New Orleanian Terence Blanchard is set to perform with his band and guest artists this week at the SFJazz Center.
It was Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, two days before the levees broke, when Terence Blanchard decided he’d better cancel a class he was about to teach at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles and catch a flight to New Orleans to help evacuate his family. Before Hurricane Katrina’s full force hit his hometown, he, his wife and their two children had driven to safety in Atlanta. His mother and her sister drove to Mississippi, and his two older children and their mother found refuge in Texas.
Blanchard’s house in the Garden District suffered broken windows and water damage from the rain that poured in during the hurricane but was otherwise salvageable. His mother, Wilhelmina Blanchard, wasn’t as fortunate.
In one of numerous heart-wrenching scenes in “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” Spike Lee’s chilling four-hour 2006 HBO documentary, Wilhelmina Blanchard weeps as she and her son view her house in the Gentilly Woods neighborhood for the first time since the disaster.
"You can rebuild this," he tells her as they walk through the devastated interior.
"That’s easier said than done," she responds.
Blanchard did manage to help his mom rebuild, only to be told earlier this year that the house would have to be rebuilt a second time because the defective Chinese drywall that had been used the first time around was emitting sulfurous gases that smelled like rotten eggs and damaged copper pipes, wiring and air conditioning coils. Wilhelmina Blanchard, now in her 80s, was forced to move a second time and is again living with her sister.
"That drywall was used a lot in the homes in New Orleans, and it’s very, very toxic, so it’s been banned," Blanchard, 51, says by phone from Washington, D.C., after a club engagement at Blues Alley. "The homes that have it have to have it ripped out."
Blanchard, who has been recognized as one of the leading trumpet players in jazz ever since he took fellow New Orleanian Wynton Marsalis’ place in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1982, also composed the score for “When the Levees Broke,” as he had for a dozen of Lee’s other films, beginning with “Jungle Fever” in 1991.
The trumpeter and his band then expanded the music from the documentary into an orchestral work for themselves and 40 string players from the Northwestern Sinfonia. Titled “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” the emotionally gripping song cycle was released to critical praise by Blue Note Records in 2007 and won a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.
He and the rest of his quartet - pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Joshua Crumbly and drummer Justin Brown - will be joined by guests Ravi Coltrane (saxophone) and Lionel Loueke (guitar) to perform music from Blanchard’s current Blue Note CD, “Magnetic,” during concerts Thursday through next Sunday at the SFJazz Center. The disc is the first recording on which Blanchard has used electronic attachments to his horn to create octaves, harmonies and echo effects.
"I try to use them judiciously," he says of the electronics. "It’s not like a ton of things - just a few cases where I think it’s appropriate for the song."
Besides writing for Lee’s dramatic films and documentaries, Blanchard has scored some 30 other movies, including “Sugar Hill,” “Eve’s Bayou,” “Gia,” “Next Friday,” “Love and Basketball,” “Caveman’s Valentine,” “Original Sin,” “Barbershop,” “Waist Deep” and “Talk to Me.” His most recent was last year’s “Red Tails,” about the famed African American fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen who served during World War II. George Lucas was the film’s executive producer.
"George is not the type of guy who’s going to say, ‘The music should be this. I want this,’ " the trumpeter says. "The one thing that he told me was, ‘It needs to be huge. It needs to be soaring.’ That was it. In an eerie way, he and Spike are very similar."
Teaching in Miami
Blanchard now teaches composition and jazz improvisation one week a month at the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami, but performing with his group is his main priority. Much of his composing is done while he’s touring with the band.
He composed music for two Broadway plays - Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Mother- With the Hat” in 2010 and a revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” last year. In June, his first opera, “Champion” - about Emile Griffith, the onetime welterweight boxing champ who killed opponent Benny Paret in the ring in 1962 and was beaten nearly to death 30 years later after leaving a gay bar - premiered by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The production ran for six nights, with a cast that included singers Denyce Graves, Arthur Woodley, Aubrey Allicock and Robert Orth; a 40-piece orchestra; and Blanchard with a jazz rhythm section.
"It was packed," he says. "We broke a record for the first-time opera premiere in St. Louis. It was truly a great and humbling experience working with those people. We’ve gotten a lot of excitement and a lot of interest from some other opera companies. We’ll see what happens.
"I’ve been a big boxing fan for a number of years," Blanchard adds. "I’ve been boxing myself for a number of years." He says that his best friend, light-heavyweight boxer Michael Betts, had told him Griffith’s tragic story "years ago," so that, the trumpeter says, "when I was approached about doing an opera with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, it was the first thing I thought of. I thought that story would make a good dramatic event for people to experience."
Lessons learned from Blakey three decades ago continue to inform Blanchard’s thinking.
"The main one," he says, "is to always speak straight to your audience musically. Never speak above them or beneath them, but be honest. That’s the main lesson he always used to drill home to us, and that’s what I try to live my life by."
Terence Blanchard: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. next Sunday. $25-$60. SFJazz Center, Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., S.F. (866) 920-5299. www.sfjazz.org.