Words by Amon Warmann
If you’ve come away from a Spike Lee film humming one of its themes, there’s a strong chance you have Terence Blanchard to thank for it. The renowned jazz musician and composer has been working on Lee’s movies since 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues – Da 5 Bloods, streaming on Netflix now – is one of their best yet.
When Composer Magazine catches up with Blanchard via Zoom, he’s hard at work on scoring HBO’s Perry Mason series. In our wide-ranging conversation we delve into what drew him to the rare TV project, what it’s like to work with Lee, the lack of Black composers in the film and TV industry, and much more. Enjoy.
What’s your studio view right now?
I moved to Los Angeles and I took a job at UCLA working with the Jazz department there, but we kept our home here in New Orleans and I live on the Bayou. So we're right on the water man. The view is great, but this is my studio here and we call it the ‘Over the Garage’ studio. I'm surrounded by trees. I've been blessed to have a great place to wait this whole pandemic thing out.
You’ve been scoring films for almost 30 years now. What was the first film you watched when you noticed how important a score could be?
You know it was an interesting thing for me because I never really paid that much attention to the music. But there were two films, and obviously given what they were it makes sense in a minute why. The first one was Star Wars because of all the brass music and then the second one was Chinatown, you know, because of the trumpet. And when I heard those I was just floored, but I still didn't really think about a career in film. I was just amazed at whatever it was they put together and I was wondering “Did somebody compose this or was this like a needle drop?” I wasn't aware that there were people who did this for a living? And all of a sudden, I'm called to play on one of Spike’s sessions and that was when I was like “Oh, okay, I see what's going on here”.
When you’ve talked about working with Spike, you’ve previously said that sometimes he’ll send you the script. He’ll send you stills that you turn into screensavers. You’ll see a first cut of the film way in advance. Which part of Spike’s filmmaking process is most effective when it comes to you forming ideas about what the score might sound like?
Ooh… seeing it. I used to go off and just read the script and you can't do that with Spike. I've learned not to do that with most films I work on. But with Spike it's especially true because you don't know how he's going to take things. I always use this one scene in Summer of Sam as an example, where Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo are having a conversation. I remember reading the scene in the script, but when you see it with Spike, Mira Sorvino gets out the car and he just shoots the empty seat. You know what I mean? And then the other part of it too is that Spike is the type of guy who is always making visual commentaries. So you may read the dialogue from the scene, then visually he may be doing something else totally different. You always have to take that into account.
And another part of it too is that he has a very stylised look to his films. I remember when we did Miracle at St. Anna. That was the one where he sent me the photos and I tried to start coming up with some ideas, but when he sent me those photos I was like “Oh my God, this thing looks awesome”. It's beautiful, the colours are rich and it hadn't even been colour coded yet, it was still popping off my computer screen, so I'm just imagining what it would look like fully projected. That kind of sent me in a direction too, so for me it's really about getting as close to a locked picture as possible. So that way I can get the total scope of where he's going with the story, not just what I'm reading in the script.
When you come to begin your initial ideas for a score, where do you start? Do you head straight for the computer or pick up your go-to instrument?
Well I'm always working from my computer, you know. I have a piano, and the reason for that is that I don't want to lose ideas. And I have an orchestral template that I just load up for film stuff. I'll load that up and normally I just mess around with the piano and get some ideas. Then when I get ideas I just hit record, boom, and I move over to another chunk. I’ll use Digital Performer, then I go to another chunk and I just keep progressing. Then when I start to get things that I think are kind of close to what I deem the material should be, you know, I fire off a couple of emails with some audio files and send them to Spike. Then we'll just go through the material that way, he'll tell me what it is he's feeling for certain themes and then I come back and I just get to work.
A lot of your work on films finds the right balance between the orchestration and structure of a feature film and the improvisational jazz that you grew up on and continue to do with your band. Has that become easier or harder over time?
It's become easier because it's a thing I don't even know how to explain. I've been working on this TV series called Perry Mason for HBO. What's interesting about it is I work on a scene and get it down to where I think it's becoming close, and then all of a sudden there will be some other element and suddenly it's missing something and that's when I realised I may be missing the improvisation part of it. Then I'll have either myself or somebody else do that part to picture to bring that other emotional element and that's just something that has come over the years with experience. There’s something about improvisation I think that brings a different type of element to scenes because I can sit down and write the most intricate thing known to man, right? But it may not have that immediacy or that spontaneity that comes when you're improvising ideas. Over the years it's almost like I've kind of learned how to assign those different elements to different aspects of the storytelling process.
Spike [Lee] is the type of guy who is always making visual commentaries. So you may read the dialogue from the scene, then visually he may be doing something else totally different.
You don’t do many TV series. What was the allure for you in working on Perry Mason?
Well, first of all I grew up watching Perry Mason when I was a kid. This isn’t that Perry Mason. But when I talked to Tim [Van Patten], the director, we hit it off really quickly in terms of what we were both interested in doing. I knew they may have wanted a jazz score for the show which is why they may have called me, but I wanted to do something that was based around the sonic content of jazz but bringing a different kind of point of view to it. They were open to all those ideas and I would send them things and they would respond.
I will never forget when we first started the first episode. I was a little nervous man because I'm already going out on a limb, you know, and thinking this may not be what they're looking for. But as soon as Tim heard it he fell in love with it and to his credit he called me up and told me how much he dug it which just kind of allowed me to relax into the whole idea of what it was we were going to do with the show. And I've got to tell you, as I worked on each episode it just started to become a Perry Mason thing. I don't know how to explain it but I have a dialogue of colours that I'm using for the show. If you watch this show without any music you may not get everything but you will get a lot because they put everything on the screen, you know? From the little visual inflexions everything is there, so my job is basically just to enhance that and now we've come up with this panel that has just morphed into this thing that's become like a Perry Mason sound that I can't describe. It's been fun to work on. It's probably been the project I've had the most fun to work on in a long time.
It feels like the show will give you ample opportunity to really let loose with the jazz as well. I remember the climax of the first episode being especially memorable in that regard.
It's funny that you say that because I had initially taken another approach to that. I had taken a more sombre approach. It seemed to be reflective and Tim came back to me and said “no man, we want you to go crazy, go crazy”. As a matter of fact I was just working on episode 7 and he told me the same thing for the end credits, “Just go ahead and do your thing”. When do you hear that in television? Rarely. So working with these guys has been a real joy, man.
Memorable, distinctive scores are normally heard in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, not in the social, historical dramas that Spike tends to live in. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think there's so much attention being paid to underscore and sometimes people are afraid of melodic content getting in the way of dialogue that they may shy away from it. Whereas Spike is totally the opposite of that. When I first started working with him, you know, he would have one of these thick melodic layers underneath very important dialogue. I remember during Summer of Sam there was this one scene with these guys just sitting up talking and he wanted the theme there. I'm like “Dude, are you sure you want to have melodic content?” I'll never forget it he said; “Man, it has been scientifically proven the brain can concentrate on more than one thing at once”. So I was like my bad, I got it. So I think that's what you're hearing when you listen to Spike’s films, you know, he doesn't like underscoring at all. As a matter of fact for the opening of Miracle at St. Anne, that battle scene, initially I went crazy and wrote battle music, really percussive and brass laden. Spike was like; “No I want it to be cinematic, heroic, I want it to be operatic”. I have to catch myself and say he's being consistent with his view of how he likes to tell these stories. So that's what I think you're experiencing when you watch Spike’s films. He wants you to walk away from the film hearing themes from his films.
In 'Da 5 Bloods' we use the Duduk and I love the tone of that instrument. I love how the Duduk can just hover and not interrupt the dialogue and it can still have presence.
You mentioned underscoring. What I find interesting about your scores is a lot of composers say they don't want the music in the foreground of a scene, but I think your music often stands out in a good way because – and this is especially true when you collaborate with Spike – he gets the mix right. Is that something you would agree with?
With Spike I never worry about it, because Spike loves music. As a matter of a fact, I'll tell you a funny story. We were at a screening of a film out in LA and they gave Spike the controls, and we get to certain scenes and I forgot he had the controls. I’m thinking damn the music is loud, and I look over and it's Spike. He loves music, man, he loves it. And I've been at film mixes where he's told the mixer to “turn the music up, turn the music up!” Whereas I work onother projects and you come up with all this detail and when the final thing comes out you can barely hear it. I've never really had to fight in that regard with Spike. And here's the beautiful thing about knowing that with him. Knowing that if I write something that's very minimal I don't have to worry about it getting lost because he's going to make sure that people hear it.
Your track Photo Opps has been used in more than one Spike Lee film, and he told me you made him promise to never use it again…
Spike is like that, when he finds a bit of music that he loves. When I did the very first theme that I had written for him, it was the scene where Denzel is on the bridge playing his horn [in Mo’ Better Blues]. When it came time to do Jungle Fever I had to send him all this thematic material but he was stuck on that melody, right? He said “man let's just use that melody, nobody will know”. If you listen to the theme from Jungle Fever and the scene from the bridge on Mo’ Better Blues, it's the same melodic tune.
Speaking of memorable tracks in Da 5 Bloods, MLK Assassinated is especially emotional. How long did it take to figure out?
That one didn’t take me long at all, because I can immediately relate to watching these five African American men give the ultimate sacrifice. Fighting for other people's freedoms. Fighting for freedoms they didn't even have themselves when they came back home. And to think that the one person that was fighting for their freedoms and their rights was gunned down like that, you know, it had to be a blow to them. And I don't know how true it is, but it was an emotional thing in the movie to find out from the opposition in that way. It just adds an extra blow to the situation. And I think the thing that really blew me away about that scene is Chadwick Boseman’s character, how he was the one to dial the rage back. Saying that Martin Luther King was a man of peace, the same as anybody else. We have to remember what he told us. That was a powerful part for me, so I knew exactly what that scene was going to entail. The end of it is also very powerful for me where Paul, who is played by Delroy Lindo…
He's amazing man. But at the end of the scene, we know him now as the conservative, he's the Trump supporter, but he's the guy that's the radical. He so resistant but he's the one that comes in last and puts his fist up with everybody and I thought that was also very powerful, that he acquiesces.
A lot of the time you’ll be on tour with your band while working on a film or TV project. Have you developed any strategies to get yourself into a certain musical mind-set when you’re working on two things simultaneously that are very different from each other?
Oh yeah, you have to work out how to block other things. When I'm playing a gig, I'm playing a gig. My mind is not on my work. Right after the gig I'm going back to my hotel room and delving right back into it. I may give myself some time to wind down after a show, obviously. Then when I get to my room it's me and my work. If I'm too tired I make sure I go to bed and I'll set an alarm, wake up early and try and get some work done before we leave and we get to the next destination. I'm working on a plane or I'm trying to set up as quickly as possible, you know, to work. But that took a while to become accustomed to. It's natural for things to emotionally carry over. You may have had a really great night on a show and you're kind of buzzing from that. But the thing I've had to learn is just how to block stuff out and say “Okay that's got nothing to do with this”. And the thing about it is that it only takes a few minutes because I'm the type of person, once I start to work I become engrossed in something and then my focus is like totally in it.
How do you approach choosing the instrumentation to the films that you work on?
Well actually, that's something Spike and I kind of talk about. With Da 5 Bloods you have to lean on Spike man. Whenever he starts the film he's like a kid at Christmas. He gets really excited. “Man it’s going to be big, it’s going to be a big one man. I'm going to need a big sound. I’m going to need big sound”. And I said “maybe we should double the French horns, add a little more lower brass, slightly beefier trumpet section”. And he's like “Good, what about the drums?” I was like “OK, we can have a bigger drum section”.
We like to try and track as much stuff live as possible. It's just been our orientation. We've done things separately before and that works too, but I like having everybody in the room, because we try to create an atmosphere that's welcoming for everybody to contribute. So a lot of times, sometimes on certain scenes when it's important, we’ll grab all the section leaders and bring them into the booth and play the scene for them after we've done a take. Play the scene for them, tell them what we're looking for, then we go back out on the stage and I give them a couple of minutes just to tell each section what's going on and do their work. It works really well that way because when people are invested man they put forward their best effort. They also feel like they're part of the creative process, they get excited about the music they’re putting out. We've been having a great working relationship with a lot of these folks in LA. And I haven't been there in a while but the same thing happened when I used to work in London in Air Studios. We always had a great working relationship with musicians there.
I know playing and composing comes pretty naturally to you, but from what I've read you were thrown in the deep end when it comes to orchestrating. But it seems like you're really taken to it over the last few years.
Orchestration, to me, is the colouring. With that opening battle scene in Da 5 Bloods I did the whole thing on piano, the whole scene. Then once I went back to start orchestrating the entire thing, that was the true fun of it. To figure out what instruments to put where. My mentor in the film business was a man named Miles Goodman. He's no longer with us but he was a great mentor. And Miles used to always tell me you want to have an orchestrator because you need an objective voice. And I realised that. So I'm not going to turn everything over to them to just orchestrate the entire thing because to me that's that last portion of the compositional process, to determine who plays what, what size is that section going to be, what colours are you going to use. And then our amazing orchestrator Bill Ross comes in and he'll make little adjustments here and there. I love that part of it. When you get on a stage and this thing comes to life with 90 players in a room, man, you can't beat that.
You’ve previously said that you grew up listening to a ton of different music. Purple Haze, Parliament and the Funkadelics, Headhunters…How much of your current recreational listening is still film or TV scores?
A lot of it. As a matter of fact I tried to stop. I'm such a fan of Harry Gregson-Williams, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer… there are so many guys I'm always fascinated by. The same happens in the jazz world. I'm always fascinated by the multitude of approaches people can have to doing this job. One of the things you always feel at the beginning of any project is you don't know what you're doing. You have this moment of damn how did I get here, what am I going to do? But once you get to work things start to fall into place. I admire it because of my teaching experience. It's so fascinating when you have six students score the same scene, and you see all of these varying approaches. So I love just trying to keep current. Listening to things and finding inspiration in how guys tackle issues and deal with this topic of scoring film. Because it's such a solitary experience for us, man.
I have a friend of mine who works with BMI, and she's been having these composer roundtable dinners, right? She started them years ago. Man, I'm going to tell you bro... The first room she had that I went to was like a therapy session. You know what I mean? Because composers… we never get a chance to sit around and talk. We don't hang out like jazz musicians, not at a club. We see each other probably at an awards show more than anything else. So I'll never forget there were five or six of us and the dinner started as just normal. Being cordial, how do you do's and all that stuff. Then somebody was talking about a project and what they were going through and the next person said, “you too?” So I mean that's all part of it, just trying to stay in contact. I was just on the phone with Nicholas Britell a few days ago and he's a good friend. We haven't talked in a while and I just called him up to say hi. Two hours later we were still on the phone talking, you know? Because he started talking about projects, process, and all that stuff. So listening to new music is part of that thing to come back to and help me keep abreast of what's going on.
The well-meaning people are starting to see that we are not wrong in what we've been screaming about for decades, generations, you know?
I imagine at those tables you're talking about there’s not many people who are the same shade as you. This is a question that I want to be asking to white composers as well as Black composers, but I am curious to get your take on why there's a lack of Black composers right now in the industry.
Well, it's not just Black composers. There’s a lack of women and a lot of ethnic backgrounds in the business. That's because we're not in the room when decisions are being made. I've learned that even my friends who are well intentioned people and don't have evil bones in their body still have blindsides. Just because they're not aware. It's not something that's in their view and that doesn't make them bad people. It just means that they live a totally different lifestyle. Now, having said that, Spike is always different because you go to his sets you see everybody, and he tries to hire the best people possible. Perry Mason was the same thing. It blew me away because I had no idea what to expect when I got there. It was a diverse group of people. And the thing that always frustrates me with that is that when you see the end product and you see how successful it is, you would think that it would become a business model for certain people. You know? But I think with some people there is a bias that they do hold. And I'm not doubting that that exists. I know it exists. But then there are the well-meaning people who have blindsides that they don't realise is there. You know what I mean?
And that's a thing that this whole movement has been about, since George Floyd was killed in front of everybody's eyes. The well-meaning people are starting to see that we are not wrong in what we've been screaming about for decades, generations, you know? That cop killing this man on a live camera. And it is awakening something in a lot of people who thought that they knew what was going on. And as a matter of fact I wrote an op-ed piece for NPR because in an interview that I was doing about Da 5 Bloods where the journalist was telling me he was hearing what was going on every day, but for some reason now the words finally struck him. And that hit me really hard. It made me realise there are a lot of people who will talk about the plight of people of colour around the world in a way where you think they get it because they understand all of the inflections, just like singing a Marvin Gaye melody, but they truly don't understand the words. And that is what I think is starting to happen right now. Since George Floyd was killed I have had people text me out of the blue saying “man I'm sorry”. And I'm like “sorry for what?” They’re telling me “I really didn't get it, I really didn't understand, I really was blind to this”. And then I've had discussions, really open discussions with some friends of mine about it and we haven't been pulling any punches, because now is the time to be open about it from every angle because we just need to be honest.
I went to a dinner recently and had a very beautiful moment because we just laid it out – my wife and myself, we just laid it out for them – “I know you may think this isn't happening but it is. Just take a look around. The evidence is there”. With my opera going to the MET and me being the first African American to have a presentation at the MET...It's a huge honour just to be at the MET, period. That's not lost on me by any stretch. But the other thing I thought of was people keep saying what an honour it is to be the first African-American. Well my mind immediately goes to I'm not the first that was worthy to have a project premiered at the MET. So there's been a frustration with that. But I'm grateful for it because the only thing I can do from this point forward is to hope that this opens some doors for people to have similar opportunities because there's a wealth of creative real estate that we're not tackling. We're trying to stay in these safe zones. We have to learn how to just take a moment and stretch. We do in every other aspect of the business. Some new technology comes along and people are willing to take a shot and see if it works, right? Why can't we do that with human beings? I don't see the reason why we can't. And I think there are people out there who are starting to come around to it. I'm not saying it's going to be everybody. It's going to be hard because, with these film productions, we're talking about 30 million, 40 million…it's a lot of money and people get nervous when you have that kind of money floating around these productions.
But at the same time, listen, we all know there's a lot of great young talent out there. When I did my first film in LA I told the contractor, “I love you but I can't go out there in front of an all-white orchestra, I can't do it”. Not knowing the wealth of talent that surrounds me. I can't be this guy that's forsaking all of the efforts just to prop my own self up. That was years ago. I remember when we did that the contractor herself was totally floored by the level of talent she found just by making the enquiry. And it wasn't a thing of me giving her a list of names coming, you know what I mean? She did the research herself. So that's what I mean about blindsides. People get in the habit of doing certain things and as you are in a position to make statements about this stuff in the industry, we have to be mindful not to forget to call people to task about certain issues like conducting in front of an all-white orchestra. As a result there are more people of colour I've seen on all of our sessions in LA.
I've always appreciated how Spike makes sure to showcase different musicians. In Inside Man there's the remix of a Bollywood track. In '25th Hour' he had that Muslim man over the opening and end credits…
As a matter of fact we recorded that in London with a Muslim artist. It was incredible because when he came in he just wanted a moment to warm up and he just started walking around the room and he just started singing. I told the engineer “Hit record! Why are you letting that go man? Listen to what this man is singing!” There were moments at the beginning of 25th Hour where we just let him sing. There were times when he had melody and stuff like that and it was “just go and do your thing.” And I love having those types of experiences because it gives me a small glimpse of his world. But he actually wrote up my melody in Arabic. He had it written out on a piece of paper. I'm like “What is this?”, He goes, “This is your melody”. I’m like “What?”, He goes “Yeah, this is your melody”. And I lost the piece of paper in the middle of a session. I was so heartbroken.
Can you share any tips or things you've picked up whilst composing for a film that you could share to any aspiring film & TV composers out there?
One of the things that I always hear is people want to learn how to write for strings. I understand technically what you mean or think it means in terms of writing for instruments but I would suggest people just learn how to write, period. Because my composition teacher always told me if it works on piano it will work anywhere. So that's one thing. The other thing too is that Miles Goodman told me something years ago, he was my mentor in the film business and he said “your weaknesses are your strengths”. I was hammering for him to give me some lessons on how to become a better composer and I remember he heard the score to Malcolm X and he goes “No, I'm not going to do it, because if I do it you may sound like everybody else in LA”. I remember him telling me that. And I was a little upset with him because I thought he was trying to hoard information. But then I started to realise what it was he was talking about. That's where your personality lies, in music. Don't be ashamed of it.
But the other thing too is to study, man. Study. ‘Craft a Musical Composition’ by Paul Hindemeth is something I teach my students. Basically it’s learning how to take one little idea and finding all of these various permutations of it and learning how to build off of that. When you take the principles of that and apply it to your own ideas, that's when true discovery comes in. I'm always excited about watching the light bulb moment on kids’ faces. Because they always think it’s something external and I'm like no, no, no, your ideas are valid. There's nothing wrong with your idea. Let me show you how to expand your idea. Not my idea, your idea. And I love when the kids come up with that stuff. There's one kid, he came in with a tune and when he went through it, it was awesome. Man, it was awesome. I said “Man, what did you do?” He said “I just did what you showed us yesterday”. Because he took all the permutations, he found variables, he knew how to do retrograde. He found ways to create other baselines, create other counter-lines, and everything stayed within a certain context. And that's the reason why I do it, because young musicians don't have a problem with ideas. They have a problem with keeping things in context. Because sometimes you hear somebody write a tune and basically you hear three tunes inside that one tune. You know? Because things were shifting going another way. You think wait a minute, wait a minute… where did that come from? And when that happens, I tell them your instinct for changing it rhythmically or tempo is not wrong. That's your instinct. But how you went about it by introducing this new idea is the thing I'm challenging. Because you can take that instinct and apply it to an original idea and stay within the context of your story. And I tell them it's kind of the verbal equivalent of me going “hey man, how you going, what time is it?” and if I were to do that constantly you’d think I'm crazy. But a lot of the time people do that musically a lot. So I try to show them how to hone that in and try and stay in the confines of your idea.
What project has pushed you the most?
Well, Malcolm X because that's the second film I ever scored, so I was just scared to death. I was like, okay, really? And then there was the whole thing about the strike during the movie. It was crazy, and there's one little scene that I'm in where Denzel is running out of the club with Billie Holiday singing and I’m playing the trumpet. And what was crazy about it, we were on set and when we were finished we went to go and get something to eat. We had the Nation of Islam doing the security. And those brothers, they walked us to the restaurant and they were like “when you’re finished eating, call us”. I’m like “No man, I’ll walk back”. They’re like “No, no, no, no. Do not walk back. Okay?” That was a little hairy, does nothing to the music, but I was a little scared about scoring Malcolm X.
But Miracle at St. Anna was one that was tough because of the grandeur of the film. There was another film that was a challenge because it was a totally different thing for me, a film called Bunraku starring Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. It's a very surrealistic action Martial arts movie. That movie was a challenge because I had to use every trick in the book. I used every plug-in known to man, just to come up with sounds and create tones and textures. But it was a lot of fun to work on and I grew a lot from working on that project.
Is there any genre that you haven't worked and that you'd really like to? I could see you being a good fit for a superhero film.
I would love to do that. I would love to have the chance to do that. I haven't done that and being a trumpet player and a brass player and a person who loves to delve into technology, bringing those two together for a project like that would be a dream come true. Comedy is one of the things that always kind of makes me nervous, even though I love comedies because you never want to screw up a joke. There was a moment in time was about to work with Wes Craven but we couldn't get the schedules together and I don't think he actually did the project he was trying to do at the time. So I would have loved to have worked with him on a project, even though I'm not a horror film person, you know what I mean? That's not my thing. But that would have been interesting to me.
Is there an instrument you've always wanted to learn but haven't yet?
I'm thinking, which one do I do first? Harp is one for sure. But then a lot of these little reed instruments that are like Arabic instruments…I'm very curious about those. I love the colour and texture of those instruments. And that would probably be mostly for me, because they're so unique. You know in Da 5 Bloods we use the Duduk and I love the tone of that instrument. I love how the Duduk can just hover and not interrupt the dialogue and it can still have presence. So, there are lots of little instruments like that that I would love to learn how to, not necessarily perform, but learn how to write for.