Stories » Terence Blanchard's 'Champion' comes to Opera Parallele / San Francisco Classical Voice

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Terence Blanchard's 'Champion' comes to Opera Parallele / San Francisco Classical Voice

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When you're a world-class jazz performer and composer and your best friend is a world heavyweight champion boxer, you might learn a few things in unexpected ways. "I was sparring with Michael Bentt one day, and he kept knocking down my jab hand," relates trumpeter Terence Blanchard, from his home in New Orleans. His buddy Bentt, born in England but raised in the U.S, won the World Boxing Organization's heavyweight title in 1993 before becoming a film actor.

Blanchard had been a long-time fan of boxing. But, "It was frustrating," he continues about his friendly fight with Bentt. "And then Michael said, ‘Hey man, you gotta learn how to adjust!' And I went, ‘Wow, it's like music. You play with a band that jumps off to another key, and you gotta adapt. Like Michael always tells me, ‘Trust your training!'"

It was also Bentt who shared with his friend the story of Emile Griffith, a boxer who'd claimed welterweight and middleweight world championships in the 1960s, but was best known for putting Benny "The Kid" Paret in a coma in 1961. Paret had impugned his opponent's sexuality during the weigh-in for the welterweight match, inflaming the bisexual Griffith. After winning the bout and later learning that the coma had been fatal, Griffith remained haunted for the rest of his life. Blanchard was haunted in a positive sense by Griffith's story, but never imagined he'd turn it into an opera, Champion, receiving its West Coast premiere this week at the SFJAZZ Center.

Blanchard, now 54, benefitted from the top-notch musical training available in New Orleans schools, some of it at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, under Ellis Marsalis, whose son Wynton was a childhood friend. The Center's Roger Dickerson mentored Blanchard's composition of his first piano concerto when he was 16. And at home, Blanchard was encouraged by his father, Joseph Oliver Blanchard, an insurance company manager and part-time opera singer. 

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