After nearly 30 years collaborating with Spike Lee to compose the music on his films, Terence Blanchard’s soaring compositions are finally getting noticed. He got his first Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman, a Best Picture nominee which brought Lee his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. And the morning they sat down to discuss the method of their collaboration with Mike Fleming Jr., Lee’s first words to Blanchard were congratulatory, since Da 5 Bloods had just joined the Academy’s Best Score shortlist. The pair have worked together on more than 15 films, including Malcolm X, When the Levees Broke, Jungle Fever, Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna. Blanchard, who moonlights as a jazz musician in between scoring jobs, has also worked on the Kasi Lemmons-directed Eve’s Bayou, Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails, executive produced by George Lucas, and the Matthew Rhys-starrer HBO series Perry Mason. Here, Blanchard and Lee explain why they’ve clicked so well together all this time.
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DEADLINE: How did the two of you first begin working together?
SPIKE LEE: You tell him.
TERENCE BLANCHARD: I was just hired as a session musician. Spike’s father, Bill Lee, was doing the early scores, and there was a guy named Harold Vick, who was putting together the bands and the orchestras for the sessions. I was told Harold and Bill Lee wanted to have a mixture of all of the young talent and veteran talent in the city. I got a call to come be a part of this recording session. That first time I walked in…
LEE: That was School Daze, right?
BLANCHARD: I had my Lakers stuff on. I had a Lakers hat. I’m a big Lakers fan and they’d just beaten Boston. I even had the purple and gold Converse, with the star on the side, and somebody was standing at the door, going, “Lakers fan, huh?” That’s all he said to me. So, that was the beginning for us.
I played on all of the scores from School Daze, and when we started doing Mo’ Better Blues, I was getting ready to do my first solo project for Columbia Records. I sat at the piano, when we were doing the pre-records for the band, and I started playing this tune. Spike heard it and asked if he could use it. And we recorded it, just as solo trumpet a cappella. Later, Spike headed to the editing room. They shot the scene with Denzel, with him on the bridge, and Spike called me up and said, “Hey, man, can you write a string arrangement for this?
My daddy didn’t raise no fool, so that’s one of the moments where I said, Now, do I tell the truth, or do I lie? I lied. I said, “Sure, I can write a string arrangement for it.” I called my composition teacher—Roger Dickerson is his name—and said, “Man, look, I got to do this project, what the hell do I do?” Roger told me, “Trust your training.” So, I brought the music in, and another surprise, I handed it to Spike’s father, Bill Lee, for him to conduct. Bill said, “You wrote it, you conduct it.” I went, “Huh, excuse me? OK.” But I got out there, and I winged it, man. I was nervous as hell, and when I finished, Spike walked up to me, and he goes, “Man, you got a future in this business.” I literally thought he was just trying to encourage me to keep working at it. Next thing I know, he called me to do Jungle Fever, and we’ve been working together ever since.
LEE: Terence is being shy. In Mo’ Better Blues, in the movie, when you hear Denzel playing the trumpet, that’s Terence, and when you hear Wesley Snipes playing the saxophone, that’s Branford Marsalis.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, and then, you know what was funny, though? When we shot the scenes for Mo’ Better Blues, we put a thing inside the bell so Denzel could really blow, because we wanted it to look real. So, he was blowing really hard, and for the people who were sitting in the back of the club, the extras, Spike actually played the music loud, like we were at a club. So, people actually thought they were playing, man. They were doing such a great job, except for one girl. I saw Denzel… I said, “What’s wrong, man?” He said, “This girl was sitting down in front and she started giggling.” So, he’d said, “What you giggling at?” She said to him that she could actually hear what was coming out of that horn.
LEE: [Laughs] And another thing, though, with the exception of Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on drums, everybody else, they were actors. Giancarlo Esposito says, “I know how to play piano.”
BLANCHARD: Oh, god, I remember…
LEE: And he was the only one that looked fake.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, well, there was a reason for that. He kept trying to play the tunes. You know when Denzel got to the point where he could play all of the melodies, one of the things he started to realize was when the track would play, if he made a mistake, the natural inclination is to correct your mistake. But as soon as he would do that, the track would be gone. There were a couple of takes where he got off, just a little bit, just because he was trying to correct himself. I’d say, “Hey, bro, forget trying to play the right fingers, nobody’s going to know. Sing it to yourself because you know it, and just be accurate with that.” I tried to tell Giancarlo the exact same thing, but Gian was, “No, man, but see, I got the chords.” I’m like, “Gian,” I said, “G-Money, nobody’s going to be able to see what chords you’re playing from the screen!”
DEADLINE: Let’s go back to that string arrangement with Denzel on the bridge. Spike, what was so exceptional about it that you would use a piece of music from a newcomer in that film?
LEE: I knew it was right when I heard this beautiful melody. We were just waiting around. There was a piano and no one playing it. Terence just went to the piano and started playing this beautiful melody. I’m listening, and after he finished, I said, “What is that?” And he said, “That’s a little something something.” I said, “Well, no, no, don’t give me that.” Finally, he gave it up. It’s called “Sing Soweto”. At that time, apartheid still reigned in South Africa, and our brother, Nelson Mandela, was still in prison. I loved that [connection], and I love melodies. That’s where it started for us. Last thing: Terence did Fort Greene, Branford. His brother Wynton, Donald Harrison, all these guys from New Orleans ended up in my neighborhood. It was a great time, a new wave.
DEADLINE: Which of the movies you’ve done was hardest to find the handle for musically?
BLANCHARD: It’s a hard one to answer because one of the things about Spike’s films, there’s a lot of information on the screen. One thing Roger [Dickerson] always taught me to do is learn how to listen, and when you see it, you just draw inspiration. I think if there was one that I would have to say was the hardest—and it’s only because it’s just popping in my mind—it would be Bamboozled. It was such a different take from everything else that we had done. If I remember correctly, some of the movie was in black and white, and then it moved into color. Trying to find a sonic match for that was probably something that I toiled over more so than anything else.
With all of Spike’s films, what I try to do—and I tell my students this—after I watch the film, when I start working on a scene, I try to watch it five or six times before I even try to deal with any music. Because there’s a lot of information in the scene. There’s the tempo of dialogue, the way it’s shot, the way it’s cut together, performances of the actors. So, if you learn how to just listen and pay attention and not try to come to it with any preconceived notion, the movie will tell you what it needs.
DEADLINE: When does Spike bring you into a movie? When you have a rough cut?
LEE: Terence gets the script when everybody else gets it.
BLANCHARD: Sometimes, he tells me before he has the script. “Hey, man, I’m going to do this, be ready.” That’s what happened when we did When the Levees Broke, even though there was no script for the documentary. I get a script when everybody else gets a script, and the thing that’s really cool about that is he’ll go off, and he’ll start to shoot, and I’m already knowing the story. But what I’ve learned with Spike is I try not to write anything specific until I see something. Because one of the things that happens, when you read a script, I’m creating my movie in my mind, and that ain’t a good way to go.
LEE: That’s ‘A Terence Blanchard Joint’.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, and a Terence Blanchard joint is sometimes a lot different. Because, he’ll get out there, and he’ll find some locations and settings, the way stuff is shot.
My first education into not writing off a script came with Summer of Sam. There’s a scene with John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino, and they’re coming from Studio 54. They get into an argument, and when I read the script, they’re arguing, right? But when Spike shot it, she gets out the car and starts to walk, and he starts to shoot the empty seat where she was sitting. And I’m going, Well, that wasn’t in the script, and I’m like, I’m glad I waited… She did what?
LEE: Well, Mira jumped out the car. It happens.
BLANCHARD: Another instance of that was when we did Miracle at St. Anna. I read that script, and I was so fascinated by the script, a war movie, and—I hope I say this the right way—the beauty of it. When he started sending me still shots, it was just gorgeous, right? Every still photo that he sent me was just amazing, and I said, Wow, I’m glad I waited to start really homing in on what the musical identity would be for that film until I saw it. Because once I saw it, it just sent me off in a whole different direction.
LEE: But Terence, sometimes, periodically, when I’m shooting, I send you cut scenes too, to get like a little taste. Before you see the whole film.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, and those little tastes, man, you know, like they say, ‘A little dab will do you,’ you know what I mean?
BLANCHARD: Yeah. Those tastes really help to send me in a direction. By now we’ve worked together so much, we have a…
BLANCHARD: Yeah. Once I see it, and I go, Oh, this is what it looks like, it sets up a sound or a scenario in my head.
LEE: And I’d just like to say, the greats in all the arts are great for a reason, but in my opinion, the greatest artists are musicians. That’s my opinion.
LEE: I think musicians are the artists that are closer to God because what they do, I know you got Picasso and who you want to name, but, musicians, in my opinion, it’s that gift, the way they play an instrument, the way they sing, or in fact, compose for film. Where they can look at something, internalize it, and then give you music.
BLANCHARD: Brother, OK, but I’m going to tell you this, though, Spike. I’m doing a film and culture class at UCLA. And you know what I have them watching? I have them watching When the Levees Broke, and the thing that I’m constantly telling them about that, what amazed me is how you guys have a talent for taking all of that information and telling a very succinct story with it. I remember that war room, watching Butch [Robinson], I think it was, receive all of these hard drives, and guys just logging video images. I’m like, Wow, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to sit down and put together a story like that.
And when you watch the documentary, the other thing, me being from New Orleans, that was the first time I saw any documentary that had brought all of the different various cultures of New Orleans together in one thing. Normally, it’s always kind of isolated, but when you watch When the Levees Broke… There’s a real talent there. And when you look at Da 5 Bloods, come on! We were at the Oscar show [for BlacKkKlansman] when he told me he was going to shoot it, and I was like, “Damn, bro, take a break, go smell the coffee for a little bit, just relax.” He said, “No, I’m out, I got to go shoot.”
LEE: I was on a plane the next day.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, the next day, and when he sent me the video, and I’m watching it, and I’m sitting there, going, OK, I understand he really appreciates musicianship, but man, for somebody to take that story and to build it the way that Spike did, not only with the structure of it, but cinematically, with all the decisions you have to make. Like that battle scene with the helicopter. I love that shot, that big, wide shot when it goes down into the valley. It’s gorgeous, and Spike has always had a penchant for combining these images of African American people and making them gorgeous in these very complicated situations. Because all too often, in the history of film, we haven’t been shown in our best light, you know?
Like, when you look at BlacKkKlansman, that montage sequence where my man, Harry Belafonte, is doing his thing, and then Spike shows all of these beautiful faces, you know what I mean? Who’s going to think about doing that? That’s a person [that] not only has a love for the art of making film, but is also very connected to his community and the needs of the community, understanding that Black women have been feeling inferior for a number of years because society has not deemed them to be beautiful. And he’s made a concerted effort to reverse that paradigm. So, for me, I understand he appreciates musicians, but to have the power to do that, and to have the brilliance to put all of those things together, to me, is just amazing. I’m the last cog in the wheel. After it’s all done, I’m the guy that comes in…
LEE: Film is photography, music. All that stuff. But I’m talking about the existence of music, you know?
DEADLINE: I feel the mutual respect. But what happens when Terence writes something he loves and you don’t, Spike?
BLANCHARD: That’s rarely happened, and I think it’s rarely happened because…
LEE: What happens is that Terence writes a piece of music for the specific scene, and if I say, no, we’ll put it in another scene.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, that’s happened, but my very first meeting with Spike, one of the things he told me, he says, “Hey, man, I don’t like underscoring.” He said, “I like strong melodic content.” So, I’ve always known, and I think there was two instances I remember, one was in Crooklyn, where the little girl reads a letter, and I started to write the score for what was going on in the letter. She’s recounting what’s happening in her neighborhood, and when Spike saw it, he goes, “No, no, no, stay with the sentiment of the letter.” So, I went back and redid it. And I think the other one like that was when we did Miracle at St. Anna. I remember I was so excited to have a battle scene to score. I was like, Oh, s–t, battle scene! I put [in] all of this percussive brass stuff, and Spike goes, “No, no, no, you want to show the heroism of their sacrifice.” So, he wanted more of like a melodic, operatic approach. But that’s rare.
DEADLINE: Aside from the original scoring you do for Spike’s films, these pictures create memorable marriages of music to imagery with famous songs. I re-watched BlacKkKlansman, and there is this great courtship scene between the undercover cop played by John David Washington and the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College played by Laura Harrier. The scene is sensuous, driven by “Too Late To Turn Back Now”, this 1972 song by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose that framed what was happening in the scene of courtship. It’s there in Jungle Fever with Stevie Wonder songs and in Da 5 Bloods, with the Marvin Gaye concept album “What’s Going On”, in which a returning Vietnam vet contemplates the problems in America. Terence, how much input do you contribute to this preexisting music that helps to drive Spike’s films?
BLANCHARD: You know, Spike always tries to hide this, but you’ve got to remember he grew up in a musical family. His father’s a great bass player; his aunt was an amazing, classically trained pianist. He heard music all his life growing up, and not only did he hear that type of music, but he’s just been a fan of great music all his life. He knows more about this stuff than anybody. He always tries to downplay it… I remember, I think it was Jungle Fever, he said the crack house scene, he already knew when he was shooting it that he was going to use a Stevie Wonder song for that. With Da 5 Bloods, when he told me about doing the movie, he told me that he was going to use Marvin Gaye’s music. He knew that before he started shooting. So, no. There’s no need for me to do that.
DEADLINE: When you started on Da 5 Bloods, what was the hardest scene in that movie for you guys to figure out the music to?
BLANCHARD: The first one, the helicopter scene.
LEE: The first battle sequence.
BLANCHARD: Yeah. What did we call it? “What This Mission is About”?
LEE: Our brother, Chadwick Boseman.
BLANCHARD: Yeah, and the reason why, because when I saw the film, I was so awestruck by what I was looking at. And I realized that was my first musical cue. I kept saying to myself, You have to get this right, because if you don’t get this right, nothing else is going to work. That scene took me five days to write, a long time. Normally, I’m pretty quick, but that took me a long time because I wanted to combine what Spike likes with what the film needed, and try to find those melodies and make the harmonic shifts and orchestral shifts to accent what was happening on the screen. That took a minute. So, three days, it took me, just to plot all of it out, because I went section by section by section.
I took my time, and then, the last two days, I was just going through orchestral stuff, just trying to figure out how big I want it to be, how small, and a lot of it just stayed big throughout, which is always a trap.
BLANCHARD: Because then you have no other place to go. So, for me, it was a thing of trying to keep that energy moving throughout, with melodic content, instead of more percussive stuff, and [to] keep that emotional shift. Because listen, we were talking about Spike making movies, but also, the other thing, too, this was brilliant acting. I mean you’ve got Chadwick Boseman in the scene, and Delroy Lindo, whose performances were just amazing. I’ve been in this business long enough now. When I see that, man, I get juiced, and I get pumped. And everything is about enhancing what those guys are doing on the screen.