Terence Oliver Blanchard was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the only child to parents Wilhelmina and Joseph Oliver Blanchard, a part-time opera singer and insurance company manager.Blanchard began playing piano at the age of five and then the trumpet at age eight upon hearing Alvin Alcorn play. Blanchard played trumpet recreationally alongside childhood friendWynton Marsalis in summer music camps but showed no real proficiency on the instrument.
Then, while in high school, he began studying at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts(NOCCA) under Roger Dickerson and Ellis Marsalis, Jr.. From 1980 to 1982, Blanchard studied under jazz saxophonist Paul Jeffrey and trumpeter Bill Fielder at Rutgers University, while touring with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. In 1982, Wynton Marsalis recommended Blanchard to replace him in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and until 1986, Blanchard was the band's trumpeter and musical director. With Blakey and as co-leader of a quintet with saxophonist Donald Harrison and pianist Mulgrew Miller, Blanchard rose to prominence as a key figure in the 1980s Jazz Resurgence. The Harrison/Blanchard group recorded five albums from 1984-1988 until Blanchard left to pursue a solo career in 1990.
In the 1990s, after a laborious but successful embouchure change, Blanchard was as busy as ever. He recorded his self-titled debut for Columbia Records which reached third on the Billboard Jazz Charts. After performing on soundtracks for Spike Lee movies, including Do the Right Thing andMo' Better Blues, Lee wanted Blanchard to compose the scores for his films beginning with "Jungle Fever" (1991). Blanchard has written the score for every Spike Lee film since including, Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam, 25th Hour, Inside Man. In 2006, he composed the score for Spike Lee's 4-hour Hurricane Katrina documentary forHBO entitled When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Blanchard also appeared in front of the camera with his mother to share their emotional journey back to find her home completely destroyed.
Blanchard has also composed for other directors, including Leon Ichaso, Ron Shelton and Kasi Lemmons. With over forty scores to his credit, Blanchard is the most prolific jazz musician to ever compose for movies. Entertainment Weekly proclaimed Blanchard "central to a general resurgence of jazz composition for film." Yet in a 1994 interview for Down Beat, Blanchard was quoted as saying, "Writing for film is fun, but nothing can beat being a jazz musician, playing a club, playing a concert".
All the while, Blanchard has remained true to his jazz roots as a trumpeter and bandleader on the performance circuit. He has recorded several award-winning albums for Columbia, Sony Classical and Blue Note Records, including In My Solitude: The Billie Holiday Songbook (1994), Romantic Defiance (1995), The Heart Speaks (1996), Wandering Moon (2000), Let's Get Lost (2001) andFlow (2005), which was produced by pianist Herbie Hancock and received two Grammy Award nominations.
Terence Blanchard's 2001 CD Let's Get Lost was his most commercially successful album to date. It features new arrangements of classic songs written by Jimmy McHugh and performed by his own quintet along with the leading ladies of jazz vocals: Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, and Cassandra Wilson.
In 2005, Blanchard was part of the ensemble that won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for his participation on McCoy Tyner’s Illuminations, an award he shared with Tyner,Gary Bartz, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash.
Blanchard was a judge for the 5th annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers. In 2009 in the Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog, Blanchard played all of the alligator Louis’ trumpet parts. He also voiced the role of Earl the bandleader in the riverboat band.