Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard is one of Hollywood’s preeminent composers, having scored 20 of Spike Lee’s projects—including last year’s BlacKkKlansman, which earned him his first Oscar nomination—and Harriet, Kasi Lemmons’s upcoming biopic of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Blanchard has also begun experimenting with opera, most recently writing the music for Fire Shut Up in My Bones (based on the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s 2014 memoir), which premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June. “I’ve always been a believer that the universe will put things in front of you, and how you react will determine your future,” Blanchard says. Here’s how he’s channeled that improvisational spirit into a melodious career.
Never turn down an opportunity
When Spike Lee asked Blanchard if he could help compose the score for his 1990 jazz drama Mo’ Better Blues, Blanchard quickly said yes. And then he panicked. At that point, Blanchard was a rising jazz musician who had performed background music for Lee’s earlier films, including School Daze and Do the Right Thing. During a break from filming Mo’ Better Blues, Lee overheard Blanchard playing one of his own compositions. He asked if the song could be used in the film, and if Blanchard could write a string arrangement to go along with it—something the trumpeter had never done before. Blanchard says he realized that acknowledging that he might not be able to pull off the task would be the same as “locking myself up and closing my experience off.” After a pep talk from his composition teacher, who urged him to trust his training, Blanchard earned his first film composition credit—which snowballed into a three-decade-long collaborative relationship with Lee.
Bend your sound
Blanchard finds it easy to switch between writing his own music and working with others. And he finds the variety of other people’s tastes invigorating. “People assume that just because somebody else has a vision that it stifles your creativity—it’s totally not the truth,” he says. His jazz training helps him stay open to a director’s notes or overall style. For example, Lee wants the music in his films to function as its own narrative and character, while Lemmons prefers that the score blend into a scene. “People are fearful [that when] somebody gives you a certain set of colors, they’re telling you not to be you,” Blanchard says. “If that were the case, they wouldn’t need me. It’s really about putting your ego aside and allowing the project to tell you what it needs.”
Hitting the Right Notes: Blanchard Explains How He Created the Music For a Few Pivotal Films
Spend time in the basement
Harriet chronicles the legendary abolitionist and spy who led hundreds of slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad. “You can’t let the magnitude of [her accomplishments] intimidate you [as a creator],” says Blanchard. “She was putting her faith in something bigger than her to guide her through those tumultuous times. I have to put my faith in the film itself and allow it to push me in a direction.” He arrived at adding a rhythmic backdrop of African drums to a full orchestra—a compelling way to tie the film’s historical time frame into the score. And Blanchard always remembers the advice that saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter gave him: “‘When it comes to composition, you’ve got to go down in the basement and visit every note.’ I took that as, You gotta do some work. It’s not just going to come to you.”
Appreciate the larger goal
Blanchard once ran into Gene Dobbs Bradford, head of the nonprofit Jazz St. Louis, which oversees some jazz clubs in the city. As they spoke, Blanchard mentioned that his father was an opera fan, and that he’d grown up with all the classics in their home in New Orleans. Not long after, he learned that Bradford had recommended him to write the musical score for the opera Champion, a piece about boxer Emile Griffith co-commissioned by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “They listened to some of my film scores and loved the way I wrote,” Blanchard says. “And next thing you know, James Robinson [director of both the theater and Champion] called me up and asked me to write an opera. I thought, You sure you got the right guy?” Blanchard learned how to move music from the background to the spotlight for the 2013 production and followed up the project with the recent Fire Shut Up in My Bones. He considers both operas, which feature African American protagonists, among the most meaningful entries on his résumé. “There have been a number of people of color who have come up to me after the performance and go, ‘That’s our voice. We see ourselves onstage.’ I’m extremely proud of that.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.