In the early 1980s, trumpeter Terence Blanchard came of age on stage, succeeding Wynton Marsails in drummer Art Blakey’s vaunted Jazz Messengers, the longstanding proving ground that also steered New Orleans saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison through the ranks. A five-time Grammy winner, today Blanchard stands as a preeminent figure in the jazz world, his place in the pantheon well enshrined. Yet to the fearless innovator, jazz is simply his language, his horn but a conduit, and his calling, a testament.
“I am a musician,” Blanchard says. “When I have the desire to say something, it speaks to me in rhythms and colors and melodies and notes.”
As Blakey did, Blanchard surrounds himself with musicians significantly younger than he and perceives his role not simply to lead by example but to learn by example as well. “With this latest group, I’ve brought in musicians who are also forward-thinking people. When we play, we allow the music to tell us what’s going on. And, at the same time, we’re all on the same page in terms of allowing the music to be drawn to us.”
Of the current group, only longtime saxophonist Brice Winston (eight years Blanchard’s junior), and drummer Kendrick Scott (33) have logged time in Blanchard’s band. For pianist Fabian Almazan and bassist Joshua Crumbly (27 and 20, respectively), Blanchard’s forthcoming album Magnetic will serve as their first as part of his ensemble. For Blanchard, who converted from Christianity to Buddhism five years ago, the effort personifies his philosophy:
“To create any piece of art the first thing that has to come is a desire to express [oneself]. These guys, they’re always pushing the envelope—not pushing it for the sake of pushing it, but pushing it because they have the desire to express themselves.”
Musically, Magnetic pushes the context of contemporary jazz, melding elements of hard bop, post-bop and heavy swing into contemporary textures and contours for an endeavor that recalls the mystic mojo of Wayne Shorter’s 1964 quest Juju.
Conceptually, for Blanchard, Magnetic’s undertaking resonates beyond its tunes. “Throughout my entire life, I’ve always tried to learn more about who we are, and where we come from,” he explains. “One of the things I keep coming back to is that a lot of our destiny, our fate, is in our hands.”
In a case of destiny unforeseen, two decades earlier a 28-year-old Blanchard was all but silenced following a four year span that saw him and fellow Jazz Messenger Donald Harrison deliver seven high-profile albums. Derailed by a chronic series of lip injuries, the formidable trumpeter was forced to relearn how to blow his horn.
During the transformation, Blanchard found employment as a session musician, playing on the soundtracks for Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989). The next year, Lee’s Jungle Fever brought Blanchard his first composer’s credit. Since, his scores have supplied the soundtracks to more than 50 features and become synonymous with Lee’s.
More impressively, Blanchard’s ability to draw from his experiences in one arena in order to understand the context of another has given rise to a stylistic approach that allows him to explore the classical and theatrical realms as a composer. Many consider 2007’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), which marries the melodies of Blanchard’s jazz quintet to the accompaniment of a 40-piece string section, a watershed moment, yet Blanchard considers his ascent a work in progress:
“You know how some people say, ‘All the stars are aligned?’ I knew that I wanted to write pieces for large ensembles. It didn’t have to be film, but as I started becoming more interested in being a film composer, it spilled into this other area of music where now I’m being commissioned to write larger works.”
Then, perhaps all of Blanchard’s stars were aligned when an unusual inquiry from the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis compelled him to take on the largest music project of his life: composing a jazz opera.
“When they first contacted me I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll write an opera, whatever,’” he recounts, “but when I saw that they were serious, I became really excited about it because my father studied opera and used to sing it around the house.”
Premiering June 15, Blanchard’s opera Champion examines the life of 75-year-old retired prizefighter Emile Griffith, a welterweight, whose victory over Cuba’s Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1961 crowned Griffith the U.S. Virgin Islands’ first professional boxing champion. Griffith’s reign was short-lived, however, as he would go on to lose the title to Paret in a rematch a few months later. In a nationally-televised rubbermatch less than a year removed from their first clash, Griffith, a closeted bisexual, avenged his prior defeat with a devastating twelfth-round knockout that left Paret in a coma. 10 days later, “The Kid” passed away, leaving in his wake a burden that stripped the champ of his will as well as a horrific sports reel that will forever draw speculation.
Thirty years removed from the ringside tragedy, Griffith nearly succumbed to a curb-side beating that came within minutes of his departure from a Manhattan gay bar. In 2005, it was revealed that Paret taunted Griffith, calling his opponent a maricon (Spanish for “faggot”) during the weigh-in prior to their final confrontation. Today, Griffith suffers from dementia, the byproduct of his 112 battles between the ropes.
Blanchard, who trains recreationally as a boxer, first learned of Griffith’s story from friend and former Heavyweight Champion Michael Bentt. “Once I heard it, I was floored by the notion of somebody being so accomplished but never being able to share his accomplishments openly with someone that he loved,” Blanchard recollects. “In his [Griffith’s] autobiography he says, ‘I killed a man, and the world forgave me, yet I loved a man, and the world has never forgiven me.’ That’s a powerful quote. Given everything that’s going on right now, I think it speaks volumes about who we are—not only as a country, but as people.”
From this sentiment, Blanchard scripted a songbook, one operatic in scope, scored in jazz. “Jazz is a sound; it’s a feeling; it’s a color,” he says. “The reason we’re calling this an opera in jazz is because we’re taking the language and rhythms of jazz and using the context of opera as means to help tell this story. There are moments where elements of improvisation will come from the orchestra and others [where it will come] from the jazz trio sitting beside them.”
Musically, as it pertains to spanning the centuries separating the classical European and modern American dialects, Blanchard contends:
“Improvisation is something that people always associate with being strictly a jazz thing, but if you go back and listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and the early recordings from the world of jazz, there wasn’t much improvisation going on in the way we think of it today. At the same time, when you see some of these young brass bands on the street, and you listen to them technically and hear what they’re doing creatively, so many of those rhythms and phrases go straight back to Louis Armstrong.”
In line with this analogy, Blanchard’s core focus centers primarily on the music and the story’s ability to connect culturally. Regarding the story itself, he offers, “It was something that I thought would help spur debate about the issue in and outside of the world of sports and attract some new people to the world of opera.”
As for the part the most prolific composer of his generation’s music plays in furthering this discourse, Blanchard places his faith in a spirit he first summoned in his 20s: the will of a jazz messenger.
“‘Never speak above your audience. Never speak beneath your audience. Speak straight to them,’ Art Blakey would always say. To me, that speaks volumes about the honesty and sincerity it takes to draw people to your art.
“When you create music that’s strictly from your heart, it resonates in ways that people can relate to. Those are the vibrations that will help others heal.”