Terence Blanchard, Pushing Jazz Forward From a New Perch

Two big announcements came down recently about the trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard — both monumental, neither one a surprise.

In June, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that Blanchard, 61, would receive a 2024 Jazz Masters fellowship, the highest lifetime-achievement honor available to a United States-based improviser.

Then a month later, as if a reminder that this lifetime still has a few major chapters ahead, the nonprofit organization and performance center SFJazz named Blanchard its executive artistic director. Hardly any other musician has so solid a grasp on the scope of what’s going on in jazz today — and no institution is as committed to reflecting, even goading, its growth.

A six-time Grammy winner, Blanchard possesses one of the most commanding and slippery trumpet styles in jazz, and for almost a decade he has led one of its most reliable ensembles, the E-Collective, full of musicians a couple of decades his junior. He has written and recorded over 40 film scores, including for most of Spike Lee’s movies. Despite being a conservatory dropout himself, he has become a leading educator, helping shape programs at U.C.L.A., the University of Miami and the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz. And in recent years, he has made headlines for the back-to-back Met premieres of his two operas, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Champion.”

All of which makes for relevant job training for the new role. “The thing that I’ve always loved about SFJazz is that they don’t treat the music like it’s a fossil,” Blanchard said in a phone interview. “It’s a living, breathing, ongoing thing. And they respect young artists who are bringing something different to the table.”

Blanchard is taking the reins directly from SFJazz’s founder, Randall Kline, who has run the organization since it started in 1982, always with a passion for what’s next. “I remember thinking how much I love that dude,” Blanchard said. “He was just a serious music lover who happened to be a promoter.”

Blanchard onstage at the SFJazz Gala in June 2022.Credit…Drew Altizer Photography

SFJazz began as a jazz festival and traveling presenter around San Francisco. It convened a house ensemble of all-star musicians, the SFJazz Collective, in 2004, and opened the $64 million, state-of-the-art SFJazz Center in 2013. This week, Blanchard and Kline will both be at the kickoff for the center’s 2023-24 season, the last booked by Kline.

SFJazz’s board chair, Denise Young, who led the search for Kline’s replacement, said Blanchard stood out because he “had a vision that matched what we believed was important to this music in these times.”

Blanchard will relish the chance to pick up on one of Kline’s pet obsessions: bringing new technologies to the SFJazz stage. And as a musician who consistently uses his platform to speak about social issues — recording music with Cornel West, dedicating an album to the memory of Eric Garner, putting narratives of Black queer life into song — he’s also eager to confront questions of unequal access in a city where inequality continues to balloon.

He’d like to keep SFJazz high-tech, but low-barrier when it comes to entry. To promote “outreach into the community,” he said, he envisions a matinee concert program directed at students in local high schools, and a series of traveling shows that might bring SFJazz-level talent into some of the Bay Area’s more neglected neighborhoods.

Last week Blanchard stole an hour for an interview from his new office there. The building buzzed around him as the team prepared for the season launch, and by the end of the call an assistant was hovering, waiting to whisk him away to a donor meeting.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Blanchard broke out on the New York scene in the early 1980s — the so-called Young Lions era, when many were longing for a return to the halcyon sounds of midcentury jazz. In 1982, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, taking over the trumpet chair from Wynton Marsalis, his childhood friend. Then he followed Marsalis onto the roster of Columbia Records, where he recorded a series of straight-ahead albums with a quintet he and Donald Harrison led.

While Marsalis doubled down on Neo-Classicism, founding and directing Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York as a beacon of tradition, Blanchard has veered toward the cutting edge. With his E-Collective, he has emulated Blakey in one crucial way: His side-musicians are all significantly younger. On other fronts, Blakey wouldn’t recognize much of that quintet’s tool kit: the electronic effects, the hip-hop backbeats, the swatches of distorted guitar and electric bass.

So there’s something poetic about seeing Blanchard — the Young Lion-turned-innovator — land at SFJazz, which has long been positioned as a kind of left-coast alternative to Marsalis’s JALC. “The idea was eclecticism: Don’t fly the flag of one thing,” Kline said in an interview. “San Francisco at the time had all these amazing scenes going: There was an Asian American jazz scene, there was this kind of trad-jazz scene, there was this hard-core avant-garde thing going, there was Brazilian music and Afro Cuban music.”

To the extent that SFJazz has developed a winning formula, Kline said, “it’s been a formula around being open.”

That conviction came in handy when Blanchard was invited to SFJazz in the mid-2010s for a series of artist residencies. He had recently composed “Champion,” which tells the tragic story of the world champion boxer Emile Griffith, and an opera company in San Francisco was hoping to stage it. The center had never done an opera before, and sure, this wasn’t exactly “jazz,” but it was just the kind of ambitious project that the center was built to handle.

“The thing that I’ve always loved about SFJazz is that they don’t treat the music like it’s a fossil,” Blanchard said. “It’s a living, breathing, ongoing thing. And they respect young artists who are bringing something different to the table.”Credit…Ike Edeani for The New York Times

“It fit so perfectly with our programming aesthetic, and also getting creative around the space,” Kline said. “It was just as good as it gets.”

When Blanchard had first been approached about an opera commission in the early 2010s, he was thrilled. His father had sung opera, and he had grown up hearing Puccini and Verdi in the house, along with the sounds of jazz and Black popular music. But he wasn’t sure where to begin.

So he did what he’d done at so many inflection points throughout his career: He went to his teacher, Roger Dickerson, a now 89-year-old composer and pianist and a New Orleans music giant in his own right, who had helped Blanchard write his first large-scale compositions.

“He told me, ‘Stop thinking about writing an opera, just tell a story,’” Blanchard remembered. “That was extremely helpful for me, because then I wasn’t trying to live up to something.”

“Tell your story” is, of course, a

Bir yanıt yazın

E-posta adresiniz yayınlanmayacak. Gerekli alanlar * ile işaretlenmişlerdir