MusicMaker: Terence Blanchard in the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival

By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 5, 2009

Of all the film documentaries about Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the most stirring and talked about is Spike Lee's 2006 mini-series for HBO: "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."

For that documentary, jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who appears June 13 at the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, wasn't just Lee's composer but was also a primary character onscreen. The emotional climax of the series came when Blanchard accompanied his mother on her first visit to her home after the storm.

"It wasn't my idea," he emphasized in a recent conversation at his New Orleans home, where two Grammys sat on the fireplace mantle. "It was my mom. Totally. I was in L.A., working on the music for Spike's next film, 'Inside Man,' when the storm hit. I didn't know where my mom was for two weeks. I kept calling her on her new cellphone, but she never answered. It turned out she was in Mississippi, sleeping in a church. She heard this buzzing in her purse, but she didn't know what it was." He shook his head ruefully.

Weeks after the floods, Blanchard's mother was sitting with Lee in Los Angeles while he was busy conducting. "I came back to the control room . . . and Spike said, 'We're going to film your mom going back to her home.' Later I asked her, 'Do you know what you're getting yourself into? Do you know how many people are going to see this?' She said, 'People need to see what we're going through.' "

She thought she was prepared for the worst, but when she walked up to the front door and saw the mold-blotched walls, the rotting furniture and the water-blurred photos, she buckled. Her son's supporting arms kept her from collapsing.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Blanchard admitted. The composer took his music from the documentary and condensed it into a 72-minute jazz suite that became one of this decade's most remarkable albums: "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." From the opening track, "Ghost of Congo Square," which captures the vitality of pre-storm New Orleans, through the eerie, slow-motion tragedy of "Levees" to the paean to his brave mother, "Dear Mom," the suite tells the story with a minimum of words.

Blanchard has completed a sequel, "Choices," which is due out Aug. 18. The title came out of his contemplation of his home town's tragedy. He came to believe that Katrina was not a random event but the inevitable outcome of decisions the nation made about whom to elect and where to invest its money. For the album, he wanted to use more words to explore the topic, those sung by the progressive-soul singer Bilal and those spoken by philosopher Cornel West.

Blanchard and West sat down at Princeton University and recorded an hour-long conversation. Only seven or eight minutes make it onto the finished album, but those snippets make explicit the themes that the instrumental passages imply.

"Some people believe it doesn't make a difference who's in the White House," Blanchard said. "This was an enormous event, and when you examine it closely, when you realize we were hit by a storm surge that the levees were designed to handle, you can see that some people weren't doing their jobs. You ask yourself two questions: How could this happen? What can be done so it doesn't happen again?"

A day before the interview, the trumpeter introduced some of his new music at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His quintet, featuring drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Derrick Hodge, pianist Fabian Almazan and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, exuded a joyful exuberance that contrasted with the somber tone of "A Tale of God's Will." Here were drum patterns that shimmied like Mardi Gras revelers and trumpet themes that declared a triumph over despair.

"I wanted this album to show some of the positive things going on in the city and some of the great things that can still come out of it," Blanchard said.

Walking past the elegant homes of Blanchard's neighborhood near Audubon Park, you would never know there had been a hurricane in New Orleans. In other neighborhoods, however, the devastation is still visible. The memories of his mother's return home are never far away. So how did he keep his composure when they reached the house?

"Spike doesn't know this," he revealed, leaning forward conspiratorially on his couch, "but I went to the house the night before. I lost it that night, because I didn't want to lose it on camera. I was driving there on the elevated highway, and everything was so dark, because there were no street lights and no houses with people in them. I pulled the car up on the front lawn with the lights shining at the door. I'd never heard quiet like that. All the things we take for granted -- the hum of the air conditioner, the traffic going by, the refrigerator running -- were missing. Everybody says they want peace and quiet, but we don't. Believe me."

Terence Blanchard Appearing June 13 at the Sylvan Amphitheatre as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. Blanchard performs at 6:25 p.m. (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza, Smithsonian or National Archives) The Download: For a sampling of Blanchard's music, check out: From "Tales of God's Will": -- "Ghost of Congo Square" -- "Levees" -- "Ashe" -- "Dear Mom" From "Flow": -- "Flow, Part I" -- "Benny's Tune" From "Bounce": -- "On the Verge" -- "Bounce/Let's Go Off"

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