In 1982, when Terence Blanchard replaced fellow trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, fans could only marvel. Here was another smart, technically proficient product of New Orleans whose playing was mature beyond his years. Blanchard was 20 at the time. His high school buddy, saxophonist Donald Harrison, replaced Marsalis’ brother Branford Marsalis in the band, and the two would later go on to record a number of respected albums together under their own names. Blanchard was appointed the Blakey band’s music director and set an ambitious course for the revered drummer’s ensemble, a route that led to Blakey’s first Grammy nomination in 1984 for the group’s Concord recording New York Scene. With all that promise — even then Blanchard was seen to be as skilled and possibly more expressive than his Jazz Messengers predecessor — the trumpeter was assumed to be among the great instrumentalists of the emerging generation of young lions. That assumption, 30 years later, has since turned out to be correct.
Blanchard has not only established himself as a great trumpet player, he’s also become one of music’s most active composers, and not just in the world of jazz. After appearing on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Blanchard was asked to score Lee’s next film, Jungle Fever. That was the beginning of a long relationship that saw Blanchard write the music for Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X (as well as making an on-screen appearance as Billie Holiday’s trumpeter) and Lee’s controversial 2006 Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Over the years, Blanchard has scored some 50 films for a host of directors including Ron Shelton, Tim Story, and most recently George Lucas (Red Tails). Last year, he contributed the score to director Emily Mann’s Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. His latest compositional work is something else again, a full-scale “opera in jazz,” as he’s described it.