A Feel for the Real
There was a time, about 60 years ago, when jazz was thought of as simply, well, jazz. Smooth, hard, swinging or jagged, it was all music you danced to. But in the mid-'40s, a small group of performers, spearheaded by Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, began thinking that the stylistic scope of the genre had become too narrow, and thus bebop was born. Intent on exploring and extending some of the harmonic and rhythmic ideas first developed by Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Christian, bebop's founders saw their labors as a major aesthetic leap from big band's utilitarian (if wildly popular) dance music to a more intimate and exploratory art form.
And thus, alongside bebop, was born the first distinct division in the jazz ranks. From then on, you could no longer claim to be simply a jazz fan; you either flew with the Bird and his flock or you were bound by everything that came before.
Some argue that a similar rift exists today between mainstream contemporary jazz and what some call "real" jazz. Where bebop was considered a step above swing, today's real jazz is seen by its purist practitioners as superior to its more streamlined counterpart, which purists consider tainted because it may incorporate elements of rock, funk and pop.
Terence Blanchard is seen by some as one of the keepers of the real jazz flame. His moody, at times disjointed trumpet work sounds much like early Miles Davis, and it's certainly wedged solidly into the mid-'60s post-bop/pre-avant-garde vein. Rest assured, Blanchard's bold, spare strokes are in no danger of being watered down to a tonic more palatable for wider audiences. "That's not what I want to do," says the 34-year-old Blanchard, whose latest release, The Heart Speaks, applies the real jazz treatment to the songs of influential Brazilian composer Ivan Lins.
Still, Blanchard's credits in areas other than his playing speak to a willingness to shrug off jazz's petty divisiveness. Movie soundtracks, TV scores and other commercial projects may have diluted his credibility with the stauncher purists, but such work has kept Blanchard's creative and financial coffers full. And you get the impression -- perhaps more from his deeds than from his words -- that to this trumpet ace, it's all music just the same.
Beginning on piano as a child, Blanchard switched to the trumpet at age 11. Five years later, he enrolled in the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where he studied jazz and classical trumpet and was taught, for a spell, by Ellis Marsalis, pianist father of Wynton and Branford. From there, Blanchard went on to Rutgers University, receiving tutelage in jazz trumpet from the likes of Kenny Barron and Paul Jeffries and in classical brass from Bill Fielder. Blanchard's first taste of success came as a Rutgers sophomore, when he went on the road with Lionel Hampton. That led to several years with the late hard-bop legend Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
After a few releases with fellow Messenger Donald Harrison, Blanchard tried his hand as a contract player for movie soundtrack sessions. He was bit by the Hollywood bug while working on Spike Lee's School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues. It was as a player for that last film that Blanchard got the break of his career. Lee witnessed Blanchard hammering out what would become one of his signature tunes -- "Sing Soweto" -- on the piano. The director liked what he heard so much that he asked Blanchard to whip up a fresh arrangement of the tune. That version became the theme to Jungle Fever, and Blanchard then went to work on the scores of Lee's Malcolm X and Crooklyn. "He said," Blanchard remembers, "I had a future in scoring films."
Did he ever. Branching off from Lee, Blanchard scored Sugar Hill, The Inkwell and Trial by Jury. Before he knew it, Blanchard had become a key figure in the resurgence of jazz in composing for film.
But at the same time, the jazz purists began to get on Blanchard's back for spreading himself too thin. But Blanchard remains unrepentant, noting that the time he spends touring and performing far outweighs the hours he puts in working on other projects. "When you're successful in another thing outside of [pure jazz], the industry becomes a little put off by that," he says, adding that he has no plans of giving up anything for anyone right now, especially movie scoring.
The direction of Blanchard's music outside the movie houses, while sticking firmly to the purist aesthetic, has steadily matured since his self-titled 1991 debut, which featured Branford Marsalis on sax and Troy Davis on drums. (Davis will be part of the trumpeter's quintet at Friday's show in Houston.) Blanchard has recorded consistently over the last few years, with some of his highlights being 1992's Simply Stated and 1994's The Billie Holiday Songbook.
Blanchard's 1995 CD Romantic Defiance include the haunting original "Divine Order," which burns with the intensity of a Coltrane -- who is one of the masters cited by Blanchard as a major influence on his composing style. Indeed, most of Blanchard's compositions work straight off the blueprint laid down by Coltrane's classic mid-'60s musings.
But it's not so much nostalgia Blanchard evokes in his works as a sampling of the directions others might've strayed had they so desired. And as for all this real jazz versus smooth jazz nonsense, Blanchard simply refers to a quote from his legendary pal Blakey, who was known to stifle all debate with the admission, "Hey, man, it's still show business."
The Terence Blanchard Quintet performs at 8 p.m. Friday, February 7, at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Tickets are $15 to $45. For info, call 524-5050.
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