Witness Terence Blanchard who early on made a name for himself as a toptier jazz trumpeter from New Orleans and who has gone on to enjoy a multifaceted career both in the jazz camp and beyond. He’s not only a fivetime Grammy Award winner, but he’s also a renowned film-score and soundtrack composer (most recently for George Lucas’s 2012 Red Tails film about the Tuskegee Airmen).
Add to those achievements Blanchard’s recent success composing for Broadway (including the score for the world premiere of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker With a Hat starring Chris Rock and the Emily Mann-directed revival of Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prizewinning play A Streetcar Named Desire); an opera commissioned by Opera St. Louis (a poignant tale of welterweight boxing champion Emile Griffith with librettist Michael Cristofer); a speaking role as the musical voice of Louis the Alligator in the animated feature The Princess and the Frog; becoming the artistic director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s jazz series; and after serving as the artistic director of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz for a decade since 2000, being named in 2011 the artistic director of the Henri Mancini Institute, the program at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. In addition, Blanchard serves as the artist in residence at the Detroit Jazz Festival over the Labor Day long weekend in 2012.
Blanchard concedes that he’s very busy these days, but adds, “I’m blessed.” Blanchard is renowned in jazz circles as a remarkable trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader. Vanity Fair writes, “He plays the most coolly expressive trumpet in jazz, transmuting the instrument’s repertoire of smears, growls, peeps and blasts into an astonishingly fluid language both luxurious and controlled.”
A veteran of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (recommended by Wynton Marsalis as his replacement in 1983), Blanchard began his own recording career in a band co-led with saxophonist Donald Harrison, delivering two albums for Concord and three more for Columbia before launching his solo career with his eponymous 1991 album, also for Columbia. He delivered nine albums for Columbia and Sony Classical.
In 2003 Blanchard signed with Blue Note Records where his career jettisoned to a new level of excellence, beginning with Bounce and then two years later with the Herbie Hancock-produced Flow (nominated for a Grammy). In 2007 Blanchard won the large jazz ensemble Grammy for the haunting song-cycle album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) and in 2008 won the best instrumental solo Grammy for Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (he won the same Grammy in 2009 for Jeff Tain Watts’s album Watts for the track “Dancin’ for Chicken”).
In a one-off recording for Concord, Blanchard delivered 2009’s Choices, a compelling sextet date featuring spoken-word passages by social activist Dr. Cornel West and guest vocals by R&B soul singer Bilal. Recorded at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in his hometown of New Orleans, Choices proved to be a profound album. One reviewer commented, “Blanchard’s consummate imprint and warm tone permeate the recording, and his mirrored tracks ‘D’s Choice’ and ‘Robin’s Choice’ are masterful—full of emotion, spirit and humanity. Mixing jazz and philosophy within a vibrant setting, the aptly titled Choices continues to bear the good fruits of his thoughtful decisions.”
The response to Choices was “very positive and very emotional,” says Blanchard. “Having the words along with the music was a unique marriage to talk about the choices you have to make. After our live shows, the audience came up to us and told us that they reflected on their own mortality, their own judgment, especially after what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They said the music really helped them to re-examine themselves.”
Choices was Blanchard’s 18th album as a leader/co-leader and his 39th album overall. He will be returning to Blue Note Records to record his next album. While recording and touring his own bands, Blanchard was also becoming a go-to composer for scoring films, beginning in the early ‘90s for such films as Jungle Fever (1991) and Malcolm X (1992). He has enjoyed a special collaborative relationship with director Spike Lee, including his 2002 film 25th Hour (for which Blanchard received a Golden Globe nomination), the 2006 HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna. Blanchard worked on the soundtrack for Cadillac Records (2008) and most recently contributed the score for Lucasfilm’s Red Tails, the film about the Tuskegee pilots that George Lucas worked on for several years. (The album of the score was recently released on Sony.) The film starred Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and Bryan Lee Cranston. It was directed by Anthony Hemingway of Treme, The Wire and Battleship Galactica fame.
“It was a great experience working with George,” says Blanchard, who notes that this was his 52nd score. “He gave me a lot of rope for my compositions and he told me to have fun. I would write music, send it to him and respond to his comments. This whole project represents one instance that proves Hollywood wrong. For George Lucas to stick with this film idea for over 20 years and to do it on his own and to have it be such a success speaks volumes.”
Blanchard’s work with film has organically spread to working on scores for Broadway productions. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, The Motherf**ker With a Hat premiered at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York on April 11, 2011 and closed on July 17, 2011. It garnered six Tony Award nominations. Shapiro will be directing a new production of the play in Chicago at Steppenwolf Theatre. She has requested permission to use the same music Blanchard composed for the original run.
As for A Streetcar Named Desire, set in the gritty French Quarter of 1940s New Orleans, he says, “I’ve been inspired by Tennessee Williams’s play and the original screenplay. One of the things about the movie—which is great and even historic in terms of our culture—is how much reference there is to music, such as the line ‘and the brass band plays.’ New Orleans had a profound effect on Tennessee Williams, which is why he wrote this play.” Streetcar previously played Broadway in 2005 with Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly starring. This new production stars Blair Underwood and is produced by Front Row Productions, which enlisted Blanchard to develop thematic ideas and arrangements with a New Orleans sensibility.
Of special interest to Blanchard is the commission from Opera St. Louis for his first-time opera that will premiere in 2013 (Pulitzer Prize winner for drama and Tony Award winner Michael Cristofer is writing the libretto). “I love the challenge,” he says. “My father loved opera. He was a baritone who studied, so it was an emotional connection to him.” At first there was talk about doing something related to Hurricane Katrina, but Blanchard says “that’s one of those stories that will need to be revisited 10 to 20 years from now.”
Instead, Blanchard, a big boxing fan, decided to focus on the story of former welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith, a tremendous fighter from the U.S. Virgin Islands who also had to deal with the repercussions of being a closeted gay in the early ‘60s. “Opponents outted him and called him a faggot,” says Blanchard. “Emile is famous for tragically punching his welterweight opponent Benny Paret in 1962 so badly that he fell into a coma and died. His life went into a tailspin after that and years later he met up with Benny’s son in a New York City park. The son told Emile that he didn’t harbor any hard feelings. The opera is not only about Emile’s story, but to carry the thought further, it’s about how many pro athletes are gay and don’t feel free to share that. I’m hoping this opera will stir up the debate.”
In addition to all musical contributions, Blanchard is a heralded leader of music education. “I’m very proud of the work I did as artistic director of the Monk Institute for 10 years,” he says. “It was hard leaving, but I had to move on. Becoming the artistic director of the Mancini Institute is really exciting for me. They are committed to cutting-edge education in the program, which is run by Shelly Berg. It’s a program with a vision. I’ve been in my first year, and he’s constantly talking about reshaping the program, re-evaluating what we’ve done and how to find out what students really need.” Blanchard attends the institute for one week every month and works with music students on improvisation, composition and performance.
Blanchard will continue to tour with his quintet and start working on his next recording in addition to all his other projects—all of which furthers this New Orleans native son’s emergence as one of the most extraordinarily fascinating artists who is creatively attuned to a variety of art forms. In the words of one writer: “Blanchard is a restless soul. His career is like a jazz chart, filled with unseen turns, twists and handoffs.”