It takes a special kind of polymath to successfully fuse jazz and opera in 2021. A deep knowledge of jazz performance and composition is paramount, of course, as are world-class orchestral skills. The ideal candidate would have a background of study with great teachers, work with strong directors, and a mature style that shows a solid grasp of both jazz and operatic history. In a perfect world, they’d prioritize storytelling. Most important, the consummate jazz/opera composer would be especially attuned to this extraordinary moment in time.
It’s no surprise, then, that Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, written to a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, has achieved such widespread acclaim. The opera, adapted from the 2014 memoir of New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow, tackles intense themes such as tough love, violence, and sexual abuse, and in lesser hands, the melodrama might be daunting. But Blanchard’s fresh approaches—including his expertly crafted relationships between vocals and melodies, his nimble handling of dense harmonic textures, his signature orchestration, and his masterful use of big-band, gospel, and blues flavors—make Fire the perfect opener for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-2022 season, the first work by a Black composer to be performed by the Met in its 138-year history.
The New Orleans native’s journey to this career highlight began with a father who was a part-time opera singer, piano lessons at five, and trumpet at eight. All around him, giants such as Louis Armstrong and James Booker were still performing, and as a teenager, he watched a new generation—the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Dr. John, and others—make their mark. Having first met Wynton and Branford Marsalis in elementary school, Blanchard followed them to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the arts high school where he took courses in critical analysis, sight-singing, and jazz theory. Meanwhile, he played keyboard in pop bands, subbed on trumpet in big bands, and gigged with Ellis Marsalis, with whom he was studying at NOCCA, as he dreamt of moving to New York. A year and a half after he arrived at Rutgers in 1982, he was gigging with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and then replacing Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with whom he stayed until 1990.
In the three decades since, Blanchard has managed to maintain concurrent careers as a film composer, educator, and bandleader. Although he’s worked with esteemed auteurs like George Lucas and Gus Van Sant, Blanchard has earned the bulk of his Academy Award, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations alongside Spike Lee; theirs is one of the great composer/director partnerships of our time. As an educator, Blanchard’s vast experience includes stints at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami, Berklee, and UCLA, where he’s the Kenny Burrell Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies at the Herb Alpert School of Music until 2024. A handful of sessions with Blakey, Joanne Brackeen, Ralph Moore, McCoy Tyner, and Cedar Walton make up his discography as a sideman, but Blanchard has done more than 20 albums as a leader, winning six Grammys along the way.
The summer of 2021 finds the 59-year-old maestro busier than ever. His latest album, Absence, is an homage to Wayne Shorter that features his band the E-Collective and the Turtle Island String Quartet. Several 2019-20 works featuring Blanchard scores—including Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, the Perry Mason reboot for HBO, Lemmons’ Harriet, and One Night in Miami, Regina King’s directorial debut—are still riding high. Next up are Bruised, Halle Barry’s first effort as a director, and NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½, Lee’s HBO documentary about New York City. The upcoming Met premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones has also inspired a surge of interest in Champion, Blanchard’s first opera, premiered in 2013 (a 2020 production scheduled at Michigan Opera Theatre was canceled due to the pandemic).
Nearly 40 years after he first arrived in New York City, Blanchard is introspective about the way various threads of his career have brought him to the present. “For the longest time, opera, which was my dad’s thing, was over there; film was over here; and my jazz career was over here,” he says. “Jazz and film started to intermingle at some point, suddenly opera comes in, and all this stuff is coming together. It’s almost as if the universe has been preparing me for this moment.”
JT: You grew up in the ’60s and ’70s—that was an exciting era for New Orleans music.
TERENCE BLANCHARD: It was a magical time. From the brass bands to the guys who were playing the more modern forms of jazz, the one common denominator was an infectious sense of rhythm. Street beat, a second line, straight-ahead, swing, two-feel, whatever—there was no division. That’s the beauty of coming from New Orleans. You don’t realize it until you go other places.
Were there great trumpet players who aren’t as well-known as they should be outside New Orleans?
Leroy Jones was in 12th grade when I was in eighth. At football games, Leroy and three baritone horn players would get together—one would play the bass line, the other two played harmony, and Leroy would play time. It was the most incredible thing I ever heard, and it was unique. And they were just having fun! That’s New Orleans.