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Terence Blanchard, six-time Grammy winner, is a musical chameleon

Terence Blanchard in the KNKX studio in 2015.
Parker Miles Blohm
Terence Blanchard in the KNKX studio in 2015.

In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues.

Terence Blanchard just won his sixth Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for his music from the Oscar-nominated Spike Lee film “BlacKkKlansman.” But film music is just one aspect of this amazing artist, as his music continues to evolve.

Blanchard is a highly sought after film score composer of three decades, and he’s been one of the top trumpeters in jazz for even longer, and his upcoming second opera will make him the first African American composer to have his work performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Not bad for a kid from New Orleans who couldn’t really play.

When he was still a teenager, Blanchard was playing with Lionel Hampton’s big band in 1980 at the Roosevelt Hotel in his hometown of New Orleans. His dad walked him up the hotel stairs and started to cry. He used to work at this hotel, but had to walk through the service entrance in back, and only come out to the ballroom to bus the tables and then go back into the kitchen. Now, he’s going through the front door to see his son play in that same room.

That’s the emotional engine that drives all of the music Blanchard makes.

Blanchard’s big break came in his early 20s, when his New Orleans neighbor Wynton Marsalis recommended him as his replacement in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Despite his inexperience, Blanchard flourished quickly, and won his first Grammy with this band in 1984.

Blanchard’s first albums were co-led with his Messengers partner and another friend from New Orleans, saxophonist Donald Harrison. But it was another Crescent City neighbor who really changed the young trumpeter’s journey as an artist.

**Mo’ Better Blues: from the start, fade after “…for BlackKklansman.”

That’s Terence on trumpet, but on the big screen you saw Denzel Washington as Bleek Gilliam in Spike Lee’s 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues.” Saxophonist Branford Marsalis is leading the band. But Spike heard something he liked, and asked Blanchard to score his next film, “Jungle Fever.”

Blanchard has gone on to work with directors Taylor Hackford, Gus Van Sant, George Lucas and more than a dozen Spike Lee joints, including that Oscar nomination for “BlacKkKlansman.”

Visiting the KNKX studios, Blanchard told us the film scoring work has its challenges, but it’s also brought him some exciting musical rewards:

“I get a chance to write for large ensembles…huge orchestras…that’s given me the experience I need to step into this other arena — writing operas and stuff for orchestra.”

Blanchard’s first opera, “Champion,” was written about the tragic story of boxing champ Emile Griffith. In 1962, he put his opponent into a coma that led to his death, sending Griffith’s life into a tailspin.

Blanchard’s just-announced second opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” will be first piece by an African American to be performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera. Based on memoir by New York Times author Charles Blow, that opera is expected to premier in the 2021 season.

As busy as film scores and operas have kept him, Blanchard’s never lost his love for playing and writing jazz music.

Now into his late 50s, Blanchard keeps himself involved in modern music by teaching and working with younger musicians. Young players consistently inspire him at Berklee College of Music and The Thelonious Monk Institute. His latest electric group was formed to inspire kids to play all kinds of music, not just jazz.

Blanchard brought his young group, the E-Collective, to the KNKX studios shortly after the release of their 2015 album, “Breathless.”

The album’s title refers to the last words of Eric Garner, an African American man who was killed by a New York police officer’s choke hold. Blanchard said the album wasn’t planned as a political statement.

“As we were touring, we were in Europe. And you know, these stories were unfolding, it seemed like month by month,” he told KNKX’s studio audience. “We couldn’t ignore it any longer, at a certain point you have to say what’s on your mind.”

Terence says he was encouraged after speaking to his son, Oliver, who just happens to be singer, songwriter and music producer, and he came up with words for the poem in the song.

Though KNKX listeners love his jazz, Terence Blanchard can’t be boxed into one simple category. He’s a musical chameleon with loads of talent that he shares in jazz clubs, on movie screens, and now in opera halls. Who’s to say he can’t triumph in any musical realm? Terence Blanchard is ready to play, in whatever style and whenever the mood strikes.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.