In June, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it will stage an opera by an African-American composer for the first time in the company’s 163-year history. New Orleans jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard composed Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the Met’s historic choice. “He’s a brilliant composer,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, told The New York Times following the announcement. The opera may premiere in New York as soon as the 2020-2021 season.
Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini reviewed Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ world premiere production at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “Vocal lines,” Tommasini wrote in June, “flow from lyrical wistfulness to snappy declamations; dense big-band sonorities in the orchestra segue into lighter passages backed by a jazz rhythm section. And there are rousing evocations of gospel choruses at church, blues and, during a fraternity party, a rhythmic chorus of spoken words, finger snapping and dance steps.”
Kasi Lemmons based the Fire Shut Up in My Bones libretto on a memoir by Louisiana native Charles Blow, a New York Times opinion columnist. Terence Blanchard previously composed musical scores for Lemmons’ films Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine and, opening November 1, Harriet, a biopic about Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.
This year has been a big one for Blanchard, including his sixth Grammy Award and UCLA’s announcement that he has been named the first Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at the Herb Alpert School of Music. The Met and UCLA announcements follow the Oscar nomination Blanchard received in January for Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman. Lee and Blanchard have collaborated on more than a dozen films since the trumpeter composed the music for 1992’s Malcolm X.
Blanchard received another honor in October when the New Orleans Film Society presented him with its career achievement award. And the New Orleans Film Festival screened two new Blanchard projects, Harriet and the Michael Murphy documentary, Up from the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music.
Speaking from Los Angeles, Blanchard—whose laurels also include his 2016 Best of the Beat award for best contemporary jazz artist—talked about Harriet, Up from the Streets and his historic place in American opera.
The Metropolitan Opera recently announced that it will stage your second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Was having an opera presented by the Met a longtime goal?
No. It’s one of those things that remind me of who I am and where I came from. My father loved opera. He was an amateur baritone who sang in the church and he did operatic recitals here and there. When he was a kid, my father sang in a group called the Harlem Harmony Kings. When they sang on the radio in New Orleans, they would have to go up the back steps of the radio station on Canal Street and then leave from the back steps. They couldn’t go through the front door. Once the Met announcement hit, I thought about my father. My dream was to be Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. My father’s dream was to sing at the Met, but now this has happened to me.
At first, you didn’t know how historic the Met’s announcement was?
The New York Times called and said, “Do you realize you’re the first African-American composer to have an opera staged at the Met?” I didn’t even know—never even thought about it. The Met news didn’t strike a chord in me until I saw the reaction people had to it. And then I thought of how proud my dad would be. I wish he were here to see it. But it’s probably a good thing that he’s not here, because we wouldn’t be able to keep him off the stage.
Your father would want to be in the production?
Oh, yeah. We’d have to find a role for him.
You became a lover of mid-20th-century jazz, but you grew up with a father who loved classical music? Was that a source of conflict?
He listened to Carmen, La Bohème. He loved all the classics. Sometimes we would have arguments. He’d say, “Man, that music you play, those guys play too many notes!” And then he’d say, “Sit down, boy. Listen to this. Listen to that melodic line. Now, you see? That’s music.”
My dad was in a social group called the B Sharps, geared around people of color who were into opera. That blows me away when I think about the Metropolitan Opera announcement. My mind was geared always to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis. But then somebody asked me to write an opera and all of that pre-jazz stuff popped back up in my mind. I realized, yeah, all of those classical concerts and recitals play a role into what I’m doing now.
Before you accepted the Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at UCLA, you’d been busy for decades with many wonderful projects. Was it difficult to commit your time and talent to UCLA?
I did have to think about it, because I knew I’d have to be here in L.A. for a portion of the year. I also thought it was an honor to contribute to a program like this, especially coming behind one of the greatest musicians of our history.
And you moved to Los Angeles a few months ago?
It’s still hard for me to say that I’ve moved. I say I have a place here and I have a place in New Orleans. I’m not giving my New Orleans place up. All of my friends are there so, yeah, I’m bicoastal.
You play a big role in Up from the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music, Michael Murphy’s new documentary about the city’s music, culture and history. Murphy says Up from the Streets is the most important film he’s ever made.
I can believe that because it chronicles how people take how influential our New Orleans culture is for granted. And Michael has done the research, turned over a lot of stones, unearthed all of these connections. I’m so proud of Michael and Cilista [Eberle, supervising producer at Michael Murphy Productions]. It’s a brilliant film. I want everybody to see it.
Murphy didn’t originally envision you as the documentary’s on-screen guide and host. Did you evolve into that role?
When they first called me, they wanted us to produce it. I’m like, “All right, cool. I’m down with that.” But then my role just grew and grew and they allowed that to happen.
You are a warm and welcoming presence in Up from the Streets.
Mike has a way of keeping things light, so, yeah, I got comfortable. I didn’t take myself too seriously. I didn’t think of myself as Walter Cronkite. To be honest, I tried to be New Orleanian. Because we don’t get the credit that we’re due for a lot of things, we’re always trying to convince people. So, it’s like we’re having a conversation about all of these great things that happened in New Orleans.
In addition to Up from the Streets’ world premiere at the 30th New Orleans Film Festival in October, the New Orleans Film Society presented you with a career achievement award on the festival’s closing night.
Yeah, isn’t that something? I guess I’m reaching that age—naw, I shouldn’t say that. It is a true honor to be recognized in that fashion. When I started out in this business, I thought that I was going to just be a guy who loved to play music and played in clubs on the weekend. But I’ve been blessed with the opportunities to be around a lot of great people and great projects. Up from the Streets is definitely one of those.
The film festival also screened Harriet, which features a musical score by you. Did Harriet touch you in an especially deep way?
Harriet is a profound film. It puts Harriet Tubman’s journey in such perspective. She was a diminutive woman who changed the course of history through her passion and will. But I don’t even talk about the film that much because I want people to experience it from the beginning to the end. I’m not saying that because I worked on it. I’m saying that because I’m proud of it. Every now and then you work on a great project but then hate to use superlatives to describe it because they sound like such clichés. But those are the best words I can find for this project.
Following the movies Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine and Talk to Me and the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Harriet is the fifth project you and writer-directors have collaborated on. Like your longtime partnership with Spike Lee, do you and Kasi [Lemmons] have a strong creative connection?
Kasi is my sister, man. We’ve collaborated for a number of years and we’ve become family. She’s smart, she has a powerful point of view. It’s great to work with her. And the producers allowed Kasi to make her movie [Harriet]. These types of movies, we put them in these baskets where we say, “This is a black woman’s movie.” It is not. This is a movie for everybody to experience, because it makes you realize history can be changed by even a small gesture. So, don’t ever think that your efforts to do good can ever be too small.
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