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Terence Blanchard on Writing Operas, Honoring Wayne Shorter, and More

It’s a heady moment—his first Metropolitan Opera premiere—but the trumpeter and composer shows he hasn’t forgotten who and what brought him here

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Terence Blanchard at the Village Gate, New York, with the Jazz Messengers (Donald Harrison at left), August 22, 1986. (Photo: Alan Nahigian)
Terence Blanchard at the Village Gate, New York, with the Jazz Messengers (Donald Harrison at left), August 22, 1986. (Photo: Alan Nahigian)

Do you feel connected to the lineage of great Black composers?

I’m standing on their shoulders, no doubt. When people ask me how it feels to be the first African-American composer to have something at the Met, [composer] William Grant Still comes to mind, as does my teacher, Roger Dickerson; his mentor, the great composer Howard Swanson; and Hale Smith, with whom I studied after Roger. It’s an amazing honor, but let’s be real: I’m not the first composer qualified to be in this position. I feel a connection to them, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure this is a success. I take it very seriously. Porgy and Bess and now Fire Shut Up in My Bones are the two operas [most associated with jazz], but there’s so much music in between that deserves a shot. 

How would you define the legacy of William Grant Still? 

I was listening to one of his pieces in St. Louis recently, and it occurred to me that his music is the missing link between modern opera and Aaron Copland, who was heavily influenced by Black culture. When you put William Grant Still in the context of Charlie Parker and other great jazz musicians, you hear that Still pointed to where all this stuff could go. How many young kids, had they known about William Grant Still and Bird and Trane and Miles, could have come up with something more like American opera should be? I hope Fire will be the spark of inspiration for a new generation. 

It’s no secret that many people hesitate to hire Black composers for projects that aren’t telling an overtly Black story. As the composer on projects like Perry Mason, Gia, and The Comedian, what would you say to someone who wonders what a Black composer brings to a non-Black project?


We bring a fresh perspective to the table. You can say the same for women too. Composers like me, Marcus Miller, and Stanley Clarke—as well as Quincy Jones before us—have had careers other than film scoring, so we’re less interested in sounding like [typical Hollywood composers]. And there’s an honesty because we know there’s a lack of opportunities for people of color, and nobody wants to be the weak link. 

Right. We’ll give you a thousand percent …

… because we know we won’t get a second chance. [Laughter]


For someone just starting out, it’s amazing to witness your three-decade relationship with Spike Lee. 

I’ve never taken it for granted, because I understood what it all meant in the grand scheme of things. I understood that Spike is a visionary and that he gave me these opportunities, but also that he was helping me to grow and get to where I was going. 

Would you say that your film-scoring aesthetic has been shaped by your relationship to Spike and, by extension, to the music of Bill Lee and the Natural Spiritual Orchestra?

Of course. When I first began working with Spike on Mo’ Better Blues, his dad was doing the music. The other thing is that Bill was a contemporary of Oliver Nelson; when you talk about my lineage, that’s what I hear.


How did you go from being a jazz musician to an orchestral composer?

Well, a lot of that started with my early introduction to music. My dad loved opera, so I heard orchestral music all the time. I played in civic orchestras when I was in junior high, and I got to see how an orchestra could move. When I started doing films, Roger recommended that I create a language of jazz articulations for the orchestra, just as composers like Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók made folk music a big part of their orchestral language. It’s been an interesting journey.

You’ve mentioned that composer Miles Goodman persuaded you it was more important to spend time developing your own voice than studying scores by other composers.

I studied a few scores in the beginning, and I’d asked Miles to give me some lessons. He came to see me while we were making Crooklyn, I think, and I asked him what we were going to work on. He was getting ready to say something and then he stopped and said, “Your weaknesses are your strengths. If I show you what I know, you’ll sound like everyone else in Hollywood.”


Did that make sense to you at the time?

It took a while for me to pick up on what Miles was saying, but now I feel like I’ve bloomed into whatever it is I’m supposed to be, whereas then I may have been chasing something I would have never been. 

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Originally Published

E.E. Bradman

E.E. Bradman is a music journalist, Grammy-nominated bassist, stage/studio/touring musician, and musical midwife for childbirth and the dying. Currently based in Los Angeles, he designs immersive and richly textured sonic environments for theater, film, animation, audiobooks, and radio plays. Stop by and say hi at