Terrence Blanchard Expresses Deep Emotions Through Black Lives Matter
The emotional climax of Terence Blanchard’s SummerStage concert on Friday night, at Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island, arrived precisely one hour in, like a timed detonation. It was the title track of his most recent album, “Breathless” — an elegy for Eric Garner, who died at the hands of police officers on Staten Island just over two years ago. Mr. Blanchard, in his trumpet solo over the plaintive theme, struck a careful tonal balance, sounding haunted but unflinching.
Mr. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry soon after his death, which was caught on video and viewed by millions. The phrase served a blunt, potent role at protests and on social media, bolstering the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been printed on T-shirts, signs and buttons, like the one worn on Friday by Mr. Garner’s 2-year-old daughter, Legacy, as she distractedly took in Mr. Blanchard’s performance near the foot of the stage.
The saying also surfaced, pluralized, in “Breathless,” via a recorded spoken-word recitation by Mr. Blanchard’s son, who goes by JRei Oliver. “Am I wrong for believing that one day black and blue would not equal pain?” he said. Then, a moment later:
These black roses grow from cracked pavements Freshly watered with the tears of the voiceless As we’ll emit a muted scream to the heavens:
We. Can’t. Breathe.
During a long, hard season of activist urgency in black popular music — among artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and now Beyoncé — jazz has by no means lagged behind. Mr. Blanchard’s album, released on Blue Note last year, is just one recent statement of many, driven by indignation, the push for justice and the urge to bear witness.
Of course, there’s deep lineage for this in jazz, stretching even further than Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” which inspired a crucial early passage in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Any discussion of this topic would have to include Billie Holiday’s bloodcurdling lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit” (1939); Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” (1959), about the fight for school integration; Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” (1960), a civil rights cri de coeur; and John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (1963), a lament made in response to the notorious church bombing in Birmingham.
The current upswell has been built on this granite foundation: Jazz musicians are nothing if not self-conscious about their forebears. But the dimensions of today’s moment have also shaped the music. When the pianist Vijay Iyer began a 2014 performance in Brooklyn with a “die-in,” dancers lying on the stage, he was bringing Black Lives Matter into the concert hall. When the keyboardist Kris Bowers performed his song “#TheProtestor” in Harlem two years ago, it featured a bracing topical digression by the vocalist Chris Turner.
You can find more outright fury elsewhere, as in “K.K.P.D.” (for “Ku Klux Police Department”), a 2010 track by the trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, which he performed recently the Newport Jazz Festival. Mr. James could be seen at the same festival covering the outspoken hip-hop group Dead Prez, segueing from “Police State” into “Behind Enemy Lines.”
Mr. Blanchard, who has long been the composer of Spike Lee’s film scores (including “Chi-Raq” and “Malcolm X”), has a more mournful disposition. Even when he has mobilized behind his social statement, his natural mode is reflection: The most telling word in his 2007 album “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” inspired by events that literally hit home, is “requiem.”
On Staten Island he led his fusionesque young band, the E-Collective, in a set that often
bounded toward turbocharged dynamism, with tragedy seemingly far from the picture. But near the concert’s close, after he delivered his most pugilistic trumpet solo on a tune called “Cosmic Warrior,” to cheers and applause from a crowd with an obvious stake in the moment, Mr. Blanchard leaned into the microphone with a message.
“We hope we are a small part of the healing process,” he said. “Love triumphs over hate, every time.”
Correction: August 19, 2016
Because of an editing error, a picture caption on Aug. 8 with a Critic’s Notebook article about efforts by jazz musicians to promote racial justice through their music misstated the title of the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s major-label debut album. It is “When The Heart Emerges Glistening” — not “My Name Is Oscar,” which is the title of the track on which he pays tribute to Oscar Grant III, who was fatally shot by a transit police officer in Oakland in 2009.