TERENCE BLANCHARD wasn’t looking for a permanent academic position when he got a call from the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, inviting him to take on a newly created role. But the school, which launched its global jazz studies major in 2018, was bubbling with possibilities, and that excited the multi-Grammy winner and convinced him to join the faculty. In June 2019, Blanchard became the inaugural Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies, a position from which he hopes to expand the reach of the global jazz studies program.
“There are so many other melodic, harmonic and textural colors that jazz players can access just by bringing in different musical concepts from around the world,” he says, speaking from New Orleans, his hometown and the birthplace of jazz. Blanchard says that jazz — rich in history and rooted in folklore — isn’t just one thing. It evolves and responds to events, and Blanchard argues that contending with social issues is fundamental to the music, too. “The world is getting smaller because of technology and social media,” he says. “People are being influenced by things from all over the globe. Jazz has always been a music that’s allowed artists to express themselves. There are kids all over the world with something to say.”
“While I’m the first Black composer featured at the Met, I should not be the only one.”
Jazz responds musically as well, cross-pollinating with other forms, such as opera. Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on a memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, is scheduled to open the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021–22 season in September. Blanchard will be the first Black composer to be featured in the Met’s 137-year history.
“It’s a huge honor to be the first African American to have a piece performed at the Met. But it’s also an honor I didn’t know existed, because I just assumed this had happened before,” Blanchard says. “While I’m the first Black composer featured at the Met, I should not be the only one.”
Technology is instrumental in helping musicians explore the limits of jazz. Equipped with software and hardware, jazz musicians are sampling and looping their own improvisations while continuing to play over those loops, in both studio and live settings. Blanchard points to the playing of pianist Fabian Almazan — a member of Blanchard’s band, the E-Collective — who runs his piano through effects on a laptop and changes those effects constantly as he improvises live. Blanchard believes Almazan and other great minds will continue to stretch the boundaries of the genre.
Blanchard himself is also testing boundaries. His compositions can be heard not only in the revered sanctuary that is the Met, but also through more accessible outlets like HBO. His score for the network’s Perry Mason prequel draws on the unique capacity of jazz to tell stories with sound. Although the series is set in the ’30s and ’40s, Blanchard wanted to ensure that the music also retained a contemporary quality. He achieves that balance, he says, “with a jazz trio, a string quartet and then a lot of ambient, atmospheric sounds. And at certain moments, I’m playing trumpet on top of it. To me, all of that is jazz. And that is what’s lending itself to creating something different for this particular show.”
Blanchard also has been busy showcasing his scoring talents on a host of film projects, from Regina King’s One Night in Miami to frequent collaborator Spike Lee’s films Da 5 Bloods and BlacKkKlansman, both of which earned him Oscar nominations for best original score.
Jazz has always been about creating something spontaneous and surprising. Blanchard believes that as long as young musicians are experimenting with the form, jazz will live on. He quotes the celebrated musician and composer Wayne Shorter, another famed UCLA jazz educator, to sum up its ethos: “‘Jazz’ means ‘I dare you.’”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s July 2021 issue.