Terence Blanchard: Contemporary Cat: A Biography
A Biography of Terence Blanchard
(Scarecrow Press – 2003)
by Mark Ruffin
In the new biography of trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a claim is made that he is one of the most important jazz musicians from the last quarter century. Part of the evidence that is laid out in Contemporary Cat, (Scarecrow Press) by Anthony Magro, can be heard this summer as Blanchard tours in support of his Blue Note debut, Bounce. The talented performer and film scorer is playing selected dates with a program titled The Movie Music of Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard. The famed film director and his frequent collaborator will present what promises to be a compelling retrospective of their movie work together.
In addition to excerpts from original scores and songs from soundtracks of Lee’s movies, the show features specially designed images from movies such as Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Bamboozled and others on a large screen. Vocalists Angie Stone and Chicago’s own Mavis Staples will also perform.
On Labor Day weekend, at the Chicago Jazz Festival, Blanchard is part of a mammoth tribute to the late influential drummer, Art Blakey. This show will highlight a number of the great musicians who passed through Blakey’s group, the Jazz Messengers. Among the prestigious alumni are Blanchard and his childhood friend, Branford Marsalis. Finally, Blanchard will be touring with his brand new quintet in late summer and early fall. These three facets of his career alone would make interesting reading for book fans, particularly lovers of musicians’ biographies. Contemporary Cat doesn’t disappoint in covering all of Blanchard’s film work, his years with Blakey and the formation and dissolution of his various groups.
But Contemporary Cat is more than just a jazz musician’s bio. The book could be called a bio-flick, not only in its unique format, but also in the fact that because of the breadth of Blanchard’s career, this is also a very important movie history book.
It not only explores how the trumpeter got accepted into Hollywood, but why he didn’t get to work certain movies because he was a friend of Spike Lee. There’s a whole chapter titled, “Absolut-Lee Spike” that in itself makes Contemporary Cat a must-read for any investigators of Lee or of black filmmaking.
The book resembles a screenplay in that most of the story is told in straight dialogue. The words flow right out of the interviewees mouth and the outspoken film director is quite frank with his assessments of Hollywood, his dogged fight with Warner Brothers to get Malcolm X made and his intimate relationship with the person who scores his movies, among other topics.
Magro also reveals great insights into how Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington prepare for a role.
Washington worked with Lee and Blanchard on the films, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X, the latter of which garnered him a best actor Oscar nomination.
Blanchard was Washington’s technical advisor for the role of jazz playing trumpeter Bleek Gilliam in Mo’ Better Blues.
“I made a videotape of myself playing Bleek’s parts and sent it to Denzel,” Blanchard said in the book. “During rehearsal, he carried a Walkman with a tape of the music.
“He’s such a perfectionist that he wanted to be precise in each fingering.”
When Washington kept getting ahead of himself during takes, Blanchard had to assure the actor “don’t worry about it, most musicians aren’t even going to know what you’re playing.”
The stories on how the spirit of Malcolm X seemingly took Washington and crew members away long after Lee screamed cut is also a priceless story that would only be ruined in any kind of retelling here. In addition to being one of the biggest budgeted Black films ever, the music of Malcolm X was also epic in proportions in how it changed Blanchard personally and professionally.
The author does a marvelous job of exposing the good natured, humble and defacing personality of Blanchard, as well as the dogged concentrated work ethic that the subject developed early on in his life.
Born in New Orleans where they raise trumpet players the way Illinois grows corn, Blanchard was in the shadow of Wynton Marsalis almost from the day he decided to pick up the horn as a young boy. Originally a pianist, and still a very good one, Blanchard never felt that presence of Wynton. They were just fellow musicians, the way other kids viewed fellow ballplayers.
It was the neighborhood at first that started drawing the comparisons. Then, as Blanchard followed Marsalis to New York, into Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and onto the same record company, Columbia, the media and club owners really tried to pit the two against each other.
Again, everyone involved are quite open and honest in the book, particularly, and as always, Branford Marsalis. Mostly, from childhood on, it’s been one long playful little competitive game between the two.
At just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read. The brevity may suggest that at the relatively young age of 41, Blanchard still has chapters left to add to an auto-biography.
But what a jazz life he’s led so far.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Congratulations to Mr. Ruffin for making the second round of the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting lab invitational- We hope it’s a jazz story. -ed.