Eclectic is an overused word. But in the case of trumpeter, pianist and composer Terence Blanchard who rose to the top of the jazz world, has composed scores for more than fifty films and more recently has taken the opera world by storm, it almost uniquely applies.
Blanchard exists at the top of parallel music worlds that ordinarily are considered culturally segregated. So how does a single artist manage to encapsulate multiple genres, genres so territorial as to have built their own uncrossable boundaries?
Central to Blanchard’s wide-ranging musical journey is his native city of New Orleans, a historic music mecca and the birthplace of jazz, which came about from that chance late-nineteenth-early twentieth-century meeting of European harmony and African rhythm.
“Essential” is how Blanchard describes the influence of what being born and raised in New Orleans means to his musical development. It remains his home base to this day. “It’s the thing that puts everything in perspective for me.
“Playing with Art Blakey was a godsend at an early part of my career. Imagine you’re listening to all of these classic records, then you get a chance to play with a guy that created some of those recordings. And then you see how he’s setting up melodies when he’s playing your music. You see how he’s rehearsing. You see how he goes for it every night during a show with no letup even when he’s terribly ill. You see how that’s his total focus when we’re on the bandstand. All of those things start to give you a practical idea of what it takes to be on that level.
“It’s an interesting thing because there are a lot of guys with talent but not many guys with the drive and desire to be that way 24/7. Playing with Art Blakey, playing with Herbie Hancock now, is essential to my development. Even now at this part of my career in terms of knowing and seeing what it takes to be great.”
Blanchard replaced fellow New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers upon Marsalis’ own recommendation when Wynton and his brother Branford left the Messengers to form their own band in 1982.
“I’ve known Wynton and Branford since we were in elementary school. Wynton’s a year older than me, Branford is two years older than me. But you know, we were all close in age. Their father Ellis was my jazz improvisation and theory teacher. When I went to NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] he was the guy that had us learning tunes, learning how to play changes, teaching us the history and so forth.”
Ellis Marsalis also encouraged Blanchard as a pianist. “I had started studying classical piano with Martha Francis when I was about five years old,” Blanchard recalls. “Then when I was about ten or eleven, I moved over to Louise Winchester who also started teaching me theory and gave me ear-training lessons. (I had also switched to trumpet as my primary instrument in fourth grade.) And then when I was fifteen through high school, I studied piano with Roger Dickerson, who also taught me composition.
“Ellis knew I had been studying piano and he hadn’t had a real piano student and he was looking at me as being the guy for him. But I kept grabbing the trumpet and he was like, ‘Yeah, okay, no worries.’ But in school he would show us how to play changes and would give us exercises like, ‘I want you to improvise only playing in one octave.’ Or, ‘Let’s play “Giant Steps” as a ballad because everybody plays it uptempo.’ He was always challenging us. ‘Let’s do this thing in six-bar phrases instead of four-bar phrases.’
“When I got to Roger, he made me bring my notebook and he would give me rules to follow and I would always have to write things down. And I had to take a lot of notes. We never studied out of a book per se. We did four-part harmony, cantus firmi, independent lines, counterpoint, so forth and so on. Everything. He studied in Austria for years and he was the prodigy of another African American composer who was named Howard Swanson. That was his teacher. There were two guys—I posted them both on Instagram—Roger and another guy named Hale Smith. When I moved to New York, Roger said, ‘I want you to study with my friend Hale Smith.’ Then I met Hale. Both of those guys were protégés—products, I should say—of Howard Swanson.”
While all this was going on, Blanchard’s father—an operatically trained amateur baritone—was singing, playing opera records and tuning in to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts at home on Saturday afternoons.
“Oh yeah, man,” Blanchard recalls. “He had a—not an extensive recording collection—but he had a number of albums and those albums I was never allowed to touch. And throughout the week, he would find time to sit down and put on his opera recordings and just sit at the front of the house and listen to his music.”
Does anything stand out to Blanchard about that experience of home exposure to opera so young? Was it alien at first? Did it become more familiar?
“The thing that stands out to me now as a grownup is how probably listening to that music shaped my melodic sense, even when I’m writing film music. It’s one of those things. If you’re hearing ‘Rigoletto,’ you’re hearing ‘Carmen,’ you’re hearing ‘La bohème,’ you’re hearing ‘Turandot’ as a kid, those are classic operas that have very strong melodic content. I think those things played a huge role in terms of how I think about melody and development.
“You know, Dad was always performing in church or in some recitals with a group that they had. He was part of a group of Black men called the Osceola Five who I used to think were really weird when I was a kid because they sang in church and every Wednesday they would have a rehearsal at Osceola Blanchet’s house. I would come over there with them because my dad would drag me over there on Wednesdays—not all the time but sometimes he would bring me over there—he would call me Tye rans. ‘Tye rans, play your piece.’ Whatever piece I was working on at the piano, Chopin or whatever it was, I had to play for them. They would sit down and listen to me play then I would sit down and have to listen to these guys rehearse different pieces of music. Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was one of the ones that they would rehearse all of the time. A lot of different pieces like that that they would rehearse and then sing in church.”
Jazz and the trumpet began to take over Blanchard’s life. After stints with Lionel Hampton and then Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blanchard formed a quintet with Donald Harrison, who had been in the Jazz Messengers with him.
“Donald Harrison and I were trying to write a lot of different types of music. That kind of opened me up. By that time, I was consumed with Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. That was the thing for me. I wanted to be the next Miles Davis. Then I had the chance to meet him and I realized that was never going to happen. But still, that was my motivation.”
Did Blanchard have a good experience meeting Davis? He was notoriously difficult to young trumpet players and many had horror stories. Blanchard’s friend Wynton, for instance, walked onstage to join in during a Davis performance only to be thrown off by Davis.
“Trust me, I know. I kept thinking I hope I’m not going to be one of those dudes with one of those stories because it would break my heart. He was such a hero of mine. But no, man, he was really cool with me. He saw me play on a TV show that was a broadcast of a jazz festival in Hollywood, Florida, 1983. I’ll never forget it because I have a poster around here someplace. Then I’m in Perugia, Italy as a professor teaching there at the jazz festival and Miles comes to play and some journalist interviews him and asks him about who is a young trumpet player that he really likes? He says [imitating Davis’ soft, raspy voice], ‘I like Terence.’
“It hit the wire service and I came out of the hotel and all these journalists ran up to me: ‘What did you think about what Miles Davis said about you?’ ‘First of all, what did he say?’ Because like anybody else, I was worried about what he might say about me! But then, he was playing in a town right next to where we were and the festival promoter had organized a bus for a lot of us to go see the show. And when we went to see his show, I was standing on the side where Miles would walk by and Al Foster the drummer said, ‘Have you ever met Miles?’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Come on in, man, I’m going to introduce you.’ And when I walked in, Miles looked at me and called my name, ‘Terence. Keep doing what you’re doing, motherfucker.’
“And then I would see Miles after that and every time I saw him after that he was always cool, man. I opened up for him one time, you know, and he cut us off. Because he didn’t like nobody opening up for him, I found out. We played two songs and the promoter was telling us to shut it down. We were like, ‘Damn.’ But when I saw him at the airport, he asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Dude, I opened up for you last night!’ He goes, ‘That was you? No shit.’ I had a cool relationship with him. It’s not like we sat down and talked all the time but every time I saw him, he was nice. I remember with my first wife, he remembered her. He met her and kissed her on her hand. Then when he would see me after he’d say, ‘How’s your wife?’ He was cool.”
Blanchard admits he could have easily and happily kept on playing jazz exclusively, were it not for Spike Lee. Blanchard was hired as a session player on Lee’s 1990 movie “Mo’ Better Blues.”
“I just happened to be playing the piano one day. Spike liked what he heard and asked if he could use it. And then he asked me to write a string arrangement of it. That’s basically how my film career started.”
Totally by accident? “Yeah. But you see, I always tell people, ‘You know that definition of luck that a lot of people say is true? It’s when preparation meets opportunity.’”
Was Blanchard prepared?
“Well,” he laughs, “I didn’t think that I could do it. I was scared to death and I called [pianist and composer] Roger Dickerson. And Roger told me, ‘Man, trust your training. You got this. Go ahead and do it.’ And I did.
“After Spike heard what I had done for ‘Mo’ Better Blues,’ he said, ‘You have a future in this business.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ I thought he was just being nice. And then he called me to do ‘Jungle Fever’ (1991). It was interesting because right after I did that, I thought he was just going to move on with somebody else for ‘Malcolm X’ (1992) because it was such a big project. And he called me and said, ‘I want you to do “Malcolm X.”’ And I did a lot of homework in between ‘Jungle Fever’ and ‘Malcolm X.’ I studied some scores, went back and started reviewing my orchestral scores that I had studied as a kid. And just tried to prepare myself as much as I could.”
Were there particular film composers that spoke to Blanchard?
“Of course. You know, all of the same ones everybody else loves. Thomas Newman, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, all of those guys. They all had something to say to me. What’s the Italian guy that wrote ‘The Mission?’ Ennio Morricone.”
Did Blanchard see his own style as a film composer emerging as he scored more and more films?
“No, not really, because all of the projects were so different, you know? So by the projects being different, it made me feel like I needed to be able to morph and be like any great actor, you know what I mean? When you see great acting, those guys can turn themselves into anything. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of my favorites. I loved him for that reason. You see him in ‘Capote’ and you’re like, ‘Is that the same dude that was in one of Spike’s movies?’ [“25th Hour” (2002), which was scored by Blanchard.]
“When you’re writing scores it can be seen as a gun for hire, as it were, but it’s more like you’re really a communion for hire. Because you have to look at the film and say, ‘What does it need?’ Not, ‘What do I want it to be?’”
So Blanchard was moving along with this fulfilling dual career for many years as a film composer and as a jazz trumpeter. And then, along came opera.
“You know,” Blanchard admits, laughing, “it’s one of those things where you’ve got to be careful what you say and who you say it to. There was a guy named Gene Dobbs Bradford who became the head of Jazz St. Louis for over twenty years. When he was just a young guy working for Jazz at the Bistro in St. Louis, he picked me up from the airport for a gig and we had a conversation about stuff. You know, just getting to know each other. I told him my Dad loved opera. ‘Man, I heard a lot of opera growing up.’ Just in conversation. Years later, Tim O’Leary, Jim Robinson and Stephen Lord of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis wanted to broaden the appeal for opera so they thought about doing a jazz opera, right? And they contacted Gene Dobbs Bradford and he remembered that conversation that we had had years ago! Crazy, right?
“So, Gene brought up my name and [then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis artistic director] Jim Robinson met with me in New York and said he wanted me to write an opera. And man, I was like, ‘Who? Do what? What are you talking about? Man, please!’ I always make the joke that I leaned across the table to smell his breath because I thought he was drinking, you know? But then I realized he was serious. Well, I’m always up for challenges, musical challenges. I’ve never tried to shy away from anything, you know? I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a go.’ The worst thing that could happen is if it doesn’t work, I can just go back to being who I was prior to that.
“But the beautiful thing about those guys is that they stepped me through the process of learning how to get the libretto done first. And then once the libretto was done, to have me start writing vocal lines first. And before I even do an orchestration, let’s put the words together with the vocal lines to see if they work, how they work. They stepped me through every stage of the process. Granted, it took me longer my first time because I was scared to death. I called Roger Dickerson again and his advice to me back then was, ‘Stop thinking about writing an opera. Just tell a story.’
“I remember them bringing me to St. Louis to see one of their seasons. And I got a chance to see [John Corigliano’s] ‘The Ghosts of Versailles,’ ‘Salome’ and then there was a classic opera, I can’t remember which one it was: this was fifteen years ago now. But they wanted me to see the hall and see what it was that they do. And I got to tell you, it was intimidating. Those were three different musical styles. The thing of it for me was ‘Okay, where do I fit into all of that?’ That was the question for me. That’s what had me nervous the whole first year that I started to write. Writing an opera is not for the faint of heart, that’s for damn sure. If you have problems writing twelve-bar blues, don’t jump into opera.”
Blanchard chose the subject of his first opera, which is the opera Lyric Opera is presenting January 27-February 11, “Champion.”
“My best friend was a heavyweight boxing champion, his name is Michael Bentt. He beat Tommy Morrison for the title. He was the guy that trained me. He had been training me for years. I had been a big fight fan.”
Miles had also been a boxer. A coincidence?
“Just a coincidence. I started out kickboxing with one guy here in New Orleans then moved to another guy, Charlie Gallagher, who was a boxing coach. And then once I got into boxing with Charlie Gallagher, that’s when I met Michael Bentt. We immediately hit it off and then he started training me. He had talked to me about various fighters over the years. And I remember him telling me about Emile Griffith. He said that he knew Griffith and he was just a really sweet guy. And then when I read the book ‘Nine…Ten…and Out!’ it just blew me away.”
A native of the Virgin Islands, Emile Griffith was world champion in three weight divisions during a long professional career from 1958 to 1977.
Griffith’s most famous bout was his 1962 welterweight title fight with Benny “Kid” Paret. The two had fought twice before with Griffith knocking out Paret their first fight and the two fighting a rematch to a draw.
At the weigh-in for their third meeting, Paret uttered an anti-gay slur to Griffith that so enraged him—being publicly called out as gay at the time would have likely ended a major sports career—he wanted to fight Paret on the spot. Paret was so badly beaten by Griffith when they did meet for their third fight that Paret fell into a coma and was hospitalized. Feeling remorseful, Griffith tried to visit Paret in the hospital but was turned away and publicly scorned. Paret died a few days later and Griffith felt immense guilt about his death for decades.
“The interesting thing is that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis didn’t get it at first. They thought I was trying to do a boxing opera. But I said, ‘No, no, no,’ read this story. Read this book. And when they learned more about his story and did their research and learned who Emile Griffith was and learned what he went through, they understood that the boxing part of it was just the backdrop to a much more compelling story.”
Nonetheless, Blanchard insisted that anything to do with boxing portrayed in “Champion” look authentic.
“Here’s the thing. I’m a big fight fan and my thing about boxing is a lot of people really don’t understand what it takes to get into the ring. It’s a major ordeal. It’s a serious commitment. The workout itself is so strenuous and challenging that it’s an incredible thing to witness. So what I wanted to do was make sure that even though boxing would be the backdrop, I wanted people to get a sense of what this guy had to go through just to get in the ring. There are a few training scenes, a lot of things that indicate the level of training that he had to go through.”
And from the stills from “Champion,” it looks like fights—at least the fight—are part of the opera?
“Yeah. Oh, definitely. As a matter of fact, when we did it in New York, we brought Michael Bentt to train the guys. In Chicago, they’ve also brought in trainers.
“Emile was a reluctant champion. He was a man from the islands that never called himself gay, so I didn’t want to have really overtly outgoing scenes because that’s not who he was. The club scenes are probably the most flamboyant ones that we have in the opera because we figure if somebody’s living that life and they’re in the club, then they’re doing their thing. But we didn’t try to make it seem like he was on a crusade to pronounce his sexuality. He was really living a double life.”
Was Blanchard surprised at the way it all started to come together? What was the biggest surprise about that process?
“Oh, man. There’s so many. When we started doing the rehearsals and started doing the music with the principals just to hear those voices, dude. I was blown away. We had been doing the workshops with students and they were cool, but they were students. You go from that to Denyce Graves, it’s like going from the NCAA to the NBA. It was an incredible thing to see. To hear Aubrey [Allicock, who sang Young Emile], I’ll never forget when he sang ‘What Makes a Man a Man?’ The first time I heard him sing it I was like, “Whoa, I wrote that?’ They brought so much to it that they just took it to a whole other place. All of a sudden, people are walking around a stage singing these musical lines that you wrote and it’s very freaky to see it.
“When I’m writing music for films, there’s a lot of places where there’s no music. But in opera, I’m supplying all the music, not only background. And all of that stuff has to have meaning and purpose.
“At first I felt like a fish out of water. The singers were saying, ‘Oh man, we love to sing it,’ but I thought they were just being nice. It wasn’t until we saw the reaction from the public that I thought maybe this was something. But then I remember the dude—oh man, he just died—[opera impresario] Richard Gaddes came up to me and gave me a big compliment and encouraged me to keep going in this direction. So that’s when I thought maybe I can find space to exist in this world.”
“Champion” was such when it opened in 2014 that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis commissioned Blanchard to write a second opera, which became “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” After premiering in St. Louis in 2019, an astonishing thing happened: the Metropolitan Opera came calling.
Met general manager “Peter Gelb was a friend. We did some albums together back when he was the president of Sony Music so I had known him for a while. And then Peter called me up and said, ‘We want to do “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” We’re thinking about doing it in a smaller theater.’”
Like every place else, the Met shut down during the pandemic. In the wake of the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter moment, Gelb called Blanchard and said, “You know what? We’re going to do it on the mainstage. And we want you to open the season and reopen the theater.” (Lyric Opera became a co-sponsor of the Met production and presented it six months after it premiered at the Met, at the start of the 2021-22 season.)
Could Blanchard have imagined any of this? “Not at all. The next thing was just trying to figure out how to do all of the rehearsals and all of that stuff because of the pandemic. It was frustrating for the singers, man, because everybody had to be masked up 24/7. There were a limited number of people who could even be in the building. You couldn’t bring family and friends like you would normally. And then when you came to the opera everybody in the audience had to be masked.
“And it was the Met, right? It was surreal. Everywhere I went there were A-list people working on the production whether it was crew people, the lighting guys, set design, everybody was at the top of their game. It was an incredible thing to witness because I was the newbie. Those guys were veterans who had been doing this stuff for years.”
Then there was the moment Blanchard had the weight put on his shoulders of learning that “Fire” was the first opera composed by an African American presented at the Met in its 136-year history
“It was a journalist, and I can’t remember his name, who first told me. I mean, first of all, I hadn’t done much press for anything in my entire career. I said, ‘Man, I don’t know if that’s right.’ He said, ‘No, it’s true. I did the research.’ I’m like, ‘We’re going to have to check on that one.’ It’s New York City, man, you know? How could I be the first Black person to have an opera at the Met? In New York City? Now, if you were talking about some other town around the country, maybe. But I just couldn’t believe that was possible in New York. Then I had a conversation with Peter. And he said, ‘Yeah. You’re the first.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa.’
“I was filled with mixed emotions. I kept telling people back then—and I still say—I may be the first, but I wasn’t the first African American qualified to be there. I’m very appreciative of the notion and the avenue of distinction but it fuels me to make sure that I don’t let William Grant Still or any of those other Black composers before me who were turned down. They showed me a ledger where Still had been rejected three times by the Met.”
Has Blanchard had the chance since to realize the weight of that historically?
“No,” he says. “People keep talking to me about it, but I don’t think about it. I try not to. I feel like Jackie Robinson in a sense. He was the first, but there were a lot of ball players who could really play before him. He fit the narrative of what was acceptable. And I know that I wasn’t under those same kind of constraints at all. It’s a different day in our society.”
“Champion” plays January 27-February 11 at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker, lyricopera.org.