Terence Blanchard, composer of Spike Lee movie masterpieces, brings opera concert to Strathmore

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Terence Blanchard at Strathmore (Part 1)

He composed the music for some of Spike Lee’s greatest movie masterpieces.

Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmon's adaptation of "Fire Shut Up In My Bones" at the Metropolitan Opera House became the first opera composed by a Black composer to be staged by the company in its entire history.(The Washington Post via Getty Im/The Washington Post)

This Friday, Terence Blanchard visits Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, to perform selections from his Grammy-winning opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which made him the first Black composer to stage an opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera back in 2021.

“We have a concert version of it,” Blanchard told WTOP. “We won’t have the production sets and wardrobe, but it’s a very beautiful concert. To hear the arias done in that setting is a totally different type of experience. … when you experience this concert, you get a broad sense musically of what you would experience if you saw the opera live.”

Based on the best-selling 2014 memoir of New York Times journalist Charles M. Blow, the opera explores Blow’s struggles to overcome a cycle of violence. It features a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, who worked with Blanchard on the coming-of-age thriller “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet” (2019).

“I called her in to do this libretto and she did a fantastic and amazing job,” Blanchard said.

Born in New Orleans in 1962, Blanchard grew up with Wynton and Branford Marsalis before studying at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and later Rutgers University. He began touring with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before forming the Terence Blanchard / Donald Harrison Quintet and eventually going solo in 1990. The collective result was a whopping 16 Grammy nominations and six wins.

“Whenever you’re acknowledged in that way, it’s a blessing and an honor. And I don’t take it lightly because there’s a lot of great musicians out there doing great work,” Blanchard said.

While his music career flourished, he also began working on movies with Spike Lee, playing as a session musician on “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which featured an original score by Lee’s late father, composer Bill Lee.

“It was hard to tell back then because Spike had such a unique cinematic style, we were learning it just as much as anyone else,” Blanchard said. “We knew it was really compelling because we were seeing ourselves and our culture on screen, but to see what it’s meant to people over the years is still something that you couldn’t have foreseen.”

Blanchard began composing original pieces of music for “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) before getting his own first sole composer credit on “Jungle Fever” (1991). Arguably their greatest collaboration remains the biopic “Malcolm X” (1992), starring Denzel Washington. Blanchard even made a cameo as a trumpet player in Billie Holiday’s band.

“When you hear the opening of ‘Malcolm X,’ that’s my experience of hearing [Malcolm’s X’s ‘revolution is bloody’] speech for the first time,” Blanchard said. “That big crash at the beginning is like a shock of what I was hearing, the heartbeat is the bass drum that you hear, the melody of the trumpet is kind of like Malcolm himself, then the cello as a reaction to it is kind of like me, then it just kind of builds and builds and builds until the end.”

Their collaboration continued on “Crooklyn” (1994), “Clockers” (1995), “4 Little Girls” (1997), “Summer of Sam” (1999), “Bamboozled” (2000), “25th Hour” (2002), “Inside Man” (2006), “When the Levees Broke” (2006), “Miracle at St. Anna” (2008) and “Chi-Raq” (2015) before Blanchard finally received a pair of overdue Oscar nominations for Best Original Score for “BlackKKlansman” (2018) and “Da 5 Bloods” (2020).

“Each project had its own signature sound,” Blanchard said. “That was the beautiful thing about working with Spike because he would always challenge me in that regard, he would always say things like, ‘So what haven’t you done yet in a score?’ That would cause me to think about new ideas, so when we got to ‘BlackKKlansman,’ we wound up using my electronic band as the foundation for the score and featured the guitar of my man Charles Altura.”

Blanchard also composed scores for Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” (2020) and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball” (2000) and “The Woman King” (2022).

“When Gina brought me in to view a cut of [‘The Woman King’], I was an emotional wreck watching it,” Blanchard said. “I was literally honored to be a part of it. When we got a chance to do the music, man, I brought in some of the singers from my opera career. I asked a good friend of mine, Dianne Reeves, to sing on top of it. We both said that it felt like everything we experienced in our musical careers led to us to that moment of making that film.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Terence Blanchard at Strathmore (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on the podcast below:

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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