Terence Blanchard didn’t have politics in mind when he formed the E-Collective. The idea was for Blanchard and the band that will accompany him to Scullers Jazz Club Thursday and Friday — Charles Altura on guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano and keyboards, David Ginyard on bass, Oscar Seaton on drums — to play a groove-oriented repertoire that would inspire young musicians disinclined toward jazz to master instrumental music.
While they were touring Europe in summer 2014, however, Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson, Mo. Trayvon Martin had been fatally shot in Florida two years earlier, and similar incidents involving the deaths of African-Americans followed with depressing regularity. The group responded with the 2015 album “Breathless,” a reference to Eric Garner dying in a chokehold after telling arresting officers in Staten Island “I can’t breathe.”
A follow-up album, “Live,” released in April, was recorded at concerts in three cities with recent high-profile gun deaths involving police: Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot while playing with a toy gun; Minneapolis, near the St. Paul suburb where Philando Castile was shot while reaching for his driver’s license during a traffic stop; and Dallas, where a sniper murdered five police officers and wounded others during what was meant to be a peaceful march protesting police violence.
The trumpeter and composer also engaged in various discussions with local groups in those cities, the most affecting of which was at the elementary school where Castile had been a popular food services supervisor. Castile’s colleagues told Blanchard that the children still asked after him.
“It just becomes very frustrating to think that this was a guy who in his mind was doing all the right things,” says Blanchard, reached by phone recently in Washington, D.C. “This dude had a job, he worked at a school where the kids adored him, he had a weapon, he had it registered legally, and did what he was told to do when the cop approached him. He told him that it was registered, and the cop didn’t see what we saw, the cop didn’t see who those kids saw. The cop didn’t see any of that. The cop saw a black man with a weapon, and killed him.”
Blanchard spoke having just visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “One of the things that struck me is that this notion of dark-skinned people being threatening is something that was never created by dark-skinned people,” he says. “Prior to slavery, we were just people of color living amongst other folks, and from the time that we were brought here, we’ve been fighting for the right to be equal. There comes a point where you have to sit down and say, ‘Enough is enough.’
“I walked through that museum and I saw people of color traveling around this country in the 1800s trying to liberate other people and prove that we can be just as intelligent, just as upstanding, just as loyal, just as productive as anybody else in this country. Why are we still fighting this fight? That’s what’s frustrating about all of this: to see this bigotry and hatred rear its ugly head.”
“I think a lot of people, as evidenced by what we see in the news, were afraid to speak their thoughts about different people and their ethnicities and races that are now a lot more comfortable about their voicing their opinion,” agrees Almazan, the E-Collective pianist. “I would imagine that for Terence and a lot of black friends that I have it’s extremely unsettling to all of a sudden hear these things happening. I mean, they were always happening, but now they’re out in the open.”
Cellphones, of course, played a key role in making them visible.
As Blanchard puts it, “It sounds so ludicrous to think that two guys could be arrested by sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a friend. It sounds so ludicrous that somebody could be barbecuing on a front yard and be arrested. It sounds so ludicrous that an NBA player in a parking lot could be thrown to the ground by law enforcement — he must have done something wrong. If it wasn’t for these videos, this footage that’s being captured by citizens, we wouldn’t believe any of this. Nobody would believe this stuff, because it sounds crazy.”
“That’s the country that we’re living in,” he continues. “And if they were to tell that story without video, people would say, ‘That never happened in this country. People don’t act like that.’ But people do act like that, and people are starting to act more like that because of our leadership. So we need to fight back. There’s no sitting on the sideline right now. Everybody has to fight back.”
Jazz as protest music is not new. Blanchard has explored social issues before in the many soundtracks he has written for Spike Lee films — including the forthcoming “BlacKkKlansman.” He is at work on his second socially engaged opera, “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” based on the memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. (Since 2015 the New Orleanian has also commuted to Boston one week each month to teach at Berklee as a visiting scholar in jazz composition.) And Blanchard’s sidemen share such inclinations. Altura contributed the composition “Unchanged” to the new album, and Almazan’s Biophilia record label reflects the pianist’s passion for environmental concerns.
Blanchard tells of the first time he watched video of the John Coltrane quartet performing “Alabama,” Coltrane’s lamentation for four black schoolgirls killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a 1963 church bombing. “I wept like a baby through that thing,” he recalls. “It had a profound effect on me, because it meant that this man, as talented as he was, was using this platform to make a statement.”
Blanchard says an early E-Collective show in Cleveland helped confirm he should do likewise.
‘We want the music to help other people heal, to absorb your frustration and anger and pain.’
A fan who had hoped to hear music from Blanchard’s Grammy-winning “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” had approached him afterward.
“The guy said, ‘I thought I was going to hear “A Tale of God’s Will,” but when you started playing you sounded so angry. Then you told us what the music was about. My next thought was: Well, if the guy who created “A Tale of God’s Will” is this angry, I need to rethink my position on gun control.’
“That’s exactly what we want,” Blanchard adds. “We want the music to help other people heal, to absorb your frustration and anger and pain. And we want to change some hearts and minds.”
Terence Blanchard, featuring the E-Collective
At Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, June 7 at 8 p.m., June 8 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets $35-$40, 866-777-8932, www.scullersjazz.comBill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.