The first time Terence Blanchard heard John Coltrane’s 1963 recording, “Alabama,” written in response to the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls, he had to take a break before the end of the piece.
“I had to stop listening because it was having such a profound effect on me,” he recalls. “Same thing happened when I was listening to the score to ‘Schindler’s List.’ I guess the thing about both of those pieces of music is that it deals with man’s inhumanity against man.”
The trumpeter’s latest Grammy-nominated album, “Breathless,” tackles a similar concept. The title refers to the fruitless “I can’t breathe” cry Eric Garner let out 11 times in July 2015 while police in Staten Island, N.Y., held him facedown in a chokehold that ended his life. Police had approached Garner with a suspicion he was selling individual cigarettes – a charge Garner denied before asserting he was sick of being harassed by police.
As protests over his death erupted across the country, Blanchard was moved to respond in music. But when he and his band the E-Collective began working on the material, headline after headline poured in, describing new instances police brutality against African-Americans. At that point, the album’s concept expanded.
As protests over Eric Garner’s erupted across the country, Blanchard was moved to respond in music.
“Injustice has always been a huge issue with me,” he says. “And pieces of music [like ‘Alabama’ and ‘Schindler’s List’] have opened the door, emotionally, for me to experience something in a limited way. Obviously, I wasn’t there to experience either one of those events in our history, but it’s given me an emotional window to climb through and kind of feel a small part of the pain of people who suffered through those periods in our history.”
“Stepping back through it,” he says, “it’s motivated me to do what I can to turn the tide against ignorance and intolerance.”
“Breathless,” which is up for a Grammy in the Best Instrumental Jazz Album category this year, tackles a wide range of issues and experiences related to contemporary injustice.
“See Me As I Am” was inspired in part by an instance when a neighbor accused Blanchard’s son of breaking into her house and called 911.
“My son is in class, and seven patrol cars pull up,” he recalls. “And they emptied the building and handcuffed my son and ‘perp-walked’ him out the building in front of the entire student body… That’s where ‘See Me As I Am’ comes from, because people don’t see me for who I am.”
Another facet of the song deals with Blanchard’s experiences talking with people whose assumptions about him change over the course of the conversation.
“Soldiers,” meanwhile, grew out of criticisms that Barack Obama levies his presidential power in the vein of a social worker.
“To me, social workers are selfless in their approach to how they’re serving their communities. So for me in a sense, they are the true soldiers of, well, an urban kind of struggle,” he says. “Trying to help people regain some dignity in their lives and help people push forward.”
Another tune, “Cosmic Warrior,” addresses a more spiritual aspect of the problems our country is facing.
“For me, with all the absurdity of all that’s going on, and no end of it in sight, it seems as though we may need some divine intervention, you know, to kind of help us see the error of our ways, so to speak,” Blanchard says.
It’s not the first time Blanchard has delved into politics and social injustice through music. In 2006, he responded to the aftermath of the floods that devastated his city after Hurricane Katrina by composing the score for Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke” and the album, “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” which marked his fifth Grammy win.
He says the experiences of writing that music and “Breathless” were similar.
“When I wrote, ‘When the Levees Broke,’ it wasn’t about me, it was just about the pain and suffering, the hopelessness that people were feeling throughout that entire event. That created the sounds [and] created the melodies, really,” he explains.
“When I kept trying to write something for Katrina, I came up with the worst stuff on the planet. And when I just kind of let go, then all these other things started to come to me. The same thing happened with ‘Breathless.'”
He initially imagined ‘Breathless’ as an album that might inspire young musicians interested in instrumental music in general as opposed jazz, in the traditional sense.
“But while we were creating this music, a lot was happening and all of these stories were unfolding,” he says. “It just kind of snowballed into what it is now.”
20 Questions with Terence Blanchard
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
Louis Armstrong, because I think for me, Louis Armstrong represents so much of what New Orleans is and what America is. You definitely see – from people who know and from the culture, when you hear him sing, you can hear his New Orleans influence and his New Orleans inflections. You can hear what’s happening rhythmically with him. But in terms of what the country represents, this guy broke so many barriers. You know? He was called Ambassador of Peace for a reason. That’s because his music was just extremely powerful, and it reached every corner of the globe.
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
Birth. My dad is not from here, my dad is from St. Martinville, La., but my mom was born and raised here, so, yeah, birth. That was it. I had nothin’ to do with it. I feel blessed that I was born here.
3. In your opinion, what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
That’s hard to answer because we’re moving again and this is going to be our fourth home. [We bought a house on the bayou right across from City Park]. It’s hard to say because I lived Uptown, I loved it up there.
I grew up in Pontchartrain Park, and I loved where I grew up. I would have to say Pontchartrain Park. And one of the reasons why is because Pontchartrain Park was a middle-class neighborhood without having middle-class values. It had the highest values known to man. We were all expected to do well. We were all expected to go out there and have an impact. And that’s all based on the people who raised us in that neighborhood. Those people were struggling, but they struggled to get us a better education and a lot of them worked hard to keep us involved in sports, keep us involved in the arts, keep us involved in a lot of things and show us a broader world. And I loved that neighborhood for that reason.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
Now with the new house, I’ll spend it on the bayou. I love being near water and New Orleans – I had a friend of mine, she was working on the show “Treme” and she wasn’t from here, and she had the best description of New Orleans I ever heard. She said, “New Orleans is a city of moments.” And for me, that’s the perfect description because that means you can be anywhere in the city and really have a great time, have a profound experience, a beautiful experience — it runs the gamut.
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
You know what’s interesting about that question? Growing up in New Orleans, I never went out to eat because my mom was a really good cook. So it wasn’t until I left and came back to New Orleans that I started to learn about all the restaurants. … When I came back, one of my favorite places was Dante’s Kitchen.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
[Dante’s] brunch is off the chain. And I think one of the reasons why I love that place is not only for the great food but for the great personalities of the people who work there, and it’s in the neighborhood, and it just seems to have a homestyle vibe in there. They make these peach pancakes, and then at one point they were making these peach mojitos, oh, my God …
7. What is your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
That is hard to answer because I’ve had great po-boys all over the city. If I had to pick one? Magazine Po-boy Shop.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans—where are you taking them?
Cooter Brown’s will probably be one of the last stops. We’ll take ‘em to go hear some music, maybe Snug Harbor or somewhere on Frenchmen. Last time we just had some people here from a cooking show called “Assorted Foods,” some British guys, and we took ‘em down to Preservation Hall then we went to Snug Harbor then we went to Dat Dog, they have one on Frenchmen now.
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
Victory, it’s a new bar.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
My favorite New Orleans cocktail is not a New Orleans cocktail because I just like screwdrivers made with fresh squeezed orange juice. And I can get those at that Dante’s.
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
Commander’s Palace bread pudding.
12. Best spot to see live music?
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
Look, man, you know who I just love to go see and have fun is Kermit Ruffins.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
Obviously, the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
A great New Orleans date night is to go to Canal Place to see a movie on a Thursday night.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
I don’t really have any cause I don’t shop (laughs).
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
18. Where do you go to watch the Saints play?
At home on my big-screen 84” TV.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
I fall in love with New Orleans every day. Because I’m thankful for being born and raised here, because it made me who I am.