Though the names Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison may not yet ring a bell, these two musicians are destined for major achievements in the 1990s. Moreover, the parallels between their lives and those of the celebrated siblings Wynton and Branford Marsalis are quite remarkable.
Blanchard and Harrison, like Branford and Wynton, are in their mid-20s. All four are from New Orleans. In both cases, they are separated in age by a year or so, and the older of the two plays saxophone. The younger plays trumpet (he also wears glasses). All four studied with Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford.
It doesn't end there. In both cases, the saxophonist studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; the trumpeter did not. The Marsalises came to the attention of the jazz world as members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; when they left they were replaced by Blanchard and Harrison. Like the Marsalises before them, on leaving Blakey they formed their own group.
Like Wynton Marsalis (and to some extent Branford), Harrison and Blanchard are serious, thoughtful, intelligent musicians with considerable gifts as composers. Their unsmiling faces on the album covers are misleading, though; in person they are bright and articulate conversationalists.
They are loyal, as are Wynton and Branford, to the non-fusion, acoustic roots of jazz; their quintet has been compared to that of the pre-"Bitches Brew" Miles Davis.
In town recently to promote their most recent CBS album, "Crystal Stair" (produced by Delfeayo Marsalis, one of Ellis' younger sons), both expressed enthusiastic confidence in the idiom they represent.
"We feel we're part of a great tradition that has gone down the line from Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet to Roy Eldridge, Dizzy, Bird, Lester Young, Miles, Coltrane and Wayne Shorter," Harrison said.
"In New Orleans, where my father worked for the Post Office and my mother ran a string of day-care centers, we grew up with my parents' records--I heard Ravi Shankar, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, all the ethnic music including R&B; and New Orleans jazz. That opened my mind up to jazz and everything else, which has been a great advantage to this day.
"My mother, in fact, liked to sing and play the clarinet--she studied with Alvin Batiste, who was one of my teachers later on. When she heard about the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, she took me there to study with Ellis Marsalis and Kid Jordan."
Terence Blanchard, born in March, 1962 (21 months after Harrison), took up trumpet in elementary school. At the Center for the Creative Arts, which he attended a little later than Harrison, he studied with a classical trumpeter as well as with the senior Marsalis before going on to Rutgers University, where he continued his classical studies.
"Before I had enrolled at Rutgers," he said, "I sat in with Lionel Hampton and wound up playing with him off and on for two years. During that time, Donald left Juilliard and played with me in the jazz program at Rutgers before we both got the job with Blakey."
Both youths, like the Marsalis brothers, benefited from classical credentials. Blanchard played in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra. Harrison was an audition winner with the New Orleans Pop Symphony.
Obviously all their formal training had to be buttressed by empirical experience. "Art Blakey offered us a priceless opportunity," Harrison says. "There's nothing that can compare to working with a master musician like him."
While on the road with Blakey's postgraduate School of Hard Bop, Harrison and Blanchard recorded not only with Blakey but also as co-leaders of their own quintet for a Concord Jazz album, "New York Second Line," which won the Grand Prix du Disque in France. Again following in the path paved by the Marsalis siblings, they joined CBS Records, taping their first LP there in January of 1986. They went public with their own post-Blakey combo in May of 1986, opening in San Francisco to ecstatic reviews, one of which observed that "Blanchard and Harrison play with more of a sense of knowledge of jazz history than 95% of the fusion stars."
This awareness of their backgrounds has prompted Harrison to say, in introducing the song "All Blues" at concerts, "This was written by Miles Davis when he was a jazz musician." Harrison respects Davis, has visited his home and admired his work, but feels (and declares that Davis agrees) that he is no longer a part of the jazz world.
The two men are not opposed to any musical genre. Typically, Harrison comments: "I listen to pop music, to Prince, to African music, Eastern music, everything. But I need to play the music that expresses my own feelings."
"What's sad about too many kids in our generation in America today," said Blanchard, "is that they don't want to think for themselves; they're too easily led, and all they seem to want is to be able to make money and lie around and relax. What is that saying?"
"Another problem," Harrison said, "is that they don't get exposed to the music."
"Right," Blanchard agreed. "I remember in school they'd take us all to hear the symphony and explain the different sounds and instruments, but they never did that for the kind of music we play. That's why we try to go out and do as many lectures and clinics as we can, show how our music evolved and talk about its history."
Harrison said: "It would be great if people would come up to us and say, 'You guys are trying to play jazz, and we respect that.' But more likely, especially in America, they'll say, 'When are you guys gonna make an R&B; album?' It's time for people to respect jazz as a great art form. It's time for Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong to have the same kind of respect that Beethoven and Bach have."
The music of Blanchard and Harrison is by no means inaccessible. In their first CBS album, "Nascence," for example, Blanchard played a hauntingly poignant reinterpretation of John Coltrane's "Alabama." On Harrison's "Guardian of the Flame" (a self-descriptive slogan for the group), there is an attractive chant-like Eastern feeling. The Blanchard composition "Tacit Approval (of Desmond's Flight)" was ignited by events in South Africa and by what Blanchard feels is our administration's tacit approval of them. On this tune, Harrison plays the C - melody saxophone, a horn that has been in mothballs since the days of Frankie Trumbauer half a century ago.
"Crystal Stair," the title number of their current LP, is Harrison's personal choice among his own works. "It has so many influences--there's a touch of pop, of funk, but you have the drummer swinging, the bass player doing a funk bass line, but from a jazz perspective--and the harmony's different."
If jazz is to retain its basic identity during the decade to come, men of integrity like these two will play a major role. "Maybe we are keepers of the flame," Harrison says, "but so were Charlie Parker and Lester Young and Dizzy and all the others. We try to aspire to the same ideals, to use whatever has happened in our lives, and to present our music in a way that will enable people to understand what we're trying to achieve. Above all, we'd like people to know that we are serious."