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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Terence Blanchard

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard

You probably know today's subject from the many films he has scored or as an accomplished jazz musician and composer. This week, however, Terence Blanchard is living his theatre life as part of the creative team for the world premiere Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) production of Bud, Not Buddy. The show opens tomorrow night and runs through January 15th in the center's Eisenhower Theater.

Terence Blanchard is not only a five-time Grammy Award® winner, but he has also established himself as one of the most influential jazz musicians and film score masters of his generation. He is a member of a jazz legacy that has shaped the contours of modern jazz today. As a musician, he has more than 30 albums to his credit. As a film composer, Blanchard has more than 50 scores to his credit, most recently, Kevin Costner's Black or White. For Spike Lee, he scored such diverse films as Jungle Fever and Malcolm X and received a Golden Globe nomination for Spike Lee's 25th Hour. Other film credits include Oprah Winfrey's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tim Story's Barbershop, and George Lucas's Red Tails. Add to those achievements Blanchard's successes composing for the Broadway stage. (Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Motherf***er With the Hat and the Emily Mann-directed Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire). His first opera commissioned by Opera St. Louis, Champion, will be featured in the Washington National Opera's 2016-17 season. Other accomplishments include serving as the musical voice of Louis the Alligator in the Disney-animated feature The Princess and the Frog; becoming the artistic director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's jazz series; and after serving as the artistic director of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz for a decade since 2000, being named in 2015 artist in residence at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, Blanchard works with students on artistic development, arranging, and composition. He also participates in master classes around the world as well as local community outreach activities in his beloved hometown of New Orleans.

As you can see Terence has had a long distinguished career and shows no signs of stopping. With Bud, Not Buddy, we are lucky enough to have him once again composing for the stage. He is a brilliant talent and if you have the chance this week to see the show, you'll understand why he is one of the most sought after musicians/composers we have.

Who got you interested in music as a kid and what made you choose jazz as your primary musical genre?

Music was always in my house. My dad was an amateur opera singer and my mom taught piano. I started playing piano at 5 years old. I also credit a guy named Alvin Alcorn. He did a trumpet demo at my school and I was hooked from then on.

What was your first professional job as a musician?

That would have been the Rand B band called Creatives. I was the pianist for the group.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Terence Blanchard
Show artwork for The Kennedy Center's Theatre for Young Audiences world premiere production of Bud, Not Buddy.

How did you get attached to Bud, Not Buddy?

The writer showed interest. Then Kennedy Center called and I was very curious about the project. The idea of doing a show with actors and music is always intriguing.

Can you please tell us a little something about the show?

It depicts how we are still working on who we are and where we come from. The lead character wants to know who he is and where he comes from and the show sends him on the path of a wonderful adventure.

A lot of TYA theatre uses pre recorded music. Bud, Not Buddy utilizes a live band. Was this something you insisted on?

It was something the Kennedy Center wanted. The whole idea of the show is that it's a radio broadcast. It should be fun for the audience.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Terence Blanchard
L-R Terence Blanchard, Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee at the opening of The Motherf***ker with the Hat. Photo by Bruce Gilkas.

You have scored a bunch of films for Spike Lee. What do you remember most about your first meeting?

He kept talking about my Converse sneakers and how he knew I was a big LA Lakers fan from my wardrobe. Next thing I knew, I was sitting courtside at a NY Knicks game.

Do you find scoring for theatre is harder than scoring for film?

Not necessarily the scoring, but more the timing with a live performance. Consistency is the biggest issue. When I scored The Motherf***er with the Hat it was mostly transition music so that was not a problem. A Streetcar Named Desire had musical themes that became a timing nightmare. In live performance, things change nightly and many variances come into play.

It seems to me that producers are always trying to cut the size of the band down for budget reasons, at least in theatre. Does the same problem exist in film? What was the hardest fight you've had over the size of your orchestra for a film scoring job?

I don't fight over it because it's a never-ending battle and you generally won't win. Fights tend to be counterproductive and I look at it as an artistic challenge. I just worked on Shots Fired for Fox TV. I could have had strings in certain spots, but I found a way to be creative without them.

What's the most gratifying thing about being a music educator?

Watching the students grow and the lights go on in their eyes. I have lots of students with a career in music now. I like to think I played a small role in that just like Clark Terry and others did with me.

Where can we hear your work in the near future?

I just finished recording a new album and my opera Champion will be performed at the Kennedy Center in March. I also have Shots Fired on Fox TV in the spring and the upcoming film The Comedian.

Special thanks to Kennedy Center publicist Brendan Padgett for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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