ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Crazy as it sounds, Spike Lee is up for his first Oscar for directing. It's for "BlacKkKlansman." Equally hard to believe, Lee's longtime composer Terence Blanchard is up for his first Oscar, too. Tim Greiving talked to both of them about what that means.
TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Terence Blanchard was on the soundtracks of Spike Lee joints before he even started scoring them. In "Mo' Better Blues," Denzel Washington is the trumpet player on screen, but Terence Blanchard is the one playing the notes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET FEAT. TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "MO' BETTER BLUES")
GREIVING: That film was scored by Spike Lee's father, Bill Lee. Blanchard had already played trumpet on Lee's scores for "School Daze" and "Do The Right Thing."
TERENCE BLANCHARD: And when we got to "Mo' Better Blues," that's when the film writing part started because he heard me play something on the piano.
SPIKE LEE: And I said, Terence, what is that? He said, oh, it ain't nothing.
GREIVING: Spike Lee.
LEE: I said, no, no, don't give me that; that's something right there; we should make this the theme for Bleek Gilliam played by Denzel Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "SING SOWETO")
GREIVING: Terence Blanchard was already blowing the horn by the time he got to middle school in New Orleans. One of his best friends there was Wynton Marsalis.
WYNTON MARSALIS: We were both playing in the all-district honor band, and we were two of the saddest trumpet players in the band.
GREIVING: It wasn't long before they were two of the best. Besides jazz, Blanchard studied orchestration and composition in high school and college. It didn't surprise Marsalis at all when his friend wound up scoring films.
MARSALIS: He's coming from a tradition of storytellers and narratives in New Orleans, from a Mardi Gras tradition. People - he has a mind for the fantastic.
GREIVING: For Terence Blanchard, storytelling is key.
BLANCHARD: With jazz musicians - the great ones - when you start to improvise, you're trying to tell a story. So you're going to have a beginning, middle and an end to what it is that you do even though you're improvising.
GREIVING: Over the past three decades, parallel to his Grammy-winning jazz career, Blanchard has scored 24 films and documentaries for Spike Lee alone - everything from historical epics like "Malcolm X"...
(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FRUIT OF ISLAM")
GREIVING: ...To the HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina "When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts."
(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "WADING THROUGH")
GREIVING: Blanchard is one of the first people to get the script for a new Spike Lee film. And the first thing he does after Lee sends him a rough cut is write themes. He says that, unlike a lot of other contemporary directors, Lee loves a strong, catchy melody.
BLANCHARD: When I first started working with him, he said, man, go watch "Spartacus," you know? And when you watch "Spartacus," that theme comes back a million times. That's his orientation.
GREIVING: For "BlacKkKlansman," Blanchard wrote the main melody primarily for electric guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "RON MEETS FBI AGENT")
GREIVING: The film is based on the true story of the first black officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department who goes undercover against the Ku Klux Klan. Terence Blanchard says the inspiration for the theme came from Jimi Hendrix's performance of the national anthem at Woodstock.
BLANCHARD: That was incredible to me because, you know, back then, anytime you heard the national anthem, it was always this very pristine, very conservative approach to singing it or performing it. So to hear it done with a distorted electric guitar - it was just radical.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIMI HENDRIX: (Playing guitar).
BLANCHARD: I just felt like he was screaming to everybody, you know, look, man; we did as much for this country as anybody else; and we should be afforded all the protections and the rights just like anybody else. When I think about Spike's films, the overall gist of what he's dealing with is humanity. And I thought there wouldn't be anything more appropriate than have that sound be a part of the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "BLUT UND BODEN (BLOOD AND SOIL)"
GREIVING: Terence Blanchard and Spike Lee are part of a special class of director-composer duos like Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann or Steven Spielberg and John Williams. It just took the academy decades to recognize their achievements. When I bring up the fact that this is his composer's first nomination, Lee censors himself.
LEE: I'm not going to curse on NPR, but listen to the music - "Malcolm X," "25th Hour," "Bamboozled," "Inside Man," "Miracle At St. Anna." I can go on and on and on and on and on. And now this is the first. Come on now, but we're happy about it (laughter).
GREIVING: Terence Blanchard is happy. If he wins, it'll be the first time a black composer has won best original score in more than 30 years.
BLANCHARD: The thing that I'm excited about the most is that I may be part of a historic moment in the Oscars where there has been a sea change in how things have progressed.
GREIVING: Like the main character in the movie says, maybe one person can make unequal systems better from the inside. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "BLUT UND BODEN (BLOOD AND SOIL)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.