When Kasi Lemmons first watched Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever almost three decades ago, she sat in the theatre for two successive screenings. “Operatic” is the feeling the director, who was then an actor, recalls about the 1991 film’s soaring musical score. Little did Lemmons know then that she and the soundtrack’s composer, Terence Blanchard, would become friends and collaborators. “A director must trust a collaborator to bring their genius – and intersect with it,” she says of the partnership. Blanchard nods. “It’s trusting each other’s skills because you can stretch yourself when working with someone who takes you outside of your normal experiences,” he adds.

Blanchard recollects that Lee’s brief for Jungle Fever was indeed to create “something operatic”. The seven-time Grammy Award winner, Oscar nominee, trumpeter, and film and opera composer’s output since that time has been similarly epic, and his oeuvre is currently the subject of a year-long retrospective, See Me As I Am, at New York’s Lincoln Center for Performing Arts.

Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons in front of a portrait by Reginald Gammon in Blanchard’s New Orleans home
Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons in front of a portrait by Reginald Gammon in Blanchard’s New Orleans home © Daymon Gardner

The Lincoln Center’s homage, which began last March, has thus far included the restaging of his 2013 opera, Champion, based on the life of African-American welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, as well as screenings of films he has scored such as Love & Basketball (2000) and Da 5 Bloods (2020), alongside workshops and panel discussions. This month, in a one-night-only concert on 28 January, the New Orleans-born maestro will appear with his trumpet in a production spotlighting his composition for Lee movies such as Malcolm X (1992) and 25th Hour (2002) and BlacKkKlansman (2018), the last of which brought him one of two Academy Award nominations for best original score), as well as his music for Tim Story’s 2002 film Barbershop and more.

Blanchard was first introduced to Lemmons through a friend when she began searching for a composer for her 1997 directorial debut Eve’s Bayou, a gothic drama starring Samuel L Jackson. “I didn’t have the language to articulate what I wanted,” says the St Louis-born creative. But when Blanchard asked what she was looking for, Lemmons found they had an instant rapport. “I could hardly say to a producer, it’s an African-American Southern gothic melodrama, but he totally got it, and he nailed it,” she smiles.

Blanchard’s studio with a portrait of Dizzy Gillespie
Blanchard’s studio with a portrait of Dizzy Gillespie © Daymon Gardner
Blanchard’s trumpet resting on piano in his New Orleans home
Blanchard’s trumpet resting on piano in his New Orleans home © Daymon Gardner

The pair’s shared Southern sensibility has been a thread in their personal and professional relationship. They have since collaborated on The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), Talk to Me (2007), and Harriet (2019) a biopic about the American abolitionist Harriet Tubman that earned its lead actress an Academy nomination. “We have similar beginnings but both found ourselves in the north, which expanded our insights,” says Blanchard. “We coexist in our roots and in broader world views.”

Terence Blanchard’s greatest hits

This shared experience has led to a rare mutual understanding. When Lemmons presented her friend with the concept of approaching Tubman as a superhero for the score, she knew he would grasp the nuance. “It turned everything around for me in terms of how I could give this historical figure power,” Blanchard says.

Their understanding extends to affording each other the space to create in their respective professions – and during different stages of the filmmaking journey they usually work apart. “It all comes together when our worlds meet in the studio and we listen to the score for a scene,” says Lemmons; the closest she has come to witnessing Blanchard’s hands-on mastery was once during recording, when a pianist had a hard time playing his score for The Caveman’s Valentine. Blanchard stepped in to play the piece.

While the pair communicate through a shared musical vocabulary, they also relate in “mystical terms”. There’s a trust, explains Blanchard, “that gives me space but also sends me on a path where I know I cannot let her down”. He compares the composer’s role in the latter stages of the production to that of being on court with Michael Jordan during a fast-break manoeuvre: “If I am the last person and he passes the ball, I cannot miss that shot!” “And we are both Pisceans married to Librans,” Lemmons chips in.

The friends have learned to listen – and hear – each other. Blanchard turned to Lemmons to pen the libretto for his sophomore opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which premiered at the Opera Theatre of St Louis in 2019, as she had once told him “that writing a libretto was on her bucket list”. Adapted from Charles M Blow’s 2014 memoir of the same name about his experiences with race and masculinity, in 2021 the three-act opera went on to become the first production staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York by a black composer in the institution’s 140-year history.

Lemmons with Blanchard at the piano
Lemmons with Blanchard at the piano © Daymon Gardner

Lemmons had no experience in writing a libretto. “It was only when we sat down with Opera Theatre of St Louis that I learned that a libretto was written before the composition. I had to hash it out first!” she says. “I kept in mind the opera director’s note that singing lyrics takes three times longer than saying words.” They finished the opera while also working on Harriet. A Grammy for best opera recording was the cherry on top.

The pair’s lives intermingle whenever their schedules allow. Lemmons often visits the New Orleans home Blanchard shares with his wife, Robin. “We are simple – we can just hang out at the house for days,” he says of his retreat by a bayou, where Robin cooks for everyone and they sit down to views of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture garden across the water. “We don’t forget to live,” Blanchard says about their shared approach to work and life.

There is a lot of banter too: “I sometimes feel bad for people hanging out with us because Kasi will say, ‘Yeah, it’s like when we did that thing in Harriet,’ and I will say, ‘Oh, OK, cool,’ but no one else will understand.”

The Movie Music of Terence Blanchard, in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic, will be performed at David Geffen Hall’s Wu Tsai Theater on 28 January, lincolncenter.org. Terence Blanchard: A Career Retrospective in Jazz will be performed at the Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, featuring guest musicians, on 1 and 2 March at 8pm, jazz.org

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