As anyone who’s followed jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard’s career knows, his upcoming appearance at Festival of the Arts Boca will hardly be his first figurative South Florida rodeo.
Following a long run as artistic director for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the University of California Los Angeles, Blanchard took a similar position in the Sunshine State from 2011-2015 — as artistic director for the Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami. The 59-year-old thus oversaw that institute’s unique ongoing ideal of introducing classical conservatory students to jazz, world music, and film composers in orchestral settings.
It’s a regional feather, one of many, in the cap of the New Orleans-born musician, bandleader and educator whose dexterity may have him approaching Duke Ellington status.
“I had known about the University of Miami for years, and the faculty at Frost was amazing when I got there,” Blanchard says by phone from his home in the Orleans Parish of New Orleans. “I was happy to be a part of it, and to have such great students and have an influence on those young peoples’ lives. Many of them have gone on to do great things, and through direct contact and social media, I’m able to keep up with what they’re doing. So I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished while I was there.”
The comparatively understated Blanchard once played with fellow New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis while growing up, and even replaced his more outspoken and celebrated contemporary in drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early 1980s. Previously, he’d studied music in high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (with pianist Ellis Marsalis, Wynton’s father) and then at Rutgers University. Blakey’s group often became a springboard toward stardom for young jazz musicians, and it proved to be one for Blanchard, who left in 1990 to pursue a solo career.
In his case, that springboard also pointed toward a young film director named Spike Lee. While also recording the first albums released under his own name, Blanchard recorded trumpet parts for Lee’s School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), and Mo’ Better Blues (1990).
By Jungle Fever (1991), Lee replaced his own father, bassist Bill Lee, with Blanchard as his film score composer. The trumpeter has since also scored Lee notables like Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Summer of Sam (1999), Bamboozled (2000), 25th Hour (2002), She Hate Me (2004), Inside Man (2006), Miracle at St. Anna (2008), Chi-Raq (2015), Black KkKlansman (2018), and Da 5 Bloods (2020), all while working on other films by multiple directors. Both Black KkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods earned Blanchard Academy Award nominations.
He also scored, and was featured in, Lee’s 2006 Hurricane Katrina documentary series When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, appearing with his mother to recall finding her New Orleans home destroyed. His subsequent album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), earned Blanchard a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. The twosome’s most recent collaboration is Lee’s 2021 Big Apple documentary series NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½.
“I’m always proud to be a part of anything Spike does,” Blanchard says, “because he puts a lot of effort and energy into it, and a lot of thought as well. And his films are great, but his documentaries are what really blow my mind.”
Blanchard’s other Grammy wins include Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Solo, Best Improvised Jazz Solo, and Best Instrumental Composition for songwriting and performances from Blanchard’s session and solo careers between 2004 and 2019. The Best Instrumental Composition nod was for “Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil),” from the soundtrack to Lee’s Black KkKlansman. But the versatile composer earned an even more historic and overdue achievement less than six months ago.
On Sept. 27, Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City — making it the first opera to appear by an African-American composer in the company’s 138-year history. With its libretto by Kasi Lemmons, and based on the dramatic, sociopolitical 2014 Charles M. Blow memoir of the same name, Fire Shut Up in My Bones received a favorable reception and reviews, and integrated an opera house first opened in 1883. Other performances are on the horizon.
“They’re starting tech rehearsals right now at the Lyric Opera in Chicago,” says Blanchard, “and a few other companies are talking about doing it. And now the Met is going to do my first opera, ‘Champion,’ [based on the 1938-2013 life of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith] in 2023. I had no idea that I was the first African-American composer to present there.
“But I’ll say that although I’m the first, that doesn’t mean I was the first who was qualified. There were others whose work was rejected, and some female composers as well. I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to write for film, which has given me the experience to write for opera,” Blanchard said. “The Met has commissioned other people from different walks of life to write operas now too, and that’s a beautiful thing. Because I don’t want to be a token, I want to be a turnkey. If I’m the one and only, that’s not progress.”
At Festival of the Arts Boca, Blanchard’s band E-Collective (with guitarist Charles Altura, keyboardist Taylor Eigsti, bassist David Ginyard Jr., and drummer Oscar Seaton) teams with fellow Grammy winners the Turtle Island Quartet (violinists David Balakrishnan and Gabriel Terracciano, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Naseem Alatrash) to play selections from the 2022 Grammy-nominated album Absence (2021), their combined tribute to legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Another former member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the 88-year-old Shorter sprang forward into trumpeter Miles Davis’ celebrated 1960s quintet (with pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams), and co-leadership with keyboardist Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, the jazz/fusion band that reigned over the subgenre through the 1980s. In a playing career now spanning 70 years, as both a solo artist and band member, Shorter has also distinguished himself as perhaps the preeminent living composer in jazz.
“Wayne is a superhero, but he just doesn’t wear a cape,” says Blanchard. “One of the things I love about him is that there’s never an end to the growth process. He’s the first person I’ve ever been around that will actually try to create music on a daily basis. It’s who he is. He’s constantly refining his craft. A lot of people call themselves composers because they can put notes on a page, but if you look back through Wayne’s career, it’s always been about developing themes. Creating and expanding them, from his days with Art Blakey and his Blue Note solo recording period through what he’s doing now. You can see his evolution, but the compositional DNA was there from the start.”
The 10-day Festival of the Arts Boca, as always, includes a multitude of arts presentations. After Blanchard and company kick things off on opening night, Mizner Park Ampitheater — with its tented outdoor setting and 4-feet-apart socially distanced seating — offers an opera gala with Larisa Martinez and Friends March 5; dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and more March 6; discussions on foreign policy with Richard Haass and James Stavridis March 7; Bill McKibben discussing climate change March 8; astronaut Donald R. Pettit’s space exploration presentation March 9; multicultural author Luis Alberto Urrea March 10; string trio Time for Three March 12; and contemporary jazz flutist Nestor Torres on March 13. A live orchestral performance with the film Fantasia, scheduled for March 11, has been postponed until 2023.
If You Go
Where: Mizner Park Ampitheater, 509 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
When: 7:30 p.m. March 4
Info: 561-757-4762, festivalboca.org