Q&A with Terence Blanchard


What made you gravitate towards Wayne Shorter’s music, and how did you approach the creative process when composing your arrangements of his pieces? 

Wayne’s music is very melodic, harmonically rich and different. That’s what drew me in when I started learning more about jazz. A lot of jazz musicians were using standard tunes that likely originated from Broadway musicals or show tunes. Wayne seems to move far away from that, and that really intrigued me. When it came time to do the arrangements for the album, it was about us exploring what we wanted to say because it wasn’t about trying to do it the way Wayne did. He wouldn’t be interested in that. He thought it was important to express what you have to say, so that was the most important thing for me, to try to put our own stamp on things and then create our own compositions to show him how much he influenced us.”  


Can you talk about your original work that you will perform in this concert?  

For one of the original tunes, the title actually came from something that Wayne said when he was asked what jazz means to him. He said jazz means, I dare you.’ I look at all of our compositions as being something where we take chances. When I say take chances, it’s not about being the most outlandish or out of left field. We’re probably doing something a little different rhythmically or doing something a little different melodically. The actual tune that’s called I Dare You” was something that I wrote for my students where I just used two notes to create the entire composition. I always hear my students say they hit a stumbling block sometimes, which is natural. I then give them these tools to help them find other permutations of their ideas and to help further their ideas. So, I wrote this particular tune as a means to show them how I approach that process.”  


Collaboration is often integral to jazz performance and composition. Can you talk about your experience collaborating with the E-Collective and Turtle Island Quartet? 

“The E-Collective is a very interesting group because the band is full of guys who are good readers, but when they really digest the music is when it starts to blossom and grow. Then, they know how to take those ideas and do exactly what I was talking about, manipulate them and move them around. That’s when the fun happens for us because it’s never the same on any given night. It’s always interesting to me when we play new tunes as I try to play them as much in rehearsal and soundcheck as I can before we get to a live audience because I’d rather the live audience hear us further along in the process. However, there is something special and authentic about what we start to work on in the beginning and how it forms into what we ultimately play. Working with the Turtle Island Quartet has been similar where we can tell that just as much as they’ve influenced us and inspired us, we’ve done the same for them. It’s a beautiful thing to experience because there is no judgment or any hang ups. Both groups are comprised of musicians who really love music and want to expand their palate and their experiences, so the sky’s the limit. We don’t really sit down and say, ‘oh, we can’t do that because of whichever reason.’ No, we don’t think in that regard. For us, it’s about what’s on your mind, what’s possible and exploring that to see what happens.”  


The Jacksonville Symphony is proud to be among the few orchestras in the nation to offer a curated Jazz Series. Do you think other symphonies should incorporate jazz in their musical offerings?  

“Absolutely, because it’s American music. I’m the executive director of SFJazz, which a lot of people know, but some people may not know that I was at the Detroit Symphony for a number of years. They have a jazz series there where they put on about eight to 10 concerts a year. It’s always been a great experience because that audience, first of all, is probably one of the most educated jazz audiences I’ve seen, but also, I think it makes for a more varied kind of musical experience to have that be a part of everything that goes on in the hall. Like I said, this is American music, and it needs to be treated as such. A lot of people have been recognizing and understanding of that. I have no problem with symphonies putting jazz on the plate, so to speak. I do caution that it is important to make sure that when you offer jazz, you’re doing it with great musicians who really understand the history of the music and who have a vision. The most important part about the jazz tradition is to break tradition. It’s all about trying to find those voices who are future-leaning thinkers.”  


The Jacksonville Symphony is proud to embody the ideal that music is for everyone. For those who aren’t jazz aficionados, though we will have plenty at your concert, what can they expect at your performance?  

“Hopefully, they will be inspired by what we do. We have great musicians, and the music runs the gambit. The Turtle Island Quartet will perform a piece that’s pretty amazing, driven by David Balakrishna, the founder of the Quartet. In my group, I have great musicians. They all inspire me on a nightly basis, so I think what people should expect is a night filled with not only beautiful music, but intense and sometimes funny music for a great experience overall. It’s hard for us to define what it is because we’re still in the throes of creating it. I’ve always been the person that’s just going to go for it. I don’t sit down and try to deal with definitions. I don’t think you should think along those lines, because then you put yourselves in boxes.”  


Jazz has a rich history, especially in Jacksonville, and is deeply connected to cultural movements and social change. How do you see jazz music contributing to contemporary conversations about culture and identity? 

“When you go back to John Coltrane, when he wrote Alabama, which is the piece written for the four little girls whose lives were taken there, Max Roache’s Freedom Now Suite and Duke Ellington, they were socially conscious musicians from the beginning stages of jazz. I worked on a documentary called Black and Blue, which was about Louis Armstrong. When you listen to Louis Armstrong talk, people will be shocked as to how socially conscious he was and how that was a motivating factor behind what he did creatively. Ultimately, Jazz is an American art form. It’s created from the culture here in this country. What’s beautiful is that art form has spread around the world and has influenced musicians in other countries. In fact, I just got a request from a Ukrainian musician to be a part of a musical experience to try to help the people in Ukraine. That part of the music has always fascinated me and inspired me because if you can offer up some good with the platforms that you have, you need to do so because we’re human beings first before we’re musicians. Music is a part of who I am, and it’s one of the things that I do, but it’s not all of who I am. I’m a human being first. The thing about that is recognizing when other human beings need help or are in distress. If we can help them through music, then why shouldn’t we?” 


What else would you like our audiences to know about you?  

“People in Jacksonville probably don’t know this, but I played in a Jacksonville festival in 1983 with Art Blakey. There was a moment when they did an all-star performance, and it was four trumpet players. It was Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, John Faddis and me. Blakey was performing, and Billy Taylor was playing piano. It was televised, but I didn’t think anything of it being televised at all. I went to Perugia, Italy, and I was teaching there during the summer, two weeks during the Umbria Jazz Festival. One day, I’m coming out of my hotel, and five journalists ran up to me with microphones. They kept asking me, ‘what do you think about what Miles Davis said?’ And I go, ‘well, first of all, what did he say?’ Turns out, he was very complimentary and very favorable to me, which was a huge honor because he’s a hero of mine. Miles then came to the neighboring city the next day or two after that. I went to the concert, and the drummer brought me in to meet Miles, and as soon as I walked in, before I could say anything, Miles called my name and said, ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’ All of that happened because he saw that broadcast from the Jacksonville festival in 1983. So, I have a great bit of gratitude for that festival. It turned a lot of things around for me in my career.”  

Purchase tickets here to see Terence Blanchard: Absence Featuring the E-Collective and Turtle Island Quartet!

Terence Blanchard

“[Terence] Blanchard’s body of work is one of the broadest and most imposing of any living jazz musician” (New York Times). Blanchard has been a consistent artistic force for making powerful musical statements concerning painful American tragedies – past and present. A true “Renaissance” man, Blanchard stands tall as one of jazz’s most-esteemed trumpeters and defies expectations by creating a spectrum of artistic pursuits. Boundary-breaking and genre-defying, Blanchard is recognized globally as a dazzling soloist and a prolific composer for film, television, opera, Broadway, orchestras and for his own ensembles. In fact, leading theater magazine TheaterMania recently cited Blanchard as “the most exciting American composer working in opera today.”

An eight-time GRAMMY® Winner and twice OSCAR®-nominated film composer, Blanchard became only the second African American composer to be nominated twice in the original score category at the 2022 Academy Awards, duplicating Quincy Jones’ feat from 1967’s In Cold Blood and 1985’s The Color Purple. Blanchard’s work has placed him at the forefront of giving voice to human rights, civil rights and racial injustice, including the 2015 album “Breathless, ’’an elegy for Eric Garner, who was killed by police and whose words, “I can’t breathe,” became a civil rights rallying cry.

Blanchard is also heralded as a two-time opera composer whose Fire Shut Up in My Bones is based on the memoir of celebrated writer and New York Times columnist Charles Blow. The Metropolitan Opera premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones on September 27, 2021, to open their 2021/22 Season in New York, making it the first opera composer by an African American composer to premiere at the Met in its 138-year history. The recording of those performances received a GRAMMY® Award for “Best Opera Recording,” and the New York Times heralded Fire as “inspiring,” “subtly powerful” and “a bold, affecting adaptation of Charles Blow’s work.” Of the historical moment, Blanchard said, “I don’t want to be a token, but a turnkey.” Fire has been widely recognized as one of our nation’s most important cultural milestones and returns to the Met for a highly anticipated second run in April of 2024.

Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, about the troubled life of boxer Emile Griffith, premiered in 2013 and starred Denyce Graves with a libretto from Pulitzer Prize Winner, Michael Cristofer. Champion premiered at the Met in April 2023 to widespread critical acclaim. It too received a 2024 GRAMMY® for “Best Opera Recording.”  

But there is a center of gravity. It’s Blanchard’s beautiful, provocative and inspiring jazz recordings that undergird all these projects. The same holds true now as it did early in his career in 1994 when he told DownBeat: “Writing for film is fun, but nothing can beat being a jazz musician, playing a club, playing a concert.”  

From his expansive work composing the scores for over 20 Spike Lee projects over three decades – ranging from the documentary When the Levees Broke to the recent Lee films, BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods (both of which garnered Blanchard OSCAR® nominations), Blanchard has interwoven beautiful melodies that create strong backdrops to human stories like Regina King’s One Night in Miami; Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou; George Lucas ’Red Tails; the HBO drama series Perry Mason (now in its second season); Apple TV’s docuseries They Call Me Magic (for which Blanchard received an Emmy® nomination) and Gina Prince Bythewood and Viola Davis’ critically acclaimed film, The Woman King.  

In his expansive career as a recording leader, Blanchard delivered Absence, a collaboration with his longtime E-Collective band and the acclaimed Turtle Island Quartet which received GRAMMY® nominations in November 2021 for Best Instrumental Jazz Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo for Blanchard. Recorded in February 2020 just before the Covid-19 lockdowns, Absence started out as a project to show gratitude to Wayne Shorter. “I knew that Wayne wasn’t feeling well at the time, so I wanted to honor him to let him know how much he has meant to me,” says Blanchard who today lives in Los Angeles as well as in his native New Orleans. “When you look at my own writing, you can see how much I’ve learned from Wayne. He mastered writing compositions starting with a simple melody and then juxtaposing it against the harmonies that come from a different place to make it come alive in a different light.”  

Born in New Orleans in 1962, Blanchard is a musical polymath who launched his solo career as a bandleader in the 1990s. Since then, he has released 20 solo albums, garnered 15 GRAMMY® nominations, composed for the stage and for more than 60 films and received 10 major commissions. He has been named an official 2024 NEA Jazz Master as well as a member of the 2024 class of awardees for the esteemed American Academy of Arts and Letters and currently serves as the Executive Artistic Director for SF Jazz, the largest non-profit jazz presenter in the world.

Regarding his consistent attachment to artistic works of conscience, Blanchard confesses, “You get to a certain age when you ask, ‘Who’s going to stand up and speak out for us?’ Then you look around and realize that the James Baldwins, Muhammad Alis and Dr. Kings are no longer here…and begin to understand that it falls on you. I’m not trying to say I’m here to try to correct the whole thing, I’m just trying to speak the truth.” In that regard, he cites unimpeachable inspirations. “John Coltrane playing Alabama, even Louis Armstrong talking about what was going on with his people any time he was interviewed. Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter who live by their Buddhist philosophy and try to expand the conscience of their communities. I’m standing on all their shoulders. How dare I come through this life having had the blessing of meeting those men and not take away any of that? Like anybody else, I’d like to play feel good party music, but sometimes my music is about the reality of where we are.”