Fresh off of a performance at The Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, bass vocalist Jonathan Blanchard shared some new thoughts with me about the Negro Spiritual “Ol’ Man River.” by Kelvin Cowans
Special to Tri-State Defender
Fresh off of a performance at The Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, bass vocalist Jonathan Blanchard shared some new thoughts with me about the Negro Spiritual “Ol’ Man River.” Even in conversation his voice was deep, clear and carried weight. James Earl Jones – think Disney’s “The Lion King” series – would be proud. However, Blanchard’s Serengeti isn’t the great plains of Africa, it’s the stage.
|“I feel that there are some things in life that you are called to do, so as fate would have me, here I am.” – Jonathan Blanchard (Photo by Mark Stansbury)|
In the mix of Blanchard’s routine is the classic song. “Ol’ Man River,” which has been sung by Paul Roberson, William Warfield and Rat Pack leader Frank Sinatra, just to name a few. It seems like a tall order to follow.
“It was, but I have my own signature that I like to put on my work,” said Blanchard. “I do traditional as well as non-traditional Negro spirituals. I create the style that I sing in. I may do it in jazz, rhythm and blues or reggae. So when I’m performing you may hear a little Marvin Gaye or some Earth, Wind and Fire.”
Blanchard was exposed to groups such as The Bar-Kays, Sweet Honey and The Rock and Frankie Beverly. He still remembers the day he switched his major to music at Tennessee State University.
“I feel that there are some things in life that you are called to do, so as fate would have me, here I am,” he said.
With TSD readers in mind, I asked Blanchard for a little inside of a performance.
“Not to sound overly religious but I simply ask The Creator to use me. In doing that I’m hoping that the audience can’t see me in the performance but more so that they receive the message in what I’m doing,” he said.
“I have to make sure that all of the songs flow together but are as well individually distinctive. I have to get myself in a certain mindset so that I can live in the body of these songs. Like when I’m singing that I’m standing on the banks of the Jordan River, I have to portray that in my body as well as my voice. I have to be mentally present in the words which I am speaking.”
That struck me as a different level, one from which concertgoers would be glad to hear from performers. The exchange opened the door for me to observe that Blanchard’s gift is making room for him. I noted that he started his training and grooming at Alcy SDA Junior Academy and offered that I (a lifelong Memphian) was under the impression the city’s only performing arts school was Overton High School.
“No, you are correct. My school was a private school. I then attended East High were performing arts were not heavily put upon the children as I would have liked,” said Blanchard. “I believe that there is so much talent that comes out of Memphis and everyone has to take this into consideration when growing our youth. To only have one performing arts school is inadequate. It’s not fair to our youth.”
Blanchard sees many stories that need to be taught. Paul Roberson’s is his personal favorite. “Awesome story without a doubt,” he said. “We should learn to put a little paint where it ain’t.”
I completely understand.
Networking and the road ahead
Blanchard now lives in Atlanta, where he’s done “shows for the school system there and the surrounding areas. He does lectures and workshops from Elementary all the way through college. In addition, he sings with America’s Opera Alliance, Glen United Methodist Church, The National Black Art’s Festival and he’s a part of Dream Cast Productions.
“I like to stay busy and I like to be productive. My mom, Ms. Lynette Davis, who is my manager, keeps it that way for me,” he said.
“For anyone who wants to work with me, I want them to know that I’m about forward moving, nation building and maintaining the history of our artistic forms. If you only told them that, then they would understand me altogether.”
(Jonathan Blanchard can be reached at www.JonathanBlanchard.com or contact his manager, Lynette Davis, at 901-239-4213.)