Terence Blanchard – Malcolm X: The Original Motion Picture Score (1991)

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If, during the opening strains of your DVD copy of “Malcolm X,” you stop eating popcorn mid-munch, that’s just fine with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. His original score for the 1991 Spike Lee film was designed to be anything but background music.

Melancholy then snap-bean jazz and then jack-boot ominous, his score can only be described as huge: “Spike told me he wanted a large sound,” Blanchard told me. And there was only one way to get it: Guest performers, and lots of them. Malcolm X included something like two dozen violinists, nine cellists and a host of horns and percussionists; oh, and Branford Marsalis. And three members from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Boys Choir of Harlem and Blanchard’s regular working rhythm section at the time. That’s about 90 people, in all — 50 instrumentalists and 40 vocalists.

This was the fifth time Blanchard had been involved in one of Lee’s projects, beginning with 1988’s “School Daze.” He made important contributions to the scores for “Do The Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” and, most recently, on 2008’s “Miracle at St. Anna.” But, for Blanchard, “Malcolm X” was no orginary project.

“There are a lot of documentaries that have been made covering King, Ghandi, other prominent leaders,” Blanchard said, “but prior to this, we haven’t been so fortunate as to have a lot of information circulating about Malcolm.” Blanchard said he was already aware of Malcolm — having first heard a recording of one of his speeches during summer camp at the age of 12 or 13, he said. “What the film helped me to do is to visualize this person,” Blanchard said.

The film’s lasting importance, he said, is rooted in that: “I think the thing that Malcolm did for me is, to help me understand that it’s OK to make mistakes and try to correct them,” he told me. “I think the main thing with some of the other leaders is we haven’t heard about the time they made drastic mistakes. That makes Malcolm a more human figure, instead of a mythical one.”

Blanchard chucked, and added: “I always thought that that was amazing — that this cat would admit to the world that he was going at it the wrong way. You can’t name many politicians or presidents who would make that kind of admission.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A 2011 double-CD set called ‘The Sesjun Radio Shows’ includes live performances from Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.]

Born in New Orleans in 1962, Blanchard was enrolled in the city’s Center for the Creative Arts and studying under the watchful eye of Ellis Marsalis by the age of 16. There, he met saxophonist Donald Harrison, and the pair began a collaboration into the 1980s that lasted through stints with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and as a co-led working jazz band. Late in the decade, however, Blanchard came to slowly realize something: There was a problem with his mouth. “I was playing with my bottom lip over my teeth,” Blanchard said. “I constantly got cut whenever I performed.”

He tried to continue touring with Harrison, working on perfecting the new embouchure. But neither the old nor the new way was working, he said. A little late for the woodshed, it seemed. But that’s what Blanchard was forced to do: Practice. He set goals, spent hours with the horn, just as he had as a young player.

Around that time, Spike Lee called again — and Blanchard was back on his feet. He was featured with the Branford Marsalis Quintet on the 1990 Grammy-winning “Again Never” from “Mo’ Better Blues.” When he decided to record a new jazz project, however, it was without Harrison. “We knew our careers were going in different directions,” Blanchard said. And Malcolm X certainly was an interesting part of that divergence.

The film also marked Blanchard’s screen debut. He appeared as the leader of a quartet backing Billie Holiday. Had he caught the acting bug? “Hell, no!” Blanchard responded, laughing uproariously. “No way. I thought writing (the music) took a lot of work; being in it was worse. I’m only in the film for, like, I don’t even think a minute. It took all day just to shoot.”

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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