When the Sheldon Concert Hall asked Terence Blanchard to replace Latin jazz pianist Chucho Valdés for a scheduled performance this Saturday, Feb. 15, the jazz trumpeter jumped at the opportunity.
“I was sorry to hear about Chucho’s unexpected surgery that forced him to cancel his tour,” Blanchard said during a recent conversation from his home in the New Orleans area. “But I’m very happy to be coming back to St. Louis. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there over the past three years. My wife is starting to think of it as our second home.”
Blanchard’s frequent visits here were part of his involvement with Opera Theatre of St. Louis as the composer of the music for a new work, “Champion,” which made its debut during the 2013 season at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre at Webster University.
That venture was so successful that Opera Theatre representatives have talked to Blanchard about working together again.
“They talked to me after the performance of ‘Champion’,” he says. “They let me know they wanted me to consider writing another opera. I told them, ‘Maybe this time I’ll get it right!’ I’m definitely looking forward to talking more about another opera.”
Timothy O'Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, said, "Opera Theatre is committed to ensuring that Terence Blanchard, who wrote such a wonderful first opera, will have the chance to do a second." He said he hoped there would be another collaboration with Jazz St. Louis.
Supporting O'Leary's assessment of "Champion" is the International Opera Awards organization, which has named the Blanchard opera a finalist in the World Premiere category.
Things went right with ‘Champion’
Blanchard’s versatility as a musician brought him to mind when Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, was first in discussions with Opera Theatre about collaborating on a new opera with jazz elements woven into the music.
Several jazz musicians were considered, but Blanchard’s credentials made him the first choice for the proposed new opera, as Bradford recalled in a 2012 Beacon article about the creation of “Champion.”
“It just seemed that Terence was the person who kept coming back to the top of the list,” Bradford said. “One, I knew that he already understood the commissioning process from his involvement with film scores. And through that work, I also knew he was experienced in writing for different ensembles – including an orchestra.”
Once Blanchard accepted the commission, work began on what would become “Champion” – an opera based on the life of prizefighter Emile Griffith – best remembered for a televised fight in 1962 that resulted in the death of his opponent, Benny “Kid” Paret. But a key component of Griffith’s life, as he revealed later in his biography, “Nine, Ten and Out!,” was that he had to deal secretly with his homosexuality throughout his boxing career and beyond.
Work on the new opera became a major focus for Blanchard, as he collaborated with lyricist Michael Cristofer, the staff of Opera Theatre and the singers and musicians for “Champion.”
“Looking back on the experience,” Blanchard said, “they were open to trying new things and exploring new territory, and I was totally open to doing the same thing. We were open into bringing each other into each other’s world.”
The creative process of bringing a new opera to life opened new doors for Blanchard – especially in terms of composing with the human voice in mind rather than instruments.
“The process, especially working with the singers, was very organic,” he recalls. “It was a living, breathing thing. I remember telling the singers, ‘Listen, I know nothing about this. Tell me how your voice operates.’ I had to learn how to make my music work in that environment.”
The collaborative process, much like the give and take that happens within a good jazz band, was clearly an approach that appealed to Blanchard in creating “Champion.”
“I made sure to let everyone concerned in the process that I was not attached to all of these notes, Blanchard said. “I was dedicated to telling this story the best way it can be. That’s the process. And another thing I’ve learned is that the doubts and questions you have become the basis for your next project.”
Blanchard spent most of the summer of 2013 in St. Louis, performing concerts at the Whitaker Concert Series at the Botanical Garden and other venues, speaking about the new opera at seminars – but mostly attending rehearsals and working to tweak “Champion” before its premiere performance on June 15, 2013.
“I attended every performance of “Champion,” Blanchard said. “There’s always something to learn and to try and improve.”
Career is deep and wide
Blanchard’s impressive jazz resume includes membership in legendary drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers early in his career and a successful recording and touring partnership with longtime New Orleans friend and saxophone great Donald Harrison. He has recorded more than dozen albums as a leader and won five Grammy awards.
But Blanchard has made his mark in other artistic genres as well. He has composed music for more than 40 films – including many for director Spike Lee (including “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and the Hurricane Katrina documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”).
He’s also written music for Broadway plays. Blanchard’s jazz education credentials include work with the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute and being artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.
Touring and writing
Now, Blanchard is touring with his band, following the release of his latest recording, “Magnetic,” which earned high praise from critics and gained Blanchard another Grammy nomination for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo.” (Saxophonist Wayne Shorter won that category this year.)
“We just starting up touring again with the band,” Blanchard said. “And I’m really looking forward to coming back to play at the Sheldon. It’s inspiring to play there. And St. Louis is one of those towns with a great history of music. And with that comes a fan base that understands jazz in an in-depth way.”
There’s plenty more on Blanchard’s artistic plate in 2014 in addition to his current tour.
“There’s been talk of doing a recording of “Champion” at some point,” Blanchard said. “And I’m also working on a commission for a major work that commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. It involves writing a piece for the Kronos Quartet and a 500-member choir. It’s going to be performed sometime next year at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a huge challenge. I’ve written for string quartet before, but only for short pieces in film scores – not a larger work such as this will be.”
“I’m also just finished working on the score for film, “Black and White,” that’s coming out later this year that stars Kevin Costner. As Miles Davis once said, ‘You can never go back. You have to look forward.’ “
The Basics: Terence Blanchard Quintet
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 15
Where: The Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., 63108
Tickets: $45 orchestra, $40 Balcony and $15 for students