Shortly after it was announced that the Metropolitan Opera would put on Terence Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, in an upcoming season, a New York Times reporter called the composer for an interview. He asked Blanchard, who is primarily known for his jazz performances and scores for Spike Lee movies, how it felt to be the first black artist to have a work produced at the fabled New York institution.
“I was like, really, wow, I didn’t know that,” says Blanchard. To be fair, Blanchard never claimed to be an opera connoisseur. Growing up in New Orleans with a father who was an amateur baritone, he heard Puccini and Bizet resonating through the house, but was too focused on trumpet to pay much attention. “My father would watch those PBS productions of opera and I would just walk by the television. I thought, ‘Man, I’m going in the front room to listen to Clifford Brown with Strings.”
Blanchard, 57, belongs to a particularly accomplished generation of musicians from the Crescent City that includes his schoolmates Wynton and Branford Marsalis. At 18, he joined Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. Shortly afterward, he succeeded Wynton as the trumpeter for Art Blakey’s storied Jazz Messengers. His trajectory to the top echelons of jazz was all mapped out when director Spike Lee heard him noodling on the piano on the set of his 1990 film, Mo’ Better Blues, which starred Denzel Washington as a womanizing trumpet player. Blanchard had been hired, as part of Branford’s quartet, to play Washington’s trumpet part. But Lee was so taken with Blanchard’s keyboard improvisation that he asked him to write an orchestral arrangement of it that he could use in the film.
Flattered but intimidated, he asked his music teacher, the composer Roger Dickerson, for advice. “He said, ‘You know what to do. Just trust your training.’” Blanchard got more cryptic counsel from jazz legend Wayne Shorter, who said, “To be a composer you gotta go down to the basement and visit every note.” At the time, Blanchard thought, “Man, what does that mean?” But as he became Lee’s go-to composer, scoring 17 of his films, Blanchard came to understand what Shorter was saying: that even the most subtle adjustment can vary the emotional quality of a theme.
His collaboration with Lee culminated in the 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, which earned Blanchard his first Oscar nomination. He’s back in contention this awards season with his layered, tender score for Harriet, a biopic of Harriet Tubman directed by another frequent collaborator, Kasi Lemmons. “I tried to show the grandeur, the power, and the sheer confidence of this very diminutive woman,” says Blanchard, who was especially eager to contribute to the first big-screen treatment of the Underground Railroad pioneer after learning that her appearance on the $20 bill had been delayed. “The mere fact that it’s about a heroine was something that was also very attractive to me,” he says. “It’s time for us to pay attention to everyone who’s contributed to this country.”
The six-time Grammy winner—he’s taken home statuettes for both his jazz recordings and his film work—has approached his career the way he approaches a trumpet solo: always eager to make a new kind of musical statement, with a spontaneity grounded in hard work. When Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) came to him in 2012 to write a piece combining opera and jazz, he jumped at the chance and plunged into the history of a genre he’d only heard peripherally throughout his life. (He’d never seen a live performance.) The result was the well-received Champion, based on the life of the boxer Emile Griffith, which has been performed at various venues around the country and will have its fourth production in March and April at the Detroit Opera House.
In June, OTSL premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir of the same title by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, with a libretto by Lemmons. The work—not a jazz opera, Blanchard specifies, but an “opera in jazz”—earned critical raves and caught the attention of the Met.
Learning that he’d be the first black composer to see his work produced there was “an awkward honor,” says Blanchard, who now teaches at UCLA. “I know that there are composers who have come before me that deserve to have the opportunity to have their operas performed at the Met.” He cites his teacher, Dickerson, as well as overlooked masters like Howard Swanson and Hale Smith.
The Met has not yet announced the performance dates, but Blanchard is already fine-tuning the piece, revisiting every note.