Blanchard Champions Opera in St. Louis
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard brought his quintet to Jazz at the Bistro on Sept. 19, kicking off the St. Louis club’s 2012–’13 season with four nights of music. The group’s opening set attracted a capacity crowd that responded eagerly to the well-balanced mix of standards and original music offered by Blanchard, saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Kendrick Scott and the group’s newest member, 20-year-old bassist Joshua Crumbly.
Blanchard showcased the fiery side of his trumpet sound on an energetic reading of “Four,” a tune that Blanchard said was actually written by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson even though it’s usually associated with Miles Davis.
Winston, who has been working with Blanchard for more than a decade, followed with a soaring solo on an upbeat version of “Autumn Leaves.” Blanchard then shined a spotlight on a pair of compositions by his band members—Almazan’s “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song” and Crumbly’s “Jacob’s Ladder”—before concluding the set with some hypnotic second-line swing that touched on his New Orleans roots.
There was, however, more to Blanchard’s St. Louis visit than a chance to perform for his fans. The trumpeter flew into town early to meet with directors at the St. Louis Opera Theatre to discuss the opera he has been commissioned to write for its 2013–’14 season.
The opera, Champion, is based on the life of boxer Emile Griffith, the world welterweight and middleweight champion who was infamous for his nationally televised 1962 title bout with Benny Paret that resulted in Paret’s knockout, coma and subsequent death.
Before the opening set, Blanchard sat down to discuss his involvement with the new opera, his increasing focus on jazz education and his perspective on the bandleader role in today’s jazz scene.
You have an extensive background in composing music for films, going back to your association with Spike Lee for more than two decades. You’ve recently written music for Broadway plays, as well. How did your involvement with Champion and opera come about?
I got a call about two years ago from the Opera Theatre saying they wanted to talk to me about composing music. [Executive Director] Gene Dobbs Bradford of Jazz St. Louis, the nonprofit that books Jazz at the Bistro, had recommended me. My first reaction was to jokingly say, “Have you got the right number?” But then I remembered my dad, who loved opera and always played it at our house when I was growing up. I remembered producing and playing on a record with Jubilant Sykes, who was a baritone opera singer. Something has always been pushing me in this direction … but I’ve always been reluctant to take that road.
Initially, there were thoughts about an opera touching on Hurricane Katrina, but was it your idea to focus on boxing—and especially Emile Griffith?
There was an initial suggestion about an opera involving Katrina, but I thought we needed to have a longer perspective on that—maybe a couple decades. So I brought up the idea of an opera about boxing, and especially about Emile Griffith. I’ve been an amateur boxer for a number of years, and I think it’s one of the most misunderstood sports in this country. It is a violent sport, but it’s also a science. In many ways, boxing is like being a jazz musician. It involves a high level of concentration and a strong work ethic, and in a way, it’s also like improvising. Throw a certain punch, and you think about what punch might be coming back and how you’re going to deal with that. Plus Emile Griffith’s life, which I read about in the book Nine, Ten And Out! is very dramatic and compelling.
In writing the music for Champion, how are you incorporating jazz into the opera?
I’m not thinking of it as a jazz opera. The term we’re using is “opera with jazz.” I’m trying to use jazz rhythms and harmonic concepts and incorporate them into the opera. I really didn’t think in terms of incorporating improvisation, but I am focusing on making it sound like jazz harmonically and rhythmically. I also include some subtle moments of jazz changes, but there’s always an emphasis on melody. Gil Evans used to do that—imply colors in the music. We’ve got a full orchestra rehearsal coming up in October. That’s going to be crucial to get the music together.
The opera is a major part of what you’re doing these days, but there’s a lot more going on with you in terms of your educational work. You’re the artistic director at the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami, and have been involved with the Detroit Jazz Festival and the Thelonious Monk Institute as well.
The education thing has really taken off. It was never something I really planned—I never thought of myself as an educator, but I really like the challenge of teaching. For me, it’s never about proving a point … it’s about having a discussion. It’s about giving students the tools, not giving them specific ideas … then stepping back and letting them go. It sounds like a cliché, but I really do feel like I learn something every day that I’m teaching.
Being a bandleader is also like being a teacher. You came up under Art Blakey. And like him, you’ve had numerous younger musicians in your group over the years. Are you consciously following Art’s example?
Yes, of course. That’s one of the things I firmly believe—and that I’ve learned over the course of time. Art, Horace Silver, Clark Terry, they were all committed to helping influence younger musicians. But they’re no longer around, and who’s going to take their place? I have to at least commit to passing along the stories, the things I learned. Art used to say to us all the time, “You’re in this group to learn how to be a bandleader. I want you to take what you learn here and go out and forge ahead.” So that’s what I’m trying to do with my group.