For Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard, composing a jazz concert based on the children’s novel “Bud, Not Buddy” meant more than just telling Christopher Paul Curtis’s colorful Depression-era tale in musical terms. It meant writing serious music that high school kids could perform.
“I’m not trying to give them a free ride,” Blanchard said by phone recently from Cleveland, where he was on tour. “I want them to have to gear up to perform this. But at the same time, it should be fun for them to play.”
Students won’t be performing the score when “Bud, Not Buddy” makes its debut this weekend in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. That’s the longer-life goal for this project. But Blanchard did get to test-drive his material with student musicians in England during a workshop as he wrote.
“They got up for it,” he says.
Blanchard won’t be playing, either, with the dozen or so professional musicians performing his score. The music helps tell Curtis’s story of a plucky 10-year-old orphan (played by Justin Weaks) who is convinced that the father he never met is a cranky Michigan musician (Frankie Faison) who leads a popular jazz outfit.
[Roger Catlin talks with Terence Blanchard]
“I tried to make sure the music is emblematic of the period,” says Blanchard, whose New Orleans roots and long experience as a performer, bandleader and film composer all put him on familiar ground for this project. (His jazz opera “Champion” for the Washington National Opera will debut at the Kennedy Center in March.) “It’s in my blood,” Blanchard, 54, says of the Depression era’s rhythms and harmonies.
Curtis’s engaging 1999 book is told in the first person by a youngster who’s weary of the foster care treadmill and eager to somehow find himself. Eventually he’s taken in by a group of jazz musicians, with young Bud’s excited descriptions of their musicianship turning into a highlight of the book.
To shape the story, the Kennedy Center turned to playwright Kirsten Greenidge, whose recent drama “Milk Like Sugar” at Mosaic Theater Company captured the lively voices of modern high schoolers. Greenidge didn’t know Curtis’s novel, but quickly fell for it — and learned that it has an enthusiastic following.
“My students are millennials,” says Greenidge, who teaches playwriting at Boston University, “and most of them had a visceral reaction of ‘Oh, my God, I love that book.’
“I wanted to do justice to people who might come in really excited to see a rendition of this novel and to see themselves onstage, if they’re kids of color. There are not necessarily a lot of novels that cater to young boys of color, I’m finding as the mother of a young son.”
The Greenidge family seems writerly all around: The playwright’s sister is a historical novelist, and even Greenidge’s 9-year-old daughter is writing — she’s up to Chapter 20 of a novel.
“It’s a little embarrassing when your daughter produces more pages a day than you do,” Greenidge says.
For “Bud,” Greenidge’s task was setting up Blanchard’s songs in the kind of concert approach the Kennedy Center used for “The Trumpet of the Swan” in 2008, with composer Jason Robert Brown conducting a 35-piece orchestra while actors read their parts at music stands. Greenidge and Blanchard met a couple of times — amid touring and composing, Blanchard also teaches at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — but often communicated through Kennedy Center connections.
“It’s exciting, but also nerve-racking,” Blanchard said. “You have a vision, but everyone else has a vision, and you have to trust everyone’s responsibility. What can come out is so much bigger than what I was conceiving. That’s one of the reasons I like doing these things.”
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