Among the more gratifying jazz journeys over the past 20 years has been the transformation of trumpeter Terence Blanchard from a "young lion" into something resembling a dominant silverback. He came to prominence in the '80s along with such kindred artists as the Marsalis brothers, Roy Hargrove and Wallace Roney, but a strong argument could be made that, as the cubs in the den collectively ease into their forties, Blanchard's career has borne the sweetest fruit. With several superb albums as a leader and more than 25 movie scores under his belt—most notably in partnership with Spike Lee—Blanchard has emerged as a passionate, elegant and unique voice, both as a musician and composer. His blending of jazz with everything from world music to rock & roll has been a revelation in ancestral linkage; his chops have evolved from mimetic of Miles Davis into a fire-breathing entity with his own remarkable and unpredictable methods.
Blanchard's last album, 2001's Let's Get Lost, foreshadowed what has since become the latest trend in jazz—the sex diva as a commercial powerhouse—with his collaborations with vocalists Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. While the 40-year-old Blanchard doesn't seem to begrudge this unexpected fad, he doesn't seem surprised by it, either.
"I think it's par for the course," he tells me in his deep, studious baritone. "Singers have always garnered a certain amount of attention in the business that has been separate and apart from what the instrumentalists did. It's just human nature. They have lyrics; they have the human voice. I think people find it easier to relate to. People like to sing along with songs, and the words tell a story. That's easier for casual listeners to grasp than abstract interpretations."
During our chat, Blanchard—now among the most respected voices in the genre—didn't want to delve into the implications of the popularity of artists such as Monheit and especially Norah Jones, whose credentials as jazz artists could easily be called into question, platinum sales and multiple Grammys aside.
"I get so tired of the whole thing, the jazz police," he says, clearly including yours truly among the force. "I think that debate in and of itself is one of the things that has helped stifle the music for the past 20 years. This whole debate over what is jazz and what is not jazz has caused musicians to go back and do re-investigations of [standard] material, and then everyone wants to know why the music isn't moving forward. I just get tired of talking about the whole thing. It has created an atmosphere that has hurt things a bit."
Or perhaps the hurt of which Blanchard speaks has been more personal in nature. Early on, Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis and other artists of the generation suffered blistering critical attacks for imitating the icons of jazz who came before them. It's a reproach that Blanchard has largely moved beyond through the ever-growing depth of his catalog, but the scar tissue still clearly causes him pain, even as he readily admits that jazz must always move ahead.
"When we came onto the scene in the early '80s, we were directly trying to deal with a lot of that stuff [from the past], conceptually, and the jazz police just beat us over the head," Blanchard sighs. "The next thing you knew, there was a resurgence back to a certain type of playing [classics and standards]. Everybody loved that, but it didn't necessarily help the music. We were young musicians on a path. It's okay to make a certain type of record to broaden an audience and please the record label, but I don't necessarily feel like it helps further the music.
"I think right now we're on the upswing because there are a lot of young musicians floating around with some very interesting ideas," Blanchard continues, later citing such young'uns as Robert Glasper, Jason Mraz and Lionel Loueke among the up-and-coming. "Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of places for them to develop those ideas or display them. Once that starts occurring, you're gonna see a healthy resurgence toward more original composition—just a healthier jazz scene, period."
Blanchard's bank account has been made much healthier than the average jazz musician's by his film work; among his most notable scores have been those for Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, and most recently, the world music-imbued 25th Hour. Blanchard says that approaching composition from two distinct platforms has enhanced him immeasurably as a musician.
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"They're things that I definitely approach from two different musical places, different worlds," he explains. "It's all about the intent. When you deal with film music, it's not my story I'm telling—I'm helping someone else enhance their story, to be the glue to bring their elements together in a very concise manner. When I'm doing my band, it's all about what we wanna do, what we wanna say. Those are the differences, but within that, there are still always a lot of possibilities for being creative. That's what makes them both appealing to me. The thing with the film work is that within the limitations, you grow a lot. It helps me think differently when it comes time to make a jazz record. It helps me think in terms of what I want to say to tell an overall story."
Ultimately, Blanchard's story is one of a man committed to excel, driven to evolve and challenge himself.
"I'm always trying to better myself, that's the thing," he says. "I never want to stay in one place in my life. I want to get a little better in any endeavor that I do."
Terence Blanchard plays the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $48-$52. All ages.