Filed Under:  Entertainment

Terence Blanchard’s ‘Champion: An Opera in Jazz’ at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre

5th March 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

An opera about a bisexual boxing champion sung in English might sound unlikely though Terence Blanchard doesn’t view it that way. “There have always been stereotypes about opera just like there are about jazz,” says Blanchard who wrote “Champion: An Opera in Jazz,” which was commissioned by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. “People who don’t venture out are missing out,” he continues. “The thing I would tell people is to stop thinking opera. Think musical theater in its highest form performed at a high level of proficiency by great musicians and great singers.

New Orleans-born Blanchard, 55, remains best known as a jazz trumpet player and composer and director/producer Spike Lee’s main man when it comes to scoring his films. An artist of many talents, Blanchard has written classical pieces and has always been involved in music education and presently heads to Boston once a month to teach at the Berklee College of Music. The trumpeter was surprised however when he was approached by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis that requested him to write an opera. He remembers his response was, “Wow,” when presented with the offer.

When contemplating a subject for the project, Blanchard, who for 20 years has been going to a boxing gym to hit the bags and spar, remembered hearing the tragic story about boxing champion Emile Griffith. During a boxing match in 1962, Griffith fiercely pummeled a fighter named Benny Paret, who, it is said, taunted Griffith for being gay. The beating led to Paret’s death 10 days later.



After Blanchard read a biography on Griffith, “Nine, Ten and Out,” one line really stuck with him. The boxer was quoted as saying, “I killed a man and the world forgave me. I loved a man and the world still hasn’t forgiven me.” Blanchard recalls thinking: “You know what, this is what the story (for the opera) has to be. I mean it’s not about boxing, it’s about redemption and forgiveness.”

Champion: An Opera in Jazz,” which premiered in 2013 in St. Louis, will be presented at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre Friday, March 9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 11, at 2:30 p.m. It will be performed by the New Orleans Opera Association with music by the Louisiana Philharmonic and a four-piece, jazz rhythm section. The jazz group includes all local talents with pianist Michael Pellera, guitarist Steve Masakowski, bassist Jason Stewart and drummer Herman LeBeaux. The performances will feature the creators of the original roles, vocalists Arthur Woodley, playing old Emile, and Aubry Allicock, playing the young Emile.

Opera has been a part of Blanchard’s entire life even though he never attended a production until 2011. His father, a baritone, sang in church, at recitals and with a small group of Black men who would perform excerpts of opera — in the language of their origins — and spirituals. “My dad used to rehearse every Wednesday night with a guy named Osceola Blanchet. He was guy who taught a lot of young African American men opera. My dad learned opera from him. He was the organist in our church and he had a group called the Osceola Five.”

It was purposeful that Blanchard titled “Champion” an opera in jazz rather than a jazz opera as he didn’t want to give its audience, or perhaps his many jazz fans, the wrong impression. He wanted people to know that this is an opera in its true form complete with the libretto by Michael Cristofer and arias and not a rhythm section with a big band. “I use the language of jazz throughout the opera but there are moments when it’s totally just orchestra. I’m using that European language to tell the story.”

“It’s profound for me — it’s not lost on me — to have an opera that I’ve written be performed in my hometown.”

Herlin Riley Strikes Up the Band for the Nickel-A-Dance Series

When drummer Herlin Riley is on the bandstand it’s a given that energy will soar. A superior musician no matter what style of music is on the menu, Riley will make it happen playing traditional jazz on Sunday, March 11. The drummer will be leading the whimsically named band the Flat Foot Five as he kicks off the 25th edition of the Nickel-A-Dance series at Frenchmen Street’s Mason club. His hot band includes trumpeter/vocalist Kevin Lewis, who, like Riley, enjoys havin’ some fun, trombonist Craig Klein (ditto on the fun thing for this Bonerama founder), bassist Kerry Lewis and pianist Lars Edegran. Showtime is 4 p.m. and the music jumps until 7 p.m.

Jamison Ross Celebrates
All for One

Drummer and vocalist Jamison Ross celebrates his highly-anticipated sophomore release, All For One, at Snug Harbor on Saturday, March 10, at Snug Harbor. Several of the guys on the album will be coming in to join him including guitarist Rick Lollar, who co-wrote many of the tunes with Ross on this outstanding album, and organist/keyboardist Cory Irvin, who brings great warmth and soul to the tunes. Ross has recruited some fine local players, pianist David Torkanowsy and bassist Amina Scott, to step in for the regular members of his band.

On All For One, Ross, a Florida native and now New Orleans resident, bows to his adopted hometown by covering several tunes from some of the city’s finest. He opens the disc with Allen Toussaint’s “A Mellow Good Time,” that was a hit back in 1966 for the great Lee Dorsey. He continues his appreciation of the Crescent City by turning to another master, Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton for the title track.

Ross, whose roots are in the church, saw his career explode after the release of his debut album, Jamison, on the prestigious Concord Jazz label. The result was a jammed up schedule of touring. This appearance is definitely a catch-him-while-you-can show.

This article originally published in the March 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.