The Mighty Terence Blanchard Closes out the Jacksonville Symphony’s Jazz Series


On Sunday, May 5, the revered trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard performs original works and songs from Wayne Shorter’s catalog with E-Collective and Turtle Island String Quartet at Jacoby Symphony Hall inside the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts. It’s the final installment of the Jacksonville Symphony’s Chase Jazz Series.

Blanchard has maintained a prime position in the global hierarchy of jazz trumpeters, which has many of its all-time greatest players, including Blanchard, active on the scene today. He is probably best-known to the general public for his long-term collaboration with Spike Lee, for whom he has done the score for 18 of his films, dating back to the instant classic that was Jungle Fever, way back in 1991. Two of those scores, for BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020), earned Oscar nominations. Blanchard has also released at least 23 albums under his own name, as well as sideman gigs with artists like Gregory Porter, Benny Green, Cedar Walton and Robert Glasper. He’s won eight Grammys, including three in a row from 2007-09.

Blanchard’s performance puts a capstone on the second season of the symphony’s Jazz Series. This year’s performances kicked off on Sunday afternoon, November 19 with a cross-country trek covering highlights and rare gems in the big band tradition. The series’ second show covered the piano trios that flourished in the post-war era.

All three shows in the series are presented under the leadership of Dr. James Jenkins, 62, who’s been with the Jacksonville Symphony since moving back to Jacksonville in 1995. By that point, Jenkins had already built an extensive resume playing tuba in contexts both classical and jazzical. “My primary teachers were John Stevens and Constance Weldon,” he says. “I did have lifelong teacher/pupil relationships with Sam Pilafian and Abe Torchinsky.” Jenkins cites Howard Johnson (1941-2021), founder of the all-tuba band Gravity as an early mentor. “They were based in New York City. Howard invited me to join the group,” he says. “The music that they were presenting was so beyond me at the time. I was both honored and terrified!” Jenkins also cites the influence of Rich Matteson (1929-1993), who helped establish the legendary UNF Jazz Program and was a known quantity to Jenkins, long before he moved here.

Tuba is now identified almost exclusively with symphonic music, but it once played a crucial role in the development of jazz. In an era before widespread amplification, the tuba would often function as a rhythm instrument, especially in the live setting; the characteristic “oom-pah” sound was a precursor of sorts to the walking bass. “I think that the function on the tuba in New Orleans-style brass band and some small groups is what draws the interest of young players today,” Jenkins says, “driving the groove, along with the drummer.”

It was Jenkins’ initial vision that eventually became the Chase Jazz Series. “The idea of featuring more of our first-class local jazz talent, as well as developing something that would serve a broader more diverse portion of our community, was something that I brought to the organization,” he says. “Our Symphony President, Steven Libman, saw the vision right away. A month after presenting the idea to him and Dr. Barbara Darby (DEI committee chair), we had our first planning meeting and within 6 months, we launched our inaugural big band concert.”

Jenkins skimmed the cream of the city’s dense, diverse local jazz scene to populate the band. “I identified a small, trusted nucleus (Clarence Hines, Todd DelGiudice, John Lumpkin), explained what we wanted to develop and the criteria that I wanted to meet, and asked them who they wanted to play with,” he says. “That generated an extensive list full of riches. From there I did my own research, cross referenced the recommendations and hired them.” They’ve all played together in near-infinite permutations throughout this century in locations all over this country, and beyond, and about half had previously played with Jenkins himself.

A Jazz Icon

Terence Blanchard’s career began, essentially, in 1982, when a then 20 year-old was tapped by the iconic drummer Art Blakey to replace his childhood friend Wynton Marsalis (who had joined in 1979) as trumpeter in the Jazz Messengers, which had been the premiere launching pad for new jazz talent since Blakey founded the group in 1954. By that point the Messengers’ trumpet chair had a lengthy lineage that included Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Ira Sullivan, Bill Hardman, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Chuck Mangione, Woody Shaw, Randy Brecker and, of course, Marsalis, who by that point was the a top star in jazz and, ultimately, the man tapped to lead the industry into a new century that pioneers like Blakey would never live to see.

Impossible shoes to fill, yes, but that was always the job, and Blanchard did it well, recording three albums with Blakey before leaving to develop his own solo career in 1985, by which time he was 23, with five albums already under his belt.

For his Jazz Series performance in Jacksonville, Blanchard will be joined by the Turtle Island Quartet, one of the very best chamber music groups that has ever existed, and they exist right now. Co-founder and violinist David Balakrishnan is the only remaining original member. Fellow violinist Gabriel Terracciano joined in 2018, while Naseem Alatrash (cello) joined in 2021 and Benjamin Von Gutzeit (viola) joined back in 2012. 11 others have played in the group over the years, as well as the other three founders: Mark Sumner, Darol Anger and Laurie Moore. TIQ was founded in New York on 1985, during an era of rampant experimentation. Many chamber groups embraced atonal and avant-garde compositions, even adding electricity and unusual instruments to the mix, sometimes with outfits reflecting such eclectic tastes. TIQ, by contrast, stuck with a more orthodox presentation–two violins, viola and cello, soft-spoken, conservative dress, standard tunings–pushing the envelope mostly through their choice of material. 

TIQ’s first album dropped on Windham Hill Records in 1988, and they’d added another five by 1992. (Windham Hills, which existed from 1976 to 2007, was known for producing instrumental music by outsider artists who didn’t fit comfortably into standard categories. Best-known for albums by Liz Story, Tuck & Patti, George Winston and Vangelis, some of the label’s most dynamic and best selling material was produced by the Turtle Island String Quartet. Its archives are now owned and reissued by Sony.) TIQ continued releasing albums every couple of years since their debut, always maintaining a uniformly high standard of output, despite changing personnel and constant shifts in the music industry, as well as the world. 

The 2021 album Absence (Blue Note) is a collaboration with–of course–Terence Blanchard. For a group that was essentially the first to successfully utilize jazz in the context of chamber music, nearly 40 years ago, to now have their own album on the world’s premiere jazz label is a special kind of full-circle moment for the band, as well as their fans. This May 5 show offers a nice opportunity to see the similarities between these two very different genres, as presented by some of their finest representatives. 

Blanchard and the TIQ are both known for their genre-bending efforts. The latter’s early albums sound just as fresh today as they did when I first heard them, three decades ago. The style was on finest display in their version of seminal jazz compositions like “Milestones”, “A Night In Tunisia” and, most spectacularly, their sublime cover of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”, which may well be the best thing they, or any string quartet, have ever recorded. They expanded on that approach even more some 20 years later, when they recorded the entirety of “A Love Supreme” for an Album on Telarc in 2007. (Like many other artists, I first discovered them randomly while looking for jazz CDs at the old main library, since reborn as The Jessie.) As for Blanchard, he once collaborated with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and librettist Michael Cristofer for Champion, an opera about the life of boxing legend Emile Griffith, whose 1962 fight with Benny Paret (ending in the latter’s death) was a key moment in modern sports history.

Jazz-Meets-Classical: A Tradition at the Jax Symphony

This May 5 concert is a rare treat in the music world, and it makes for an exceptional conclusion to the latest Chase Jazz Series. But let’s not end this article without touching, just briefly, on another example of the unique intersection of jazz and classical music, courtesy of the Jax Symphony, which actually commissioned the greatest jazz composer of all-time, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) to write an original piece for the symphony in 1971. During our interview, Dr. Jenkins was kind enough to help fill in the backstory:

“I understand that following a very challenging period for the Jacksonville Symphony, it was decided to celebrate the organization’s survival with a tour, which included Carnegie Hall,” says Jenkins. “Instead of presenting traditional orchestral repertoire as with the other major orchestras of the world, it was suggested that Jacksonville present a new program with a sound and music original to Jacksonville.  Through various connections (six degrees of separation), Duke Ellington was identified, contacted and commissioned to create a new piece to be premiered as part of the tour. I understand that Mr. Ellington even wrote feature sections within his work for specific members of Jacksonville’s musical community.”

It remains unclear whether the composition was ever recorded, at the time of its debut, but it has certainly not been heard by the public in 50 years. “I have not been a part of any discussion regarding the original or possible subsequent recording,” says Jenkins. “I think that a rebirth of the work, however, could be of great interest to jazz and classical fans alike.” This composition is an obscure, but crucial, part of music history in Northeast Florida, and with renewed focus on that history, we can be fairly optimistic that this material will see the light of day once again, perhaps even–if we’re lucky–in season 3 of the symphony’s Jazz Series.

Terence Blanchard performs with E-Collective and Turtle Island String Quartet on Sunday, May 5 at Jacoby Symphony Hall inside the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Jacksonville Symphony’s Chase Jazz Series. Tickets here.

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