A Master Storyteller, Terence Blanchard's Omnivorous Oeuvre Resists Categorization

Feb 23, 2021

Versatility is one thing; possessing the aptitude to match a boundless musical curiosity is another. Leonard Bernstein had both; Terence Blanchard also has both.

Bernstein’s jazz-infused compositions for stage and symphony orchestra bridged jazz and classical music in boundary-breaking new ways, lending credence to his senior thesis at Harvard, in which he asserted that “jazz is the universal basis of American composition.”

Blanchard, in a career now in its fifth decade, has consistently expanded upon Bernstein’s thesis, riffing on classical motifs with his Grammy-winning jazz ensembles and enlivening operas, symphony orchestras, and scores upon scores of (film) scores by reminding audiences that jazz is not just an idiomatic musical language; it’s also, in the right hands, an unforgettably moving narrative tool.

Blanchard did not become this prolific by accident. Growing up in New Orleans, he studied piano with Ellis Marsalis and played trumpet alongside Ellis’ son, Wynton, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Blanchard would move to metro New York after high school, first studying at Rutgers and soon gigging with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra before replacing an old friend in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers—Wynton Marsalis, of course, recommended his Crescent City compatriot for the chair.
 
Blanchard matriculated at hard bop’s most prestigious work-study under Headmaster Blakey from 1982 to 1990, becoming the Jazz Messengers’ music director and playing mostly alongside Mulgrew Miller (piano), Lonnie Plaxico (bass), Jean Toussaint (tenor sax), and Donald Harrison (alto sax) on several well received, late-stage Blakey recordings, including the Grammy-winning live date New York Scene (1984).

Blanchard’s gone on to win five more Grammys, none more emotionally impactful than the one he received in 2007 for A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). A re-working and expansion of parts of the score Blanchard had composed for Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, the album comprised Blanchard’s quintet accompanied by the 40-piece Northwest Sinfonia.
 
When Blanchard moved back to New Orleans in 1995, after he’d made his mark on the New York scene, he couldn’t have envisioned the hardships ahead. A decade later, he’d have to help his mother abandon her flood-ravaged Ponchartrain Park home, the home Blanchard grew up in; a decade after that, the house restored, he’d move his mother back home. In the meantime, with God’s Will (’07), Blanchard tried to rebuild New Orleans with music, though he concedes that he was as much a conduit for that music as he was its conscious creator.

“I don’t feel like I composed it,” Blanchard told The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) in 2015. “I feel like that was something that was being screamed at me.” He has said repeatedly that because Katrina was so personal to him, he felt almost paralyzing pressure at first to get his musical response to it exactly right. Writing music to amplify Lee’s narrative vision helped Blanchard create necessary distance.
 

It was on 1990's Mo' Better Blues that the narrative arc of Blanchard's film industry career began to take shape.

When the Levees Broke was easier,” he said in the same interview, “because I was looking at it as somebody else’s statement. So my mind was free in terms of what I was creating.”
 
That’s but one instance of how Blanchard’s relationship with Lee has been transformative over the years. By the late ’80s, Blanchard had become a known quantity from his work with Blakey and the offshoot quintet he’d formed with fellow Messenger (and New Orleanian) Donald Harrison. Once on Lee’s radar, Blanchard played on successive scores composed by Lee’s father, jazz musician Bill Lee—starting with School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing(1989).
 
But it was on 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues that the narrative arc of Blanchard’s film industry career began to take shape. He’d been given a bigger role. Not only was he featured alongside the Branford Marsalis Quartet to play music written by a jazz musician (Bill Lee), in a movie about jazz musicians, Blanchard was also charged with tutoring Denzel Washington in the finer points of jazz musicianship—how to walk, talk, and hold the trumpet in his hands so that his character, Bleek Gilliam, at least appeared authentic.
 
It was a daunting task; Washington, initially, was pretty raw, but under Blanchard’s tutelage the Academy Award winner caught on. “He even got to the point where he could hear the blues,” Blanchard told the Los Angeles Times shortly after the film’s 1990 release. “The first quintet tune in the movie is a blues, and he understood the form.”

Mo’ Better became “…a three-fold break for me,” he told the Times, “as a player, a teacher and a writer. I’d sure love to have all those experiences again.”
 
Blanchard would get everything he wished for and more. Since “Sing Soweto,” the Blanchard original that ended up becoming Bleek Gilliam’s theme, Blanchard’s composed music for nearly every Spike Lee “joint” that’s called for an original score, from cornerstones of Lee’s canon like Malcolm X, Crooklyn, and Clockers, to underappreciated gems like 25th Hour and Inside Man, to recent blockbusters like 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, where, along with his quintet, the E-Collective, Blanchard led a 96-piece orchestra.

For the latter, Blanchard—in addition to winning his sixth Grammy—received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score, while Lee received his first for Best Director, accolades that, on both accounts, many argued were flagrantly overdue.

“It’s crazy because at [the Oscar Nominees Luncheon], [film industry peers] are not just talking about BlacKkKlansman,” Blanchard told Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins in early 2019. “They’re talking to us about the body of work… And that speaks volumes. And so to be recognized in this fashion, yeah, it’s long overdue. That’s [been] the elephant in the room.”

Happy for the recognition, Blanchard doesn’t want to be pigeonholed in an industry with a penchant for that sort of thing. Yes, he’s worked a lot with Lee, but he’s also composed original scores for prominent auteurs like Gus Van Sant (Finding Forrester), George Lucas (Red Tails), Kasi Lemmons (Harriet and Eve’s Bayou), and Regina King (One Night in Miami). And yes, he’s become prolific at crafting music that amplifies the emotional gravity of motion pictures. But that’s just a fancy way of saying he’s worked hard enough to master several different disciplines that all call for a natural storyteller.
 

In September 2021, Blanchard will become the first Black composer to premiere an original opera at The Metropolitan Opera.

“He’s coming from a tradition of storytellers and narratives in New Orleans, from a Mardi Gras tradition,” Wynton Marsalis explained to NPR’s Tim Grieving in a 2019 episode of All Things Considered, as though he were stating something self-evident.
 
“People,” he declared in the manner of a mock address, “he has a mind for the fantastic!”
 
If you need further proof, consider this: after leading 20 jazz recording dates and scoring over 40 movies, Blanchard has taken to composing opera. His first, Champion, “an opera in jazz” about former welterweight champ Emile Griffith who fought prejudiced attitudes about his sexuality—he was bisexual—and torment over having unintentionally killed an opponent in the ring, debuted in St. Louis in 2013 and earned critical praise in productions at SFJAZZ and The Kennedy Center.

And in September, Blanchard will become the first Black composer to premiere an original opera at The Metropolitan Opera. With music by Blanchard and a libretto by the aforementioned Lemmons, Fire Shut Up in My Bones—an adaptation of New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s bestselling memoir about childhood trauma and its layered emotional fallout—will open the Met’s 2021-2022 season. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s own Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in his role as the Met’s music director, will be conducting. The world premiere of the opera was in 2019 at Opera Theatre of Saint Loius:

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Black History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, home to the first Department of Africology and African American studies in the country to offer a doctoral program.