During a conversation hours before receiving his honor, Blanchard, a six-time Grammy winner and the first African-American composer to have an opera staged by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, talked to Billboard about his approach to music and to life. He comes from a place of “Why not?,” he holds curiosity in lofty regard, and he’s deeply grateful for the opportunity to create and share impactful music. “It’s a gift,” he said. “The only way to pay it back is to pay it forward.”
Blanchard was also especially pleased to be recognized by the institute’s board chair, for whom the former Thelonious Monk-monikered organization was renamed this year.
“Herbie Hancock’s been a guiding force in my life for a long time,” he said. “He and Wayne Shorter. I use them as the model as to what it means to truly be an artist, not just a jazz musician but an artist.”
How does Blanchard define artistry? “It’s not always about selling records. It’s about making statements, and sometimes those statements won’t be heard until later years. But it’s about speaking your truth and trying to walk in that truth,” he said. “I find it liberating to face your faults. For me, being an artist is to face them head on. When people ask me to do projects I have no business doing, I step back and say, ‘Maybe I should try it and see what happens.’ I don’t ever want to be the person to stay in one place.”
His relentless momentum often finds Blanchard immersed in two, or 10, projects at the same time. He’s scored every Spike Lee movie since 1991’s Jungle Fever, including earning an Oscar nomination for his work on BlacKkKlansman. (“There’s been a level of trust built up over the years that I have with nobody else,” he says), and just wrapped Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, a film about Vietnam veterans due on Netflix in 2020. He’s generating another round of Oscar buzz with his score to Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, he released his latest album Up From the Streets in October, and is performing with several ensembles including his E-Collective outfit that explored racial conflict in the 2105 album Breathless and more recently plunged into the effects of gun violence on the album Live, recorded at venues in three communities that experienced escalating conflicts between law enforcement and African-American citizens.
Blanchard’s second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, about a young man’s struggle with continuing or curtailing the cycle of violence imbued in him growing up in a Louisiana town where slavery's legacy is closely felt, premiered in St. Louis and next will part of The Met’s 2020-21 season.
“It blew me away, I had no idea,” Blanchard said, of learning he would be the first black composer to have his work featured at The Met. “Everybody’s been saying, ‘How’s that possible?’ You’d think in 136 years there’s got to be someone else.”
In addition to honoring Blanchard at the Kennedy Center, the three guitar finalists -- winnowed down from 12 semifinalists from seven countries on Dec. 2 -- performed two pieces before a judging panel of guitar virtuosos: Stanley Jordan, Lionel Loueke, Russell Malone, Pat Metheny, Chico Pinheiro, Lee Ritenour and John Scofield. Many of the judges took the stage to play the evening’s final number, a dazzling performance of Wes Montgomery's "Four On Six," with Blanchard center stage on trumpet. Blanchard also joined seven of his former Institute students to perform "Soldiers" from Breathless.
The judges bestowed the $30,000 first place scholarship and a recording contract with Concord Records to Moscow’s Evgeny Pobozhiy and his voracious shredding.
Maximizing the talent at hand, the festivities also included 2018 Fisher honoree Dee Dee Bridgewater, musical director John Beasley and trumpeter Diego Urcola honoring Louis Armstrong with a soulful rendition of "What A Wonderful World." Actor/singer Keith David paid homage to the late Joe Williams with a segment from David’s stage musical Here's To Life: Joe Williams that wove narratives from Williams’ life with two song he popularized—“Every Day I Have the Blues" and "Alright, Okay, You Win." Jane Monheit and Antonio Hart feted Brazilian bossa nova with a performance of Antonio Carlos Jobim classic "Chega de Saudade."
Love for Blanchard swelled throughout the evening. Cassandra Wilson treated the crowd to soulful version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" from his 2001 recording Let's Get Lost, and Lizz Wright put her lush vocals to work on "Detour Ahead" from Blanchard's 1994 tribute album to Billie Holiday. Mitch Landrieu, former New Orleans mayor and Louisiana lieutenant governor, showed up to pay tribute to one of his city’s favorite sons and praise Blanchard’s album A Tale of God's Will - A Requiem for Katrina, which musically illustrated Hurricane Katrina's devastating effects.
Proceeds from the event support the Institute’s public school education programs in Chicago, Washington, D.C.; Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Newark, San Francisco and the Mississippi Delta.