Trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard on making Black history at Met Opera

Exclusive: On the eve of the premiere of Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Blanchard discusses the complexities of presenting his work in a genre of music where Blacks have often been pushed to the margins

I recently sat down with trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard to discuss his latest album and the upcoming opera Fire Shut Up In My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. On Sept. 27 when the curtains rise, Blanchard will make history as the first Black director to create a mainstage Met production, performed at this prestigious and historic institution. For context, the Met Opera was founded in 1880. 

In so many ways, Blanchard was made for this moment. Many fans may know Blanchard because of his trumpet skills and his impressive catalog of albums. Others may be familiar with Blanchard as a composer for motion picture films, and his close work with director Spike Lee on soundtracks and original scores as wide ranging as Jungle Fever, Mo Better Blues, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Inside Man, Bamboozled, Get on the Bus, Four Little Girls, Red Tails, BlacKkKlansman, Da Five Bloods, to name just a small few. 

On the eve of the premiere of Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Blanchard discusses the nuance and complexities of presenting a body of work in a genre of music where Blacks have often been pushed to the margins. The following excerpts from our conversation put his thoughts on the upcoming opera, mentorship, composition, and his latest album in context.

The Hollywood Reporter's 7th Annual Nominees Night - Arrivals
Terence Blanchard attends The Hollywood Reporter 2019 Oscar Nominee Party at CUT on February 04, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Christina Greer for theGrio: How did the process of writing the opera Fire Shut Up In My Bones come to be? I know it’s an adaptation of journalist and fellow Louisianan Charles Blow’s 2014 memoir.

Terence Blanchard: I first staged the production with the St. Louis Opera and some of the folks from the Met came to the show. At the time the opera was not expansive enough for the Met stage so I reworked some things and stayed in touch. What do you say when the Met expresses interest? A little more than “I’ll think about it” [laughter].

CG: How did you shift gears from composing and performing jazz music to writing an entire opera?

TG: I studied composition from the time I was a little kid and going to NOCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] you’re taught to never really separate the two. My teachers [Roger Dickerson and Ellis Marsalis] taught us that these things are a reflection of time and communities from which they were created. 

I was taught that jazz was a logical extension of the classical world of harmony and rhythm, so I never saw them as that separate. The separation came from narrow-mindedness of people who did either just jazz or just classical, and did not look at the other side. But not for me.

Writing this opera has allowed me to do something I learned years ago. My mentor, Roger, said it’s great to write for an orchestra, but there may be bigger things in your path. He told me that even with my experience in jazz and the film world, I should also think about bringing that rhythm and harmonic concept to the world, and that’s what I’m doing with opera. 

Cynthia Erivo, Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons attend the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Hollywood Reporter Celebration of the 2020 Golden Globe Awards Season and Unveiling of the Golden Globe Ambassadors at Catch on November 14, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter)

CG: How did you translate Blow’s story – a coming of age and overcoming adversity as a young Black man from the south. How did you extrapolate his story, make it your own, as well as translate it into a universal story?

TB: It was a privilege. Kasi Lemmons, who is like a sister to me, I knew she would be the perfect person to write the libretto. We worked together on Harriett, which she directed and I wrote the score. I enlisted her and she put together a beautiful story. The rest was on me to create this sonic world for the story to exist.

There were so many things about Blow’s story that resonated. That loneliness and isolation can be a powerful thing. Luckily, I had a great family around me and I had music. There were a lot of things that related to my life and I suspected it would relate to others who are going through similar things. It was really a matter of me getting in touch with my own feelings and having faith.

When we’re creating these things there’s a power bigger than us, when creating these things, because these stories are so important. I always try to clear my mind and allow the music to speak to me. My mentor, Roger, always told me that the music will tell you what you need, but your ego can get in the way. That’s the death knell to creativity. So, when I sit at the piano I can become a blank slate. I allow my brain to just go. I just keep writing and keep going. I can then go back and modify things as needed. 

CG: So many of us know your work from Spike Lee movies and the scores you’ve created. In many ways you’ve created the emotional soundtrack for incredibly powerful films. Is creating a score very different from creating a jazz album?

TB: Working on a score is very different than working on a jazz album. The intent behind a score is to try to help someone else tell their story and make a concise statement. In the jazz world, it is really about what I want to say. Writing scores really came about by accident. I am a firm believer in fate…and faith.

I was a session player in one of Spike’s early films. I sat down at the piano and was working on something for one of my solo projects, during one of the breaks, while recording Mo’ Better Blues. Spike heard it and loved it and asked to use it for the film. It was originally just a solo trumpet. He then asked me to write a string arrangement and that scene ended up being Denzel [Washington]’s trumpet scene on the bridge. That experience was an example of my mentor, Roger, telling me to trust my training.

GULF AID Benefit Concert
New Orleans jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard performs at the GULF AID benefit concert at Mardi Gras World River City on May 16, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Skip Bolen/Getty Images)

CG: We’re both teachers and I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but can the same be said for albums? With your new album Absence [Blue Note Records] coming out, do you have a favorite album? You have an extensive catalog which makes me feel like I need to get working!

TB: I don’t have a favorite. I really don’t. And my work ethic stems from my father. He sold insurance during the day, came home, took a nap and then worked as a hospital orderly at night. He’d then take a nap before going back to work to sell insurance. He had an adding machine by the bed where he was constantly working and in the middle of all of that, he’d would work on music.

I said that would never be me [laughter] but when you’re doing what you love it doesn’t feel like work. If a great opportunity comes my way, I have to make time for it. It’s just created a body of work that I can look at later. It’s all about being in the moment. And constantly moving forward. I want to have these experiences and constantly grow as a person and an artist. 

CG: Before I let you go, can we talk a bit more about your new album, Absence. What can your fans expect from this record?

TB: It’s more of an evolution of my career. It’s third record with the E-Collective. I wanted to pay homage to composer Wayne Shorter. Wayne was always encouraging us to have our own voice. I wanted to do some of his compositions but mix in some of our own stuff to show him what he’s meant to us and influenced our own writing.  

For those interested in a night at the opera, go to Tickets start at $37 and the show runs on select nights from Sept. 27 to Oct. 23.

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