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Jazz musician Terence Blanchard on the hardest thing about composing for film


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Judy Woodruff: Renowned jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has been nominated for the best original score Academy Award for his work on the film "BlacKkKlansman."

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown continues our feature on Oscar nominees as part of Canvas. That's our new focus on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: In the film "BlacKkKlansman," we meet police officers, members of the KKK, various characters. And then there's a different kind of character, the score, composed by Terence Blanchard.

Terence Blanchard: The role of the music is to -- like, first of all, to bring some of those intangible things to the fore, if there are things that don't -- we can't put into words, there's emotions we can't really describe, but the music is there to kind of help us experience that.

Jeffrey Brown: "BlacKkKlansman," directed by Spike Lee, tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black officer with the Colorado Springs police force.

John David Washington: Who am I speaking with?

Topher Grace: This is David Duke.

Jeffrey Brown: Played by John David Washington, he infiltrates a KKK chapter by impersonating a white man over the phone.

John David Washington: My mouth to God's ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really that doesn't have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.

Jeffrey Brown: His partner, a Jewish officer played by Adam Driver, goes undercover to gather evidence against the Klan. It's set in the 1970s, but Lee makes direct connections to today.

And it's based on a true story, which amazed Terence Blanchard when he first joined the project.

Terence Blanchard: When Spike first told me, the first think I thought of was, man, you need to put the bottle down.


Jeffrey Brown: Really?

Terence Blanchard: Yes. I mean...

Jeffrey Brown: Like, where is this -- you're making this up.

Terence Blanchard: Yes, a black man infiltrated the Klan in Colorado Springs? Really? That grabbed me.

Jeffrey Brown: Blanchard has long been known as a top jazz musician, with six Grammy awards. He grew up in New Orleans, began playing the piano and Trumpet as a youngster, joined the Lionel Hampton orchestra while still in college, and later Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

He then went solo, eventually heading the group E-Collective. But he's also now being honored for his decades-long work in films, composing more than 40 scores. He first performed on Spike Lee's films "Do the Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues" -- that's Blanchard you hear when Denzel Washington plays the trumpet -- and has scored almost every Lee film since "Jungle Fever," including "Malcolm X."

What was the hardest thing about learning to write music for a film, as opposed to your other life?

Terence Blanchard: The hardest thing was putting your ego aside.

Jeffrey Brown: Putting your ego aside?

Terence Blanchard: Yes, because I come from a world where all the music was about me, it was about what I wanted to say.

Jeffrey Brown: Because you're not front and center now.

Terence Blanchard: No, it's not about me. It's really about the story, and it's really about helping the director tell a story in the way he sees fit.

Jeffrey Brown: He typically begins his work with a first cut of the film, after a great deal of work by actors, director Lee, and another longtime collaborator, editor Barry Alexander Brown.

Terence Blanchard: When they hand it to me, it's like a lot of things are done, and I'm one of the last pieces of the puzzle. So when you get it, so, then you go, oh, my God, everybody's done a great job. I can't be the guy to drop the ball.

So it inspires me to work hard.

Jeffrey Brown: You can make it better, or you could mess it up, I suppose.

Terence Blanchard: Or really mess it up.


Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Terence Blanchard: Look for new work.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Terence Blanchard: Well, the thing is, the first thing I have to do is let the film tell me what it needs, because, even though it's a great story, there's lighting, there's editing, there's acting.

And when I get a cut, with Spike, you never know, because you can read a scene one way, and then he will shoot it another way, with emphasis on other things in the scene. So, when I watch it, the pace of it, the look of it, it will all speak to me. It will say, oh, OK, well, it slows down a little bit here, maybe we need to pick up the pace here.

Oh, you know what? Maybe that's a very powerful moment, and maybe we need to back away from that and let the actor have that moment. There are a lot of little things like that, that start to play a role in how the overall thing takes shape.

The other part of it, too, because of Spike's unique love for melody, I had to learn how to structure those melodies and orchestrate them onto dialogue in a way that still could be heard, but not get in the way of the dialogue.

Jeffrey Brown: These are things that I'm probably not -- I'm not aware of as they're happening, right?

Terence Blanchard: You shouldn't be.

Jeffrey Brown: I shouldn't be.


Terence Blanchard: Yes, you shouldn't be.

Jeffrey Brown: In "BlacKkKlansman," Blanchard worked with an orchestra, as well as his own small ensemble, and for the first time featured the electric guitar.

Terence Blanchard: Spike always does a great job at giving you the taste of the period with the source music, you know, all of the songs that's there.

I wanted the score to be universal, first of all, but still have elements of the '70s, and colors of the '70s, and that electric guitar was one of the ones that we used a great deal.

Jeffrey Brown: and the Oscar nomination, it's a first for you, right?

Terence Blanchard: Oh, yes, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: A lot of attention because it's the first for Spike Lee, after so long.

Terence Blanchard: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Does it feel like just a long time coming for both of you?

Terence Blanchard: I have been asked that question a lot. And it's hard to answer it, because I never expected it. You know what I mean? I have been telling people it's kind of hard to miss what you never had.

It's great. It's awesome. It's been an overwhelming experience. It's been a humbling experience. I look at this movie as being like the culmination of what we have been doing for the last 30 years.

Jeffrey Brown: Terence Blanchard's next big project? He's working on an opera, his second.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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