Mon, Aug 13, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Jazzing up New Orleans

Twenty-five years after he left the Big Easy, noted jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has returned to help the city renew itself


Terence Blanchard stands in front of his mother's storm-damaged house in the Gentilly area of New Orleans.


"It was hard coming back here, man," Terence Blanchard said one recent morning in his mother's house, in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood here. The house was empty and uncluttered, its renovation nearly complete, a far cry from the sodden wreckage that greeted Blanchard and his mother, Wilhelmina, when they first returned weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Back then Blanchard offered what consolation he could. "This is all stuff that can be rebuilt," he said, in a reassuring tone.

That initial visit, and especially the staggering despair of Mrs Blanchard, made for one of the more poignant scenes in When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, the 2006 HBO documentary directed by Spike Lee. "In fact," Lee said by telephone the day the film's six Emmy nominations were announced, "when we shot that scene, I stayed outside. I couldn't go inside the house."

Of course Blanchard - the acclaimed jazz trumpeter and bandleader and the composer responsible for almost all of Lee's film scores, including Levees - had no such choice. And judging by the assessment of some of his colleagues, "going inside" is in keeping with his temperament as a musician.

"He's not afraid to reach into those dark corners that we don't know about and illuminate them," the pianist Herbie Hancock said. "And he does it with gusto. He means it. You can tell by the way it feels."

Now, coming up on Katrina's second anniversary, Blanchard, 45, is ushering in two projects that reflect both his deep commitment to New Orleans and his conviction that stuff can in fact be rebuilt. The effort has significance partly because Blanchard has spent most of his career building a name elsewhere: He has also scored dozens of films by other directors, and his international stature as a top-shelf jazz artist dovetails with a reputation for accessible innovation. In some ways disaster prompted Blanchard to bring it all back home.

The first project is A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), his impressive new album for Blue Note, due out tomorrow. In a purposeful convergence of his film-composer and jazz-musician identities, it interweaves Blanchard's Levees music with new compositions for his band and a 40-piece string orchestra. The result is a melancholy suite that feels both intensely personal and broadly cinematic.

With heavy-hearted themes like Funeral Dirge and Wading Through, some dark corners are illuminated. The cover depicts Blanchard on his mother's roof, in stark silhouette.

The second project involves the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, a graduate-level education program based for the last dozen years at the University of Southern California. As the program's artistic director, Blanchard helped broker its move to Loyola University New Orleans, where a new class of students will begin its first semester next week. The relocation means that the city that gave birth to jazz (and, much later, to Blanchard) can now claim one of the art's most progressive institutions.

During a two-day interval between out-of-town commitments, Blanchard guided a visitor around his New Orleans, to places like the Magazine Po-Boy Shop, for lunch; the Maple Leaf Bar, for a late-night set by the Rebirth Brass Band; and the Still Perkin' cafe, where his wife and manager, Robin Burgess, kept a watchful eye as their daughters, Sidney, 10, and Jordan, 8, ducked into an adjacent bookstore.

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