Terence Blanchard never set out to become the toast of the American classical music scene. As a jazz trumpet player from New Orleans, he was always focused on performing.
Yet he's composed a brilliant, critically acclaimed opera, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," that re-opened New York's Metropolitan Opera in September, making Blanchard the first Black composer to have a work produced at America's premier opera house.
In addition to winning five Grammys, Blanchard is also an Oscar-nominated film composer, but his first love is performing. And he'll do that Wednesday at Minneapolis' Parkway Theater to open the Liquid Music season, leading his band, the E-Collective, and the Turtle Island Quartet in an evening of music honoring saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.
We spoke to Blanchard last week from Hanover, N.H., between workshops with Dartmouth College students. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
Q: You've recorded albums inspired by Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, and now Wayne Shorter. A lot of your music seems rooted in honoring your ancestors.
A: Yeah, of course, man. It's one of those areas of life where you feel like you owe them a debt of gratitude. Wayne Shorter might be at the top of the list, really. Him and Miles Davis. Because Wayne's composition style has had a heavy influence on my life from the beginning. It just resonated with me when I heard it.
The thing about honoring Wayne is not to mimic at all, but to find your own voice. This record ["Absence"] is to show him how he's helped us find our own voice.
Q: Speaking of honoring the ancestors, your father was an amateur opera singer. So presumably your introduction to opera was at an early age.
A: I guess it was, but it was a reluctant introduction, man. It wasn't something that I was embracing at the time. It was like, "Oh, man, can you please play something else?" And the thing about it, it was just the recordings. So I'd never seen it staged. Then PBS would start to play some of those performances, and my dad would always bring me around. If I was in the vicinity and some of that stuff was on PBS, I'd hear his voice calling my name throughout the house: "Boy!" He wouldn't even call my name. "Come here, boy!" [He laughs.]
I've come to realize that it seeped into my system at an early age, because you can hear it in my film music. The sense of melody. It's probably why I relate to Wayne, too. That whole notion of how to sing a melody.
Q: Your first opera, "Champion," was about boxer Emile Griffith. "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," an adaptation of Charles M. Blow's memoir, was premiered by the same company, Opera Theatre of St. Louis. How did that come about?
A: My wife, Robin Burgess, who's also my manager, she read the book and thought that it was a powerful story. She gave it to me to read while she gave it to Jim Robinson, who was the director at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. We all loved the story. The next thing was to try to get Charles on board. He kept saying, "Well, I don't see how this is going to be an opera." In my mind, I'm thinking, "Yeah, well I don't, either, but it's not my job." [He laughs.] I knew that we needed to get the right writer for it, and that's when we brought Kasi Lemmons in.
Q: She's best known for directing "Harriet" and other films for which you've composed the music. You've done 41 films and a TV series ["Perry Mason"]. Did Spike Lee get you into that?
A: Oh, definitely, but inadvertently. I was just a session player on some of his early stuff. And we were taking a break while we were doing "Mo' Better Blues." He heard me playing the piano and asked if he could use what I had written. And I said, "Sure." We just did it as a solo trumpet piece. And then, later on, he asked me to write a string arrangement for it.
He came up to me after I finished my take and said, "Man, you've got a future in this business." And I said, "OK, cool, thank you." And then the next thing you know, he called me to do "Jungle Fever." And we've been at it ever since.
Q: Many things you created in the last half of the last decade drew attention to the murders of Black men by police. You performed a dance piece with Rennie Harris and recorded part of a live album with the E-Collective in the Twin Cities after the death of Philando Castile. Now, with the murder of George Floyd, a lot of classical music organizations have started programming more music by African American composers. Is there an awakening afoot?
A: Listen, man, if it wasn't for George Floyd, I don't think we'd be at the Met. … George Floyd's death has awakened the consciousness of a lot of people. ... To see the whole nonchalantness about not caring if this guy lived or died, I think shook a lot of people.
Peter Gelb [general manager of the Met] talked about wanting to do what he could to turn the tide around about racism. Along with Yannick [Nezet-Seguin], who's the conductor, they all wanted to do some relevant stories. Initially, they were just going to do "Fire," but, after a while, they changed their minds and said, "No, we want to open the season with 'Fire.' " And that made a powerful statement, I think. Because Yannick says — and I agree — we all love Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, but we need to start finding stories that relate to people's lives today.
My worry about George Floyd's death was that there would be this groundswell of people wanting to do the right thing, but then we would slip back into the norm of what happens in this country and move on until the next tragedy occurs. But it seems as though his death has had a lasting impact on some people. As unfortunate as that is, it's still a good thing that it's helped to awaken the consciousness of a lot of people in this country.
Terence Blanchard: Absence
With: E-Collective and Turtle Island Quartet.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3.
Where: Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $44-$79. theparkwaytheater.com
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music writer. email@example.com