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Grammy-winning Terence Blanchard reflects on social change and music

Terence Blanchard performs with his band E Collective
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Terence Blanchard performs with his band E Collective

Grammy-winning jazz musician Terence Blanchard is no stranger to composing music inspired by social injustice. He wrote an album about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  He wrote the opera "Champion," which dealt with race and sexuality issues in boxing and debuted at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis last year. And he just released a new work inspired by the death of Eric Garner and the #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign that’s taken root in St. Louis since the shooting death of Michael Brown.

While in town to teach at UMSL’s Jazz Camp and Jazz St. Louis’ Emerson Jazz in Schools program, and perform at Jazz at the Bistro, Blanchard took a few minutes to speak with St. Louis Public Radio about the influence of social justice on his music.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On music and social change

"Well, the creation of the music is a response to social change. It’s a response to everything that’s going around in our environment. Sometimes you feel like words can’t get it or you don’t have the right words to express what you’re feeling. The music didn’t start out to be related to this. We were just trying to figure out the sound for the band and it just seemed like every month there was a major story involving African-American youths and law enforcement. And you get to the point where you just go, enough is enough."

On writing songs influenced by current events

"You saw what just happened down in Texas (McKinney pool party incident). Granted this guy, he resigned. But I don’t know if that’s truly what should have happened. His resigning just takes that element away from the police force, which is a good thing, but what’s happened with that guy now? Have we changed his heart? Have we changed his thinking, his mind? That’s what has to happen. The only way for that sort of thing to happen is for those people to be held responsible. That’s why I wrote a tune called 'See Me As I Am.' Don’t see me as you think I am. See me as I am. Purely and simply."

Terence Blanchard teaches at UMSL
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Blanchard told students "Anyone can play like (John) Coltrane, learn to play like yourself," meaning imitation is easier than innovation.

On writing wordless music with a message

"Sometimes it is hard. Without words, people can draw their own impressions from any type of sonic experience. But that’s why I think things like this (performing and teaching) are important. So when people hear it they will have a different type of experience as a result."

On learning music to break down social barriers

"A lot of it breaks down barriers because you’re in the room with all different types of kids and you’re just working on your ability. When you start to experience things on merit, you start to understand everybody has something to contribute. I went to an arts high school and I was surrounded by kids from all different walks of life. I was fascinated by kids from other cultures because I was like, 'really'? Is that how you do it in your house? Tell me more about that. It’s a big, big world and for people to think that you can exist in this universe with this very narrow experience, you’re cheating yourself out of growing and expanding your horizons."  

On the art scene in St. Louis

"The arts scene here in St. Louis is off the chain. It puts some other places to shame. The museums are free. Free!  Any kid, if they can get to the building, they can see some art."