“Skidmore College Class of 2012 Summer Reading Selections” is an inch-thick book of fiction, nonfiction and government reports combining both.
Unlike previous class’ packages on Seamus Heaney or Tracy Kidder, this book has a CD glued to the cover: “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. It’s the Grammy-winning, pained, proud mournful music Blanchard made by expanding his soundtrack — and no tragedy has ever had a finer one — for Spike Lee’s HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke.”
Blanchard takes his mother back to her flood-wrecked home in a heartbreaking scene in the film, an anguished homecoming multiplied by many thousands. When he performed this music at the New Orleans Jazz Fest last year, Blanchard laughed as he recalled his panic when his evacuated mother couldn’t be found and didn’t answer her cellphone. “So that’s what that was,” she said of the mysterious, persistent noise in her purse when he found her, weeks after the storm.
Where: Filene Recital Hall, Skidmore College
When: Friday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: www.skidmore.edu/
From the personal catastrophe and profound artistic mission that Blanchard found in Katrina, he also discovered the opportunity to teach at Skidmore, the profession he has said he would have followed if he hadn’t become a musician. As Skidmore’s 2008-2009 McCormack Visiting Artist/Scholar in Residence, he was both. He lectured, gave master classes and performed in September. He returns this week for more, including two free concerts Friday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. in Skidmore’s Filene Recital Hall.
Blanchard’s own education was intense, if brief: piano lessons at 5, trumpet at 8, summer music camps at Tulane University, where he met Wynton and Branford Marsalis and future band mate (on five albums) Donald Harrison, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA, an arts high school), and studying composition with Roger Dickerson, all before joining Lionel Hampton’s band at 18.
“It was an exciting time in my life,” he said of NOCCA by phone from Charlottesville on his birthday, March 13. “It was one of the few times when I really wanted to go to school every day.”
Accustomed to teaching as the director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in New Orleans, a specialized, intensive experience, Blanchard jumped at the chance to teach and play at Skidmore, where he had played in its Summer Jazz Institute.
Skidmore FYE (First Year Experience) Director Beau Breslin and Jeff Segrave, interim dean of special programs, placed Blanchard’s music within a broad curriculum examining the cultural, natural and social effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, and how jazz comprises the pulse of the city.
Behind Blanchard’s CD, the book contains Jed Horne’s “Breach of Trust” and Michael Eric Dyson’s “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disasters.” Both are indictments, as is John McPhee’s “Atachafalaya,” which anticipated Katrina by 20 years, and “The Federal Response to Katrina: Lessons Learned,” which demonstrates that no one in government anticipated or learned much. There are poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks on the nature of jazz and Mark Gridley’s “Jazz Styles” on its structure and sounds.
Music and culture
“I thought it was a great idea, to engross first-year students in a well-rounded kind of atmosphere,” said Blanchard, “to help them figure out how whatever it is that they’re going to be doing fits into the rest of the world.”
In his September visit, “I came in and I started talking about the relationship of music and culture in New Orleans,” Blanchard said, “and how New Orleans and its environment was related to the development of music; how music is related to what’s going on there now, and hopefully how it can help to make things better.”
“When you look at the massive scale of devastation in New Orleans and see everything that has gone on since, it opens our eyes to how connected we are generally.”
He added, “The thing that I love about this is that it causes people to really examine cause and effect, and the students can see how everything can come together. They can see that the music that I create is a manifestation of all these other experiences.”
Blanchard said he felt that the Skidmore students understood the sense of real-world consequence and connectedness that creating his Katrina music gave him. “Based on some of the questions they were asking, I think they started to think of themselves and how they fit into society,” he said.
“They started to see the world in a very real way. I love the fact that the real world was brought to those students,” who he admired as bright and inquisitive.
Arts not separate
“Maybe it’s because I’m an art major working in social justice that I have a perspective of things being linked, of the arts not being separated from intellectual and scientific things,” mused student Katarra Peterson on her cellphone last week as she left Yacub Addy’s class in West African drumming. Asked about Blanchard’s emphasis on connectedness, she said, “I see us all as individuals, but as a collective of individuals.”
Peterson attended Blanchard’s conversation with music department chairman Tom Denny in Gannett Auditorium, and went to dinner with Blanchard and several professors afterward. “He’s a deep thinker, into articulating things in the abstract, even a natural disaster,” she said of Blanchard, adding that he was personable, outgoing and very open to questions and personal reflections.
“You can read about Katrina and see images of it, but it’s something else to have interactions with someone who has had the experience of seeing his whole life washed away into the ocean and hear his candid and honest view on that.”
Blanchard said of his Katrina music that, “We were trying to really make sure that we chronicled the events and did justice to paying homage to all of the heroes and survivors of the hurricane. If there were any revelations for us [in hearing the music later], it would be the level of effect that it had on people who listened to the music. When you’re close to something like that, you don’t know if other people are going to be as close to it or respond to it; and the responses were amazing.”
Peterson’s response was both intellectual and visceral. “I wasn’t an avid jazz listener prior to this, though I had gone to see some shows,” she said. “But I began seeing it as a medium that is specifically able to articulate ideas, as opposed to just an art form in itself.”
Blanchard said he doesn’t look down from the bandstand while playing to gauge reactions, but people approach him after shows to tell him. “One person told me how he couldn’t grieve until he listened to the music,” he said. “When you think that something you have created can affect people in that way, it’s a very moving thing to experience.”
When I had unexpectedly met Blanchard in the Proctors arcade after his show with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars last spring, I surprised us both by saying, “Uh, oh,” drawing a wary look, because I was afraid I would start crying as I told him how his Katrina music touched me.
Blanchard was gracious when I told him this last week, and he chuckled and thanked me when I said I’d left a perfectly good Stevie Wonder show to see him play “A Tale of God’s Will” at Jazz Fest in New Orleans.
We spoke of my wife, Ellie’s, many volunteer trips to rebuild the Gulf Coast. She’s there now, as I write this, with two of her sisters, our daughter Pisie and Pisie’s boyfriend, Casey, on their spring break, plus a cousin and friends Ellie inspired and organized.
After hearing Blanchard’s real-world messages of consequence, connectedness and the healing power of music, Katarra Peterson went to the Gulf Coast to volunteer, too, working in Waveland, Miss. “It was very intense, the poorest county in the poorest state,” she said. “And it was amazing to see those people get up every day and keep going.”
Blanchard spoke gratefully about the volunteers rebuilding Gulf Coast communities. “Working in New Orleans is a win-win situation because you get the chance to help people in need,” he pointed out. “But the city also has a lot to offer in terms of culture, great food, great music.” His own music is among its greatest.
YACUB ADDY AND NEW ORLEANS
Yacub Addy, Katarra Peterson’s venerable Ghanian-born African drumming teacher at Skidmore and leader of the percussion ensemble Odadaa!, has also made ambitious New Orleans Katrina music, collaborating with New Orleans trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis in the jazz suite “Congo Square.”
Addy and Marsalis spent several years composing and arranging “Congo Square,” completing it in rehearsals at The Egg in Albany. They performed the premiere on April 23, 2006 in Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans with Odadaa! and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. They recorded the work a few weeks later, filmed a performance more recently at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and “Congo Square” is now available on both CD and DVD.
BLANCHARD, DOWN THE ROAD
Blanchard and his band — bassist Derrick Hodge, saxophonist Walter Smith, pianist Fabian Almazan and drummer Kendrick Scott — recently completed recording “Choices,” Blanchard’s 18th album as a leader since 1984. They may play some songs from the album, all original compositions by Blanchard and his band mates, in their concerts tomorrow at Skidmore’s Filene Recital Hall.
His next film soundtrack — he has composed and played on dozens, including nearly all of Spike Lee’s — will be “Red Tails.” Produced by George Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway, the film will depict the Tuskegee Airmen, black fighter pilots in WWII.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.