Jazz Artist Terence Blanchard to Speak at Rutgers-Newark Commencement

Cedric Angeles

Internationally acclaimed jazz artist, composer and educator Terence Blanchard, whose compositions have explored American tragedies and the human cost of bigotry and structural racism, was named the speaker for Rutgers University–Newark’s 2023 commencement ceremony on May 16, Chancellor Nancy Cantor announced. 

The Ceremony will be held at  9 a.m. at the Prudential Center in Newark. The Rutgers Board of Governors voted Wednesday to award an honorary doctor of fine arts degree to Blanchard when he addresses the graduates.

“Terence Blanchard’s life, work, values, and accomplishments converge in exquisite harmony with the identity and ethos of Rutgers University – Newark, making an invitation to him to accept an honorary degree and to be our commencement speaker irresistibly compelling,’’ said Cantor.

A boundary-breaking composer and trumpet-player, Blanchard is recognized globally as a dazzling soloist; a prolific creator of musical compositions for film, television, the opera stage, Broadway, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and for his own various ensembles.  In 2018, he was named a USA Fellow trumpeter/composer. 

Blanchard’s work has placed him at the forefront of giving voice to human rights, civil rights, and racial injustice, including the 2016 album “Breathless,’’ an elegy for Eric Garner, who was killed by police and whose words, “I can’t breathe,” became a civil rights rallying cry.

In 2022, Blanchard  became the first Black composer, in the 138-year history of the Metropolitan Opera, to have his work staged at  the opera house with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,’’ an opera based on the memoir of author and New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Of the historical moment, Blanchard has said, “I don’t want to be a token, but a turnkey.”

“Fire” has been widely recognized as one of our nation’s most important cultural milestones.  A new opera, “Champion,’’ about the troubled life of boxer Emile Griffith, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera this month to widespread critical acclaim and continues performances throughout May.

Blanchard is a seven-time Grammy winner and a two-time Oscar nominee. He is only the second African-American composer to be nominated twice in the original score category, duplicating Quincy Jones’ feat from 1967. He has written scores for many Spike Lee films, including “Da 5 Bloods,’’ for which he won his second Oscar nomination. He also wrote the score for the 2022 film “The Woman King.’’

This year, a recording of those performances from “Fire” won a Grammy Award for “Best Opera Recording.” The New York Times labeled Blanchard’s opera “inspiring” and “subtly powerful,” adding that it was "a fresh, affecting work…Blanchard deftly blends elements of jazz, blues, hints of big band and gospel into a compositional voice dominated by lushly chromatic and modal harmonic writing, spiked with jagged rhythms and tart dissonance.”

Born in New Orleans in 1962, Blanchard is a musical polymath who launched his solo career as a bandleader in the 1990s. Since then, he has released 20 solo albums, garnered 14 Grammy nominations, composed for the stage and for more than 60 films, and received 10 major commissions. 

An avid music educator, Blanchard served as artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, (now named the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz), from 2000 to 2011. He later served as named artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami, as a visiting scholar in jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, and as the first Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.