For three decades, Spike Lee has been one of the most reliable figures in American cinema, but one of his regular collaborators often hides in the credits: Composer Terence Blanchard has been a major part of Lee’s work since “School Daze” in 1988. Blanchard, who currently serves as the frontman for New Orleans-based jazz band The E-Collective, has been the source of emotionally resonant scores on many of Lee’s best works, from “Summer of Sam” to “25th Hour” and “Inside Man.”
For the latest Spike Lee joint, “BlacKkKlansman,” Blanchard and his band composed the catchy electric guitar lick that imbues 1970s drama with countercultural attitude. The story of black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by using a “white voice” on the phone, expands into a complex meditation on America’s torturous racial divide through the ages, and Blanchard’s music imbues many scenes with an immediacy that sets the stage for the contemporary finale.
With “BlacKkKlansman” currently on the awards circuit and nominated for several Golden Globes (including best drama), Lee and Blanchard found a small window of time to appear together for a Q&A in New York. Less than 12 hours before Blanchard had to return to New Orleans for a gig with The E-Collective, the pair spoke after a screening of the movie at Florence Gould Hall, where several composers were in attendance. The following excerpts of the conversation have been condensed and edited.
Spike, music is always so central to your films. Where does that come from?
SPIKE LEE: I was very fortunate to grow up in a household where my musician father, Bill Lee, did all the scores for my student films. Then he did “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Mo Better Blues.” He was a purist. To this day, he has never played an electric bass. During the folk era, my father was the top folk bassist in the world. He played with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary. When Bob Dylan went electric, everybody went electric. My father said he couldn’t do it. He went from being the top bassist to needing a job, so my mother had to work. I look at it two ways. He’s a purist. But he had five kids. If you saw “Crooklyn,” that’s my family. So I really appreciated musicians.
Where did the electric guitar riff of the main theme come from?
TERENCE BLANCHARD: When I started thinking about the seventies, looking at the film and seeing those afros, the leather pants, the leather jackets, one of the things I started thinking about was Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, playing the National Anthem. I kept thinking that was one of the most patriotic things I’d ever heard. It seemed like me that he was screaming that we were all Americans.
I told Charles, our guitarist in the band, “Listen, I don’t want you to try to mimic Jimi Hendrix’s sound, because we don’t want to do that, but that’s the attitude that I want to have with this particular thing.” It worked out well. I told Spike I wanted to use an electric guitar, and he said, “Cool,” and we went for it.
And then you have the ending, with footage of the Charlottesville riots, which resurrects the main theme from “Inside Man.”
TB: Spike is the type of guy who shoots certain scenes hearing music. I’ll never forget in “School Daze” where you used Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” You can tell it was shot with that in mind. There’s a lot of things like that. When he did the ending for “BlacKkKlansman,” he already had the “Inside Man” music in mind, and he told me about it. We had a discussion about it, I had another opinion about it, and he said, “No, trust me.” We did it and it worked well.
SL: When they recorded, the musicians were moved because they’re looking at the screen and reading the music. When we showed them the Charlottesville footage, they were shook.
TB: It was a powerful moment because Spike is always trying to encourage musicians to know what they’re working on. When we showed them the ending, they were in tears. This comes from people who work on every major film in Hollywood. That, to me, is a powerful statement — not only about the project, but about where we are in society. To see the parallel between something that happened in the seventies with what’s going on today is a scary thing, because we always try to think about moving forward as a community. But as far forward as we’ve moved, our fake president is trying to move us back in a different direction.
Terence, what was your original idea for the closing music?
SL: The piece you originally wrote for the ending worked as well. It went to the car chase.
TB: Right. One of the things I’d written, he’d put in the car chase, and it works really well. The thing that’s so interesting about Spike versus a lot of other filmmakers is that he doesn’t use action music. Most of his music is narrative. I’ll never forget, man, when we did that opening battle scene for “Miracle at St. Anna.” With that opening battle scene, I was like, “Oh shit, I get to write some battle music! Some drums at all that craziness!” Spike said, “No, no, I want the theme.” Over the years, it’s become very apparent that this is just part of his cinematic style. One of the things I love about “BlacKkKlansman” is that all of us have been working together all these years. It’s a beautiful thing to witness because it doesn’t take any effort. There’s not a lot of going back and forth. Everybody knows what’s expected.
How do you account for the longevity of your collaboration?
SL: I’d like to tell the story of how we met. Terence and the Marsalis brothers, Branford and Wynton, moved to New York. They knew my father, who was a jazz musician, so we got together. You guys first played in the orchestra for “School Daze,” which my father scored. For “Do the Right Thing,” you guys played on the score, which featured Branford. On “Mo’ Better Blues,” when you see that movie and Denzel [Washington] is playing the trumpet, that’s Terence Blanchard! And Wesley Snipes, Shadow Henderson, is Blanchard! So while we were doing the pre-record for “Mo’ Better,” Terence is playing this theme on the piano and I said, “Oh shit, what is that?” Terence was very shy. He said, “Oh, it’s not really that good.” I said, “That’s something. You know what? Let’s make that a scene.”
TB: So he said, “Can we use it?” and I was like, “I’m not going to say shit.” So we recorded it just as a solo trumpet. Then Spike was in the editing room, and he called me up. And he said, “Hey man, you think you could write an orchestral arrangement for this?” I called my composition teacher. He was really cool. He said, “Listen, man. Trust your training and go ahead and do it.” So I wrote the arrangement and I I come back to the studio the next day with all my music together. There’s a big orchestra, 70 people, and I’m sitting there going, “This is going to be amazing, they’re going to play my music.” I handed it to Spike’s dad [Bill Lee], who was conducting the orchestra. His dad goes, “Nah, you conduct it!” I was like, “Excuse me?” I remember thinking, OK, it’s one, two, three … And there’s something else I haven’t told you, too…
SL: There’s a lotta things you haven’t told me!
TB: I hadn’t seen the scene. I just knew how the music was supposed to run. So I wrote the arrangement and I did it in front of the orchestra with the TV monitor. It’s the scene where Denzel’s playing on a bridge. So I started conducting, and then all of a sudden, I see Wesley Snipes’ back as he’s making love to Cynda Williams. I said, “Oh, let’s go back!”
One of the things that’s amazing that Spike does is that he doesn’t shy away from the truth. We were in the midst of scoring “When the Levees Broke,” and information was still coming in. Spike was like, “OK, we need to put this in.” We were scoring “Inside Man” when the hurricane hit. Spike has this reputation, but this dude here is very compassionate. I couldn’t find my mom for two weeks and I had an apartment out in LA because I was teaching at USC. Spike said, “You need to stay with your family right now. I’m going to come to you.” He came to my apartment complex. Most people in that situation don’t do that. They try to find a commercially viable project to work on. He sees things that are existing in our communities and he tackles them.
“BlacKkKlansman” is a perfect example of that. When he told me about Ron Stallworth, I thought he was smoking weed. There’s no way that would be a true story. When I saw the ending of the film, and how it tied into everything else going on in the film, I realized it made total sense. That’s what artists do. They’re people who look at their environment and try to make their own statement by healing souls and hearts in a truthful manner.
SL: In the pantheon of artists, I put musicians in front of everybody. That’s one of the reasons my end credits are longer, because I want to list every musician. If you play on this motherfucker, on this joint, your name is going to be in the end credits. For me, musicians are the closest to the spirit from above. I know some people say that it’s painting, that it’s Van Gogh, but for me, musicians are the top of my pantheon.
TB: One musician pulled me aside, and said, “We always want to work with you guys because you have your stuff together, you’re organized.” Now, we always talk about this, but being African American in this business, that’s just a given.
SL: Why is that?
TB: You always you heard that you had to be twice as good.
SL: Ten times as good! My mom always said 10 times better.
TB: But I thought it was so unusual for him to say we always had our stuff together and that people like working on our projects. That’s just the way it’s supposed to work, and it shows you the inequality that happens with people who are allowed to do these projects and don’t have their shit together.
What sort of shorthand have you developed over the years?
SL: Let’s talk about our process. Terence is one of the first people who gets the script. During shooting, we send Terence scenes. Then we go back to [Lee’s studio] 40 Acres, and I show him in Avid where I’d like to have music.
TL: One of the things we always talk about is, “What haven’t we done yet? What sounds haven’t we used yet?” The interesting thing about Spike is that he has a lot of trust in his composer. First of all, he doesn’t want any mock-ups. That ain’t his thing at all. He always says, “Just give it to me on the piano.” Now, for a composer, that’s a scary thing. You’re always trying to indicate tone with the mockups. But to his credit, he’s hearing the raw melodic material. He says, “OK, I want to use this and this.” [turns to Lee] I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, this but you remember when I gave you the themes for “Inside Man”?
TB: I gave you one theme where I was trying to hint so hard, like, let me put a flute on this piano to make sure he knows that I want it to be the love theme. And you said, “That should be the main theme!” I went, “OK, I need to make this next song menacing and huge.” It’s a great exercise in terms of how you have to adapt and change. But the other thing you should know about Spike is that once we kind of settle on the thematic material, he doesn’t want to hear anything until we get to the stage, until we get to the studio, until we record the orchestra. That’s rare. I think for him, he wants to hear it the way the audience will hear it for the first time, with real musicians putting their hearts and souls into it, because it does make a difference. I know guys who put all their time into making mockups, but that still doesn’t really indicate what happens when you have people in the room playing and being inspired by other people. One of the things I love about what we do is that, in the midst of us recording the music, there’s always exploration.
I’ll never forget when we were doing “25th Hour.” We were in London and recording the music. There’s always that one guy in the orchestra trying to get an extra gig. Spike goes, so what’s up with that? And this guy said, “Oh man, it’s some Irish whistles.” He starts playing and Spike goes, “Terence! We gotta use that.” And I go, “OK, thanks.” It happens all the time. What’s cool about it is that you can come up with things you can’t account for.
One thing that blows me away all the time is when I see “Miracle at St. Anna.” You should go back and watch the opening of that, which was Spike giving direction to the pianist who’s in my band. He said he wanted him to improvise on the theme, and he gave him a time about how much he wanted it to be. Then he recorded it and Spike cut the opening to that. That’s the whole thing about being in a creative process with creative people that I really enjoy. He always says, “You got Michael Jordan on your team. You better shoot!”
SL: Number 43. Born in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Brooklyn Hospital. Along with Mike Tyson and Bernard King. Facts!
Spike, the one time we don’t hear Terence’s music is over the credits, where we hear Prince’s “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Where did that come from?
SL: My good friend Troy Carter of Spotify fame, used to work for Lady Gaga, he’s an advisor to the Prince estate. I called him and said, “I’ve got this film and need an end credits song.” So he flew from LA to New York and said, “I have this song.” The estate had just discovered a cassette in the vault. They had 10,000 cassettes and they found one with this song. I tried to convey to my brother Troy: At the end of this film, people are stunned. I knew I needed a song to take us out of that. He said, “Spike, I’ve got this song for you.” The cassette was from 1983. It’s a Negro spiritual. Prince singing “Mary, Don’t You Weep.”
TB: A Negro spiritual has always been the artistic vessel that carries the pain and the struggle of African Americans. When people didn’t know how to speak the language, they would sing. As a matter of fact, “Amazing Grace” is actually a song that was created from a melody that the slaves would hum on the boats coming over. Negro spirituals have always been — for me, growing up in a church in Louisiana — a big part of my life. For me, hearing Prince singing “Mary, Don’t You Weep” clues you into who he is as a person. Forget being a musician. To be able to understand what that spiritual is about, and to convey the pain and the power of that in his performance was a beautiful thing for me to experience.
SL: Remember when I told you about it while we were scoring?
TB: That’s right. He told me the music was going to cut off at the end. We didn’t give a shit. It was so amazing, because it clues you into who he is as a person. A lot of times we hear the end result of who an artist is. We don’t always hear the journey to get there. When you hear Prince singing, “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” that seems to me where he started in life. He carried that through everything.
SL: It’s my belief that my brother wanted me to have that song. I’ll believe that until the day I die. How in the world could this one cassette, out of 10,000, just show up? That was not a mistake.