In Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” that rare movie about jazz in which actors playing musicians actually act and talk like them, Denzel Washington gives what may be the most believable on-screen impression yet of a soloist in full flight.
Washington, playing trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, owes much of performance--and Spike Lee owes much of the film’s authenticity--to Terence Blanchard, the 28-year-old trumpeter from New Orleans who was hired to both play on the sound track and to coach Washington in the bedeviling business of looking like a trumpeter at work.
Blanchard, whose career has paralleled that of Wynton Marsalis, got the film job on the strength of his soundtrack work in two previous Lee films, “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.”
“When Spike called me to do this,” Blanchard says, “it seemed like a tough assignment. I thought about some of the other movies like ‘A Man Called Adam,’ with Sammy Davis as a trumpeter, and ‘Paris Blues,’ in which Paul Newman looked pretty good as a trombonist, but Sidney Poitier was kind of questionable on saxophone.”
When Blanchard met Washington, he was pleased to learn that the actor at least had some music background; he had played piano in high school and could still plunk out a few tunes. But with the trumpet, he had to mime some crucial technical maneuvers. Blanchard says he gave Washington some hand and finger exercises and set him up with some professional instructors.
“I told (his teachers) to just get him to the point where he could at least produce a sound, because you have to understand what is physically involved in producing these tones,” Blanchard says. “Denzel said if he could just play one song by the end of the shoot, he’d be happy.”
While watching the Branford Marsalis group tape the sound track for “Mo Better Blues,” Washington mentioned that he wished he’d brought along a video camera. Blanchard seized on the idea, taped himself playing some of the melodies on the track--"really slow"--and sent the tapes to Washington. That helped, but the actor still “didn’t have a real handle on it.”
“I told him, ‘Look, man, if you want, I can write out the fingering for all the melodies, and the beginning portions of the solos.’ I figured that actually teaching him to play the horn was going to take too much concentration away from his acting.”
As it turned out, Washington did much more than go through the fingering motions; he began to understand the complex art of creating melodic lines on the horn, and the more he practiced, the more he gathered strength and conviction.
Blanchard had to explain to him about the art of improvisation. That was a special experience, because he’s the kind of actor who sticks basically to the script. But he said that hanging around musicians, and hearing them improvise, made him into more of a chance-taker.
“He even got to the point where he could hear the blues,” Blanchard says. “The first quintet tune in the movie is a blues, and he understood the form.”
In fact, Washington got good enough on the instrument for it to become a problem. When he was playing the trumpet for the camera, he would hesitate whenever he realized he’d made a musical mistake and the actual sound track recording would get ahead of him. Blanchard says he got Washington to overcome his self-consciousness by carrying a Walkman around and listening to the music until he got to the point where he could sing it all without even thinking about it.
Soon, says Blanchard, Washington knew his solos better than he did. “We had an argument about one tune and he said, ‘No, man, you did it like this,’ and we played the tape back, and he was right!”
Of the tunes played by the “Mo’ Better” quintet in the movie, Branford Marsalis wrote three and Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, wrote two. Bill Lee composed mainly for the background orchestral score, but Blanchard composed and scored the “Sing Soweto.” For Blanchard, it was a rare opportunity.
“I had never had a chance to write for strings before, let alone a full orchestra,” he says, “and I learned a lot from that.”
In fact, he says, the whole experience on the movie “was a three-fold break for me--as a player, a teacher and a writer. I’d sure love to have all those experiences again.”