First love: Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard is a man of many talents.
Terence Blanchard was always going to be a jazzman. Having grown up in New Orleans, the Grammy Award-winning trumpeter says there was no other option.
“For me, it was the sound that you heard in New Orleans. I never had any choice really, because it was everywhere.
“Before I ever went to nightclubs, whenever I heard musicians on the street, they were playing brass-band music. It’s like you go, ‘that’s me’.”
Blanchard is in town as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. As a jazz trumpeter and bandleader, he’s won a stunning five Grammy Awards over his 30-year career. He’s served as artistic director at the Theolonius Monk Institute of Jazz, released 18 jazz albums and rubbed shoulders with such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson. Which makes it a surprise to learn that his latest project isn’t remotely jazzy. Instead, it’s an opera.
Opera might seem a strange choice for Blanchard, but his association with the art form goes back nearly as far as his love of jazz. His father was a part-time opera singer who ensured jazz wasn’t the only music heard about the Blanchard household.
“He never sang professionally but he studied opera and he had a beautiful voice,” Blanchard says.
Might Blanchard have missed his true calling as an opera singer?
“They tried to get me singing in church, and that didn’t work too well. Once they heard me singing they said, ‘Man, I’m going to put you in the back and you’re going to play trumpet’. I had a very short-lived vocal career.”
Blanchard’s as-yet-unnamed opera is based on the life of boxer Emile Griffith, who infamously battered a rival to death in a 1962 match. The subject seems as surprising a fit for the operatic stage as the jazzman himself.
“At first glance, probably,” Blanchard admits. “But there was a lot of drama in his life. You know, Griffith was a person who tried to keep his sexuality a secret. He was outed by his opponent and he later beat him so badly that the guy fell into a coma and died. The thing that got me was a line in his autobiography where he says, ‘I killed a man and the world forgave me, but I loved a man and the world could never forgive me’.”
Blanchard says it’s a story that remains relevant in a country recently torn apart by the president’s statement that he approves of gay marriage.
Making music with a message is something that seems to have become increasingly important to Blanchard.
His 2009 album Choices was intended to stir debate about the handling of hurricane Katrina and its fallout. It was a topic he originally intended his opera to revisit, before deciding he wasn’t quite ready.
“I kinda felt like the country had a little bit of Katrina fatigue,” he says. “I didn’t want to feel like I was beating a dead horse. It’s like (the HBO post-Katrina drama series) Tremé. We were all excited about that; we had parties and got together to watch it. And as soon as the thing started, we all got depressed because we were like, ‘We’ve moved past that’. I think it’s going to take a bit of distance, at least for me, to come back and deal with that topic.”
While Blanchard’s move into opera reflects this desire to move into new territory, it’s merely the latest in a long line of forays outside jazz. For the past 20 years, he’s had a parallel career as a sought-after film score composer, working with everyone from Spike Lee to Disney. He says there’s only one kind of music he has no time for.
“Bad music,” he says laughing. “I can find something enjoyable in a lot of different kinds of music. I’m not a purist. For me, at the core of it all, the thing that’s fascinating is how music has been created as a means for expression. Words can be limiting. You travel to the most remote places and people know how to make music out of anything, because they feel a need to express themselves. That fascinates me.”
Despite his success outside of jazz, Blanchard says the trumpet remains his true love. As attendees at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival will soon discover, there’s only one place he’s truly happy.
“When I’m on a bandstand with my band, most definitely. Playing music in front of an audience, that immediacy. Oh yeah, that’s where it all started from.”
The 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival runs June 1-10.
Terence Blanchard plays the Melbourne Recital Centre on Thursday, June 7.