By Nia Hightower, DC Music Live
D.C. is a home away from home, of sorts, for the New Orleans native.
“My wife’s family is from D.C., so we’re always over in Rock Creek Park doing family things and having a good time,” he says about his visits.
There are a number of places Blanchard likes to frequent when in the city, but Blues Alley always tops his list.
“I go there all the time, even if I’m not playing there,” he says. “If I’m in town, I like to just hang there.”
REMEMBERING HURRICANE KATRINA
The album, released in 2009, is the sequel to the work he did on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
Choices is about the decisions made by the New Orleans community and a look at what put the area, and its people, often in tragic situations after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, he says.
“It was a very emotional piece of history for us to deal with musically,” Blanchard recalls. “We had just done the music for … the documentary, [and] I wanted to do another album … I wanted to do something still related to the topic, but I didn’t want to do anything negative or down.”
The five-time Grammy winner called up Princeton philosophy scholar Cornell West to lend his spoken word commentary throughout parts of the album.
WORKS OF THE HISTORICAL AND CLASSIC KIND
Blanchard’s current works include the soundtrack for this year’s George Lucas film, Red Tails and music for the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire, currently on Broadway.
He says working on Red Tails was an honor and much of the inspiration came from talking to a few of the Tuskegee Airmen, whose experiences were the basis for the movie. The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American servicemen in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II renowned for their heroic skill and valor.
“It was long overdue for us to do something to honor those brave Americans who gave their lives. [Red Tails is] the story of those young men,” he says. “When I think about the Trayvon Martin case, I think about Red Tails. Those young men who could have been viewed as anything other than what they were – very intelligent, very talented fighter pilots who came from good schools and were well educated. That was the thing that inspired me.”
Broadway’s current incarnation of A Streetcar Named Desire boasts a multiracial cast – Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Wood Harris and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
“It’s an amazing production of the Tennessee Williams play. Streetcar is all about my city,” says Blanchard. “It’s a love letter to New Orleans. So, the inspiration is there to show people a small portion of our culture, musically.”
AN OPERATIC TURN
More recently, the composer has spread his wings from albums and Broadway musicals to opera.
The Opera Theatre of St. Louis commissioned Blanchard to compose an opera about the 1960s welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith, who was outed as a gay man by an opponent, Benny Paret. During their bout, Griffith knocked Paret unconscious in round 12. He never regained consciousness and died days later.
The opera will premiere in June 2013.
“There was a book written about [Griffith’s] life,” Blanchard says, “and in it there’s a line that says ‘I killed a man, and the world forgave me. And yet I loved a man, and the world could never forgive me.’ ”
Blanchard admits, composing for an opera has been a challenge, but a welcome one.
“Writing for voices, that in itself makes it very different,” Blanchard says. “The register for voices makes it very different from writing for instruments. There’s a certain type of color that voices give in registers, and you have to be aware of that when writing for them. So I’m trying to write the words in a way that the rhythm of the words can dictate the rhythm of the music.”
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC
Jumping out of comfort zones is something Blanchard also tries to ingrain in his students at the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute.
“What we’re trying to do at Miami is break the mold of education,” he says. “Sometimes you have kids going to school to study jazz and some kids go to study classical music. We’re telling all of these kids that you need to have a little bit of both because you never know what kind of situation you’ll be in these days.”
Blanchard says teaching never entered into the equation when thinking about his impact on the music world, but he’s found it rewarding. Prior to becoming artistic director at the Henry Mancini Institute last year, Blanchard taught as artistic director at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the University of Southern California for 10 years.
“You get a chance to give back to the community,” Blanchard says about teaching and conducting students.
He thinks about the people who helped him along the way – Clark Terry, Ellis Marsalis Jr., Roger Dickerson, Art Blakely and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few.
“It’s so important that I do the same, but I also learn a great deal from teaching,” he says. “You give these guys the tools for creating, and it’s amazing what they come up with.”