Visiting Scholar Terence Blanchard Empowers Students to Trust Voices

Mike Keefe-Feldman
October 29, 2015
Terence Blanchard in class with Berklee students
Terence Blanchard in Berklee's Jazz Composition Department
Terence Blanchard provides feedback to student jazz composer David Ling, who leads Berklee’s Jazz Composition Ensemble on his original piece, “Questionable Priorities,” on Wednesday, October 21, 2015.
Blanchard and Eric Gould, chair of Berklee’s Jazz Composition Department, work with student jazz composer Brandon Wilkins, providing ideas for Wilkins’ original piece, “Keep Up.”
Photo by Dave Green
Photo by Dave Green

As student David Ling leads his peers in rehearsing his original composition, it might seem like any other night for the Jazz Composition Ensemble. But this evening—October 21, 2015—the bar has been raised because five-time Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard is in the room. He’s listening deeply, in total focus on the music with his eyes closed. When the ensemble finishes playing Ling’s composition, “Questionable Priorities,” all eyes are on Blanchard, a visiting scholar in the Jazz Composition Department.  

“You’ve got a great arrangement here. There are just some things you should probably tweak,” says Blanchard, who, along with his career as a recording artist and reputation as a mentor to musicians, has scored dozens and dozens of feature films, among them nearly every “Spike Lee joint,” including Malcolm XClockers, and Inside Man, to name a few.

“Your generation is competing against a lot of stuff,” Blanchard tells the student players and composers after they finish another run-through of the composition by Ling, one of several student composers who would display their work at a performance later that night. “You’ve got to figure out how to cut through,” he tells them. To do that, Blanchard suggests, “You’ve got to think beyond ‘the jazz bubble.’ "

A Diversified Career Steeped in Social Consciousness

Listen to Blanchard’s new album, Breathless, and you’ll instantly hear that he practices what he preaches to Berklee students. One of the most heralded jazz artists in recent history, Blanchard rose to prominence in the 1980s alongside Jazz Messengers such as Berklee alumnus Donald Harrison Jr. ’81, so only those close to the Art Blakey-mentored Blanchard might have suspected that his new album would be a headfirst plunge into groove-based jazz fusion, drawing on spoken word and arrangements that borrow from hip-hop, rock, funk, and soul, among others.

While a release of this kind is a first for Blanchard, it is far from the first time he has diversified his expansive career. Perhaps the best recent example of this point is Champion, the jazz opera Blanchard wrote based on the life of former welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, who killed another boxer in the ring and who was gay; Griffith famously noted that society forgave him for killing a man, but not for loving a man—a tragic observation that inspired Blanchard’s unconventional work in pairing opera with jazz.

If Champion carried with it a political statement about society’s treatment of the LGBT community, Blanchard's new album is equally fearless in delivering socio-political messages, from spoken-word attacks on poverty, income inequality, and militarism from academic Cornel West on "Talk to Me," to the title track, "Breathless," which shines a spotlight on police racism and violence such as that showcased with the homicide of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police Department officer.

Watch Terence Blanchard discuss his new album, influences, and more:

Blanchard didn’t set out to make a political record, but, he notes, “With all that was happening in the world, we couldn’t just make music that was happy-go-lucky to try to inspire some kids.”

A Visiting Scholar with Valuable Lessons

While the urgency of the message on Blanchard's new album may take priority over providing musical inspiration to the next generation, the latter was the primary aim of Blanchard’s stint as a Berklee visiting scholar.

“Art Blakey always taught me that you find yourself through writing. What I try to do is make people conscious of what they’re doing,” Blanchard says. “What I often find is that students are reacting to a lot of the music that they’ve heard rather than sticking with their original idea. When you say, ‘Let’s stick with your original idea,’ you see this light bulb go on in their eyes, and it’s a cool thing to witness, because they are transformed from that point on. It happened to me, too. That happened a lot this week.”

Blanchard has visited Berklee for shorter spans in the past, such as at last year’s Jazz Composition Symposium, and he expresses wonder at the college’s growth and development in recent years, which he sees as important to prepare the next generation of musicians who are entering an evolving musical landscape.

“Times are changing for musicians, and some of it is great and some of it is unfortunate. The great side is that you’re going to be able to produce your own music. The unfortunate side is that you’re going to have to produce and market your own music, because record companies aren’t what they used to be. The music business is kind of like the film business; it’s either big projects or little independent projects, and there’s not much in between. But if there were ever a place to get all the tools to deal with that, this is the place. When I walk around these buildings and see what’s going on here, it’s pretty amazing. I hope that the students who are here understand how blessed they are to be able to reach out and touch a lot of the stuff that’s available to them here.”

During this past week, that smattering of offerings available to students included one-one-one lessons from Blanchard (who will return to Berklee in January), and Ling clearly gained a lot from the experience.

"Being a great musician doesn't necessarily mean that you're a great teacher,"  says Ling, a jazz composition major who came to Berklee as a transfer student after completing many of his credits at the International College of Music (ICOM) in Malaysia, a Berklee International Network (BIN) partner school. "But with Terence, he is so knowledgeable, and it was a really great experience. He had a lot of constructive feedback, ideas, and suggestions."

For Ling, the value of the guidance from this visiting scholar will extend well beyond the visit itself. Ling says that he recorded all of Blanchard's feedback and he plans to take his time going through it to consider ways in which he can apply it to improve his compositions.