour in Spain, staring at "a very beautiful area, as usual by myself with the guys, and I saw all these families and lovers along a beach, and I looked up at the moon and missed my family and thought of them watching the same moon," he recalls. "I was kind of sick of the traveling — I'd done a lot of it since I was 18. I felt like other people got a chance to watch their kids grow up, while I didn't."

In 1996, he moved back to New Orleans. He and Robin bought a house on Prytania Street near Louisiana Avenue. His wife's aesthetic designs turned it into a showcase of fine furniture and artworks. In January, he sat in the house, empty save for a few boxes, taking calls on his cell phone, trying to explain his excitement for having helped land the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute at Loyola University. "It's a way of moving the culture forward," he says. "And it gives me a base to do more teaching and working with musicians coming up."

Movers had transported most of the family's belongings to a new house on St. Charles Avenue near the university.

Prolific though he is, Blanchard has done little recording in New Orleans. "None of my musicians lives here," he explains. A pause. "I love the sound of other studios," he says, meaning studios in other places. "I'm trying to partner with people to build a studio here. Not only for small group stuff, but to accommodate orchestral stuff for film."

Going on the road to promote recordings is a given for any musician. Blanchard continues: "I hope the music industry itself will regroup here. With the changing of technology, the very nature of what the Internet can offer people, we'll see opportunities to create our own infrastructure and have an industry with the potential to be a formidable force in the world market. We definitely have the talent. Talent has never been issue. If the record industry and some of these labels are trying to figure out how to help New Orleans, they could open offices here. There should be offices down here. This is a region that's fertile with musical talent of all different genres. Opening offices brings an infrastructure."

So now, after winning so many accolades — including the Big Easy's Entertainer of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz awards — where does he see himself in five years?

'What I'd prefer is to be teaching here in New Orleans, heavily entrenched, performing and composing with my band, traveling the world and doing what I do. A lot of other projects, I think, are around the corner. I feel blessed to have guys in the band and very blessed to have the support staff. I want to build on those."

click to enlarge Terence Blanchard with one of his two Big Easy Awards. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Terence Blanchard with one of his two Big Easy Awards.
click to enlarge Blanchard and his band play for the hometown crowd at the Big Easy Awards. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Blanchard and his band play for the hometown crowd at the Big Easy Awards.
click to enlarge J.D. Hill, Terence Blanchard and Ben Jaffe at the Big Easy Awards - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • J.D. Hill, Terence Blanchard and Ben Jaffe at the Big Easy Awards
click to enlarge Terence Blanchard and his band (L-R: Derrick Hodge, bass; Brice Winston, sax; Blanchard; Fabian Almazan, piano; and Kendrick Scott, drums) won the Big Easy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz. - EUGENIA UHL
  • Eugenia Uhl
  • Terence Blanchard and his band (L-R: Derrick Hodge, bass; Brice Winston, sax; Blanchard; Fabian Almazan, piano; and Kendrick Scott, drums) won the Big Easy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz.
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