The phone rings in Terence Blanchard’s Brooklyn studio. It’s Spike Lee, and he’s concerned about Blanchard’s score for a particular scene in Crooklyn. In the scene, a letter from Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) describes the goings-on in the neighborhood back home for her daughter, Troy, visiting an aunt down South.
”This is the last time we see the mother at home,” Lee’s voice crackles, ”so I want to play up the connection between them. Keep it in the mother’s voice.”
Blanchard nods. The father of two children himself (Terence Jr., 6, and Olivia Rae, 2), he understands the power of a parent’s voice in the world of a young child. He knows, too, that Crooklyn‘s slice-of-life story relies on such intimate connections. Blanchard says simply, ”I know what we need to do. Trust me.”
Days later, Blanchard and Lee are at Manhattan Center Studios to rerecord the section. Falling between the pop songs Lee himself selected for the film, the music here helps underscore the on-screen emotion. Gone are the pizzicato strings that had punctuated the action; in their place is a simple theme he had early on assigned to Troy and her mother. Lee smiles. ”That’s what I wanted.”
By now, Terence Blanchard has a good idea of what Spike Lee wants. Crooklyn is the third score he has written for Lee (after Malcolm X and Jungle Fever), and the pair’s sixth collaboration overall. In fact, Blanchard is a key figure in the resurgence of jazz composition for film. He scored Sugar Hill, The Inkwell, and the upcoming Trial by Jury, and performed on Don Was’ postbop score for BackBeat. ”He’s not my secret weapon anymore,” Lee says.
To jazz fans, Blanchard is anything but a secret. The 32-year-old trumpeter started out in 1982 with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Since 1990 he has been leading his own band, the Terence Blanchard Quintet, which has recorded three albums for Columbia. ”Being a working jazz musician and a film composer are really two separate careers,” Blanchard says. Still, the connections are strong. Blanchard transformed his powerhouse orchestral score for Malcolm X into a tight quintet suite for last year’s The Malcolm X Jazz Suite. And on his latest recording, The Billie Holiday Songbook, he has seemingly stepped back into his own on-screen role in X—as Billie Holiday’s bandleader.
Blanchard draws other parallels, too. ”When I played in Art Blakey’s band, Blakey’s personality was so strong, you couldn’t change the sound of the band. Working with Spike is like that: His cinematic style is so powerful, you can’t hear anything else. It always comes out sounding like Spike.”