As trumpeter, bandleader, educator, and composer, Terence Blanchard usually projects supreme confidence. At 52, he’s a multiple Grammy Award winner whose influence upon jazz’s landscape is deep and elemental. His music has reached millions through his scores for more than 50 films and for Broadway productions.
Yet in the living room of his New Orleans home last year, he described to me how he felt before composing “Champion,” an opera based on the story of boxer Emile Griffith.
“What can you think, as a jazz musician, when somebody comes up and asks you to write an opera?” he said. “For a little while,” Blanchard said, “I was so intimidated I stayed away from it.”
He dove in, with winning results. “Champion” had its premiere last June at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to great acclaim, and is nominated for Best World Premiere at the upcoming 2014 International Opera Awards (the only modern American opera so honored).
Bold and moving as is the staged tale of Griffith’s life and career—I’ll get to that—Blanchard’s music, taken on its own, says much and hits hard. It frames both Griffith’s unique story and Blanchard’s singular voice .
Now Blanchard has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a recording of his score by the original cast, which includes mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, with members of the St. Louis Symphony. He hopes to record in June at Powell Hall in St. Louis. The online campaign features many levels of participation—one offers a one-on-one music lesson with Blanchard—and closes on April 22.
Blanchard is not the only high-profile jazz musician to pursue and ambitious project through fan funding. Maria Schneider’s 2013 Grammy-winning work, “Winter Morning Walks,” featuring two chamber orchestras and opera singer Dawn Upshaw, was funded through the ArtistShare site. And he’s not the only trumpeter composing music that challenges our notions of jazz pedagogy and social justice: Wadada Leo Smith’s recent “Ten Freedom Summers” paired jazz quartet and chamber orchestra to fill four CDs with a musical account of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet Griffith’s story struck a personal chord with Blanchard, and fits within other legacies as well. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year:
Blanchard is neither the first celebrated jazz trumpeter to develop a passion for boxing (he began training nearly 20 years ago) nor the first to compose music staked to a champion’s story. Miles Davis scored a 1970 documentary about Jack Johnson, a theme revisited by Wynton Marsalis for a Ken Burns PBS film. The life of Griffith, a five-time world champion, is forever framed by the 1962 bout in which he regained the welterweight title from Benny “The Kid” Paret. The grainy black-and-white scene in Dan Klores’s 2005 documentary, “Ring of Fire,” drawn from ABC-TV’s “Friday Night Fights” archive, is riveting: In the 12th round, Griffith lands 17 blows in seven seconds; Paret slips limply down the ropes; the referee intervenes, but too late. Paret falls into a coma, and dies 10 days later. A commission was formed to investigate boxing. ABC suspended boxing broadcasts for nearly a decade. Griffith fought for 15 more years, though somewhat half-heartedly.
Violence in boxing forms mere subtext to the themes of “Champion.” At the weigh-in, Paret had taunted Griffith with a derogatory Spanish term for “homosexual.” (“He called me a name,” Griffith, who is 75 and suffers from dementia, told New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in 2005. “So I did what I had to do.”) Griffith never identified himself as a homosexual, but has talked in interviews about having relations with both sexes. He frequented gay bars. He was brutally beaten outside one in 1992.
Blanchard told me he was transfixed by one Griffith quote in Ron Ross’s book “Nine… Ten… And Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith”:
“I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgivable sin.”
“My mind flashed on when I won my first Grammy,” Blanchard said. “When they called my name, I gave my wife a hug and a kiss. I thought about how this guy reached the highest level of achievement in his sport and was not able to celebrate openly with someone he loves.”
“This is a story of redemption,” Blanchard said. “It’s a story of longing, and of acceptance. What makes it timely is also the sad thing—it’s still relevant.”
“Champion” merits further stagings at opera houses. It’s not easy for contemporary American operas to find life beyond their premieres; yet there’s interest, I’m told, from Washington National Opera, Opera Paralléle in San Francisco, and Opera Philadelphia.
Blanchard’s music for the opera need be documented and placed not only on the shelf alongside his other works but within the canon of ambitious jazz-based projects that take on important themes.