To say we were honored by five-time Grammy Award-winning musician Terence Blanchard agreeing to create an original score for our special is, well, a tremendous understatement. Blanchard, the composer of more than 50 films—including Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke— conveys a world of emotions in his soulful compositions. And so we knew, before we even heard a note of what he’d written for us, that he would perfectly capture the decade long journey people of the Gulf region experienced after Katrina.
But what we didn’t know, until we had the pleasure of spending time together strolling on Frenchman Street, in an interview he did with Robin Roberts (watch it on Katrina: 10 Years After the Storm, August 23, 10:00 pm Eastern), was how words are also his forte.
Anyone who has had the good fortune to watch Blanchard play his trumpet knows how every note resonates through his body. He is an artist at one with his instrument. But to hear him speak is to partake in a lyrical reflection that provides a very important perspective on how Katrina, and the flooding of New Orleans, resonates a decade later.
“One of the things I think that has never been talked about,” Blanchard explained as he walked past some of the clubs on this street known for its nightlife, “is the fact that there were a lotta musicians who were here right after the hurricane, and they played a vital role in keeping people sane because, you know, they were playin’ gigs for the relief workers. And that was the only time they got a little bit of normalcy in their lives. So those guys were– were heroes as well.”
There was a time, in the diaspora that followed the city’s flooding, when there was grave concern that many of the musicians would not be able to return home. But Blanchard said he always had faith that fear was ungrounded. “This community is very strong. The musicians that have been a part of this community, their families date back to the origins of jazz. So, you know, that kind of fabric is something that has kept us together.”
When asked why music was so important to the people of the region, Blanchard said, “Well, music in New Orleans has always been just in our blood. That’s the thing that brings us all together. And it was the thing that kept us strong in the aftermath of the hurricane. That’s all we had, was the music and food.” He paused, and with an ironic laugh, recalling the time he evacuated to Los Angeles after Katrina, added, “As a matter of fact, I did an interview and a guy was askin’ me, ‘You think you’re gonna come back– or go back to New Orleans?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Because I can’t stand your music and I hate your food!”
But though Blanchard can find humor in certain things that happened after the storm, he still remembers, with visible sadness, what happened when he had to help his mother return home to all that had been destroyed in the flooding. “It was hard,” he said, with a sigh that has all the lung-power of a trumpet player. “It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.” Right after the city was deluged, he was unable to locate his mother because communications were so difficult. Finally when he found her, he sent for his mother and set her up in Los Angeles, where he and his children had relocated. It was then, Blanchard recalls, that Spike Lee asked him to score the film about Katrina. “I’m in the room with the orchestra. Spike says, ‘We’re gonna shoot your mom goin’ into the home.’” He shakes his head, still remembering how strange that idea seemed to him. “When I talked to my mom later on, I said, ‘Do you really understand what that means?’ You know, there’s gonna be a camera crew.’” He was anticipating the emotional impact his mother would face, wondering if she was fully comprehending that this very intimate experience would be public. And then he realized, his mother had agreed to be on camera for reasons much bigger than their own personal loss. “To her credit, she says, ‘people need to see what we’re goin’ through.’” It was his mother’s courage that enabled Blanchard to endure what did turn out to be an extremely painful experience: stepping into the mold-infested, ruined house, watching his mother weep, the son having to be the stoic one. “Other than having to bury my father with my mom, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Because to see her face, you know, in the midst of all of that hurt and tragedy, I still can’t get over it. And I still get a little angry, frankly…”
The anger, as he explains, is about the injustice of it all. “Because, you know, people forget, we didn’t get hit by the hurricane. The hurricane bypassed us. I think there were a lotta people who had forsaken their responsibilities, as you can see with the levees bein’ breached. And when I think about it, it didn’t have to happen. To think of all of those homes in the neighborhood that I grew up, and all of these homes all over the city bein’ destroyed because of man’s inability to do his job, I get angry. I get angry.”
In his eyes one can see the mix of feelings that come up with the memories. “The neighborhood that I grew up in, it was a very vibrant neighborhood. You would hear the long horns, birds, people movin’ about. And for all of that to be gone, you never understand it until you miss it. And it was very devastating.”
But anger and pain are sometimes an artist’s greatest resources for creativity. And for Blanchard, the resulting score he wrote for Spike Lee’s film, released in the album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), won him a much-deserved Grammy.
This was followed by an album still reflecting on the government failures, called Choices. “The reason why I did that album is because I wanted to create a debate about us learning about the choices we made, in terms of our vote, that put us in a predicament. We gotta make better choices moving forward. And we have to be really realistic and open-minded about where we need to go.”
Still he takes great pride in his city, and says there are lessons to be learned by the whole nation from what New Orleans and the Gulf region experienced over the past ten years of recovery. “Herbie Hancock said somethin’ to me that I thought was so important: ‘What people don’t understand is, whichever way New Orleans goes, goes the rest of the country statistically.”
Blanchard says there was good that came out of hard times. “The city has come a long way, ’cause one of the things that we realized after the hurricane is that we can’t rely on government. So a lotta people came together, did things on their own to kinda improve their neighborhoods, which is what we should be doin’ anyway.” He says people stopped measuring each other by what was different, and worked for the common cause of bringing the city back. “We didn’t have red or blue states.” Then in a moment of wistfulness, he adds, “I wish people could really hold onto where we were at that particular moment in time, moving forward, because we’re more alike than we’re different, you know? And the thing is, even the differences that we have, we need to learn how to celebrate those, you know.”
A lesson that is easy to discern when you focus on all that is beautiful in the music, the food, and the very celebration of life found in the gumbo culture of the Crescent City.
For more information on Terence Blanchard visit www.terenceblanchard.com