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Mending the Levees

Sitting in a rented room in the Faubourg-Marigny section of New Orleans, around the corner from the jazz clubs lining Frenchmen Street, I thought about the late-August day that had just passed: the second anniversary of the floods resulting from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. President George W. Bush dipped his toe in the city for the occasion—dinner at a Creole restaurant, a quick address delivered at a Lower Ninth Ward school—and then slipped out of town again like a criminal on the run.

I had headphones on, listening to trumpeter Terence Blanchard's new Blue Note CD, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina). But also rattling around my head was what Blanchard had told me months ago, when I visited his uptown home: "This president has gotten away with a lot. And in New Orleans, he got away with murder."

I recall interviewing Blanchard in 2005, shortly after the floods: "For all those people to be stranded with no federal aid, it's criminal." And after he watched former FEMA director Michael Brown's testimony on C-SPAN: "It's insulting." And after Bush failed to mention New Orleans in his State of the Union address: "Wow! He's bold enough to announce to this city that he's done with us."

Louis Armstrong once rebuffed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, canceling a State Department tour over the school-integration controversy in Arkansas. "The way they are treating my people in the South," Armstrong told newspaper reporters, "the government can go to hell." Blanchard protested with absence last fall, opting out of a Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz reception hosted by the White House. "I couldn't go," he told me. "Couldn't act like it was fine."

Yet Blanchard's association with the Monk Institute is now a particular point of pride: As artistic director of its innovative graduate-level jazz-performance program, he welcomed a new class of students to his hometown last month for their first semester at Loyola University, the program's new home. The move (which Blanchard helped engineer) is important as both a symbolic and practical tool toward recovery. Training also as teachers in New Orleans public schools, these grad students can make a dent in a daunting problem: a troubled school system that has nevertheless long been a breeding ground for jazz musicians.

Unlike Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, who left New Orleans for fame and for good, Blanchard returned to his hometown mid-career, a decade ago. As a film composer (among others, he's scored Spike Lee's films for 20 years), he's of singular distinction within jazz's ranks. As a quintet leader, he blends the compassionate authority of his early employer, Art Blakey, with the empowering ingenuity of one of his heroes, Miles Davis. As a trumpeter, his technique distills the curled phrases and bent tones of his New Orleans predecessors without a hint of throwback or caricature.

For God's Will, Blanchard adapted his compositions for Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke into a suite for jazz ensemble and 40-piece orchestra, making use of all those attributes. He appeared in the film, too: One Levees scene found Blanchard escorting his mother back to her home, where she broke down crying with the realization that everything inside has been destroyed, right down to the family photos. "Spike's film showed a very literal expression of what my family went through," Blanchard says. "Now I can tell a little more of that story, taking my time and using the language I know best." Violins voice the storm's fury, woodwinds the foreboding calm of its wake, his horn the anguished cries of those left stranded. Blanchard's requiem contains tightly composed passages but also moments during which he pushes his trumpet beyond its comfortable range. Not screeches, exactly—nothing close to Abbey Lincoln's screams on Max Roach's 1960 We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, but angrier and more daring than anything on his previous dozen albums.

The final product sounds like a complete artistic statement, "But the story in New Orleans goes on," Blanchard says. As he performs the material in city after city, the telling does too.

Originally published on September 11, 2007, in The Village Voice. Copyright © 2007 by Larry Blumenfeld. Reprinted with permission.


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