NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard has been a consistent artistic force for making powerful musical statements for more than 40 years. From his stint with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers to writing scores for Spike Lee and others, he is unique in the jazz world as an artist whose creative endeavors go far beyond the genre into composing music for television and film, conceiving grand operas, and collaborating with dance companies. For these feats, Blanchard has been recognized with a 2018 United States Artists Fellowship, a 2023 Peabody Medal, and seven Grammy Awards. Blanchard is also a passionate educational mentor, having held positions at the Berklee College of Music, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has recently been named  the new executive artistic director of SFJAZZ.

Blanchard was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, a part-time opera singer, started Blanchard on piano at the age of five and he began learning the trumpet at age eight. At summer camp, he became friends with Wynton and Branford Marsalis and, as a teenager, studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with Roger Dickerson and Ellis Marsalis. At Rutgers University, he studied under jazz saxophonist Paul Jeffrey and trumpeter Bill Fielder, and toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra at the age of 19. In 1982, Wynton Marsalis recommended Blanchard to Art Blakey to take Marsalis’ place in the Jazz Messengers. Blanchard would eventually become the band’s music director.

It was in the Jazz Messengers that he met his next collaborator, Donald Harrison, Jr. also from New Orleans. Together they formed Harrison/Blanchard and released seven well-received albums. While still in Blakey’s band, the duo became the first recipients of the Sony Innovators Award.

In 1991, Blanchard started his solo career with the release of his self-titled album. The same year he also embarked on a more than 30-year collaboration with Spike Lee, starting as a session musician in Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues and scoring his first film Jungle Fever. His work with Lee included both films, such as Malcolm X, and documentaries like When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  His scores for Lee’s BlackKklansman and Da’ 5 Bloods led to two Oscar nominations.

In addition to his work with Lee and others, Blanchard has provided music for Broadway plays, dance collaborations, and orchestras. More recently, Blanchard has composed two operas, the most recent of which is Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir of celebrated writer and New York Times columnist Charles Blow, with the libretto written by Kasi Lemmons. Commissioned and premiered by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019, the Metropolitan Opera produced the opera to open their 2021-22 season in New York, making it the first opera composed by an African American composer to premiere at the Met in its entire history.

Blanchard continues to perform and record with his band the E-Collective and with the Turtle Island Quartet on the recent recording, Absence, a tribute to Wayne Shorter.

Select Discography

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, New York Scene, Concord, 1984
Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison, Black Pearl, Columbia, 1988
Flow, Blue Note 2004
A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), Blue Note, 2007
Terence Blanchard, featuring the E-Collective and the Turtle Island Quartet, Absence, Blue Note, 2021