Etienne Charles: Trumpet's First Chantwell
Etienne Charles comes from a strong lineage of musicians that can be traced to his great grandfather, who played banjo and violin. His grandfather, Ralph Charles, was a cuatro player who recorded with the calypsonian Growling Tiger. Both his father and uncle were members of the steel orchestra Phase II Pan Groove, which won national Panorama competitions back-to-back in 1987 and '88. By the time he was 10, the young Charles would also join Phase II.
As a sideman, Charles has recorded or performed alongside Monty Alexander, Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Roberta Flack, Maria Schneider, The Count Basie Orchestra, and the legendary calypsonian Lord Blakie, for whom he played drums. "At the time, I knew [Lord Blakie] was a legend and he had big hits," recalls Charles. "But I know [more] about Calypso now, so I wish I could have played with him now, but he's no longer with us. I wish I had asked him questions. I didn't really get a chance to interact with him other than at the rehearsal."
Another luminary musical figure that helped Charles come up as a musician was the late percussionist Ralph McDonald, who he honors with a song made famous by The Mighty Sparrow, "Memories."
"He was a special spirit and I'm very lucky to [have] been around him as much as I was in the last five or six years of his life," remembers Charles. "He showed me so much about playing music and he brought me to his house. Every time there was a family get-together he would invite me over and there was always food. He was that mentor that shows you how life is supposed to be outside of music and how music is supposed to be a part of your life. He definitely helped me a lot. He was on all my previous records [except] this one because he passed away before we recorded. The session for me was uniquely emotional because you knew something had come to an end. But out of it, something had come of age."
While the Great American Songbook has been a huge staple for the idiom, it is also not uncommon for musicians to include songs outside of the genre. But Charles has the unique challenge of having a repertoire that does not have its roots in the United States. The Robert Glasper Experiment has interpreted tunes by J Dilla, The Bad Plus has covered Blondie, Brad Mehldau has played songs from Radiohead, and collectively all three acts have performed and recorded songs by Nirvana. The task is different and seemingly harder when the jazz artist is playing tunes from calypsonians like Lord Pretender, Lord Blakie, Lord Melody, The Duke of Iron, and The Mighty Sparrow. Although these great calypso artists are revered as legends in the Caribbean, they do not enjoy the same status in the United States. "It's one of the challenges of being a jazz musician whose standard repertoire is not just the American Songbook," Charles reveals. "You tell somebody you're about to play a song by George Gershwin, or a song by Harold Arlen, and the [audience] immediately knows. But when I say I'm about to play a song by the Duke of Iron or Lord Kitchener, people are just like 'Huh?'"
But not all music with from the Caribbean islands is lost to the public. "I've been pleasantly surprised that a lot of people know Lord Kitchener's music," Charles continues. "They know Mighty Sparrow's music, and they know Lord Melody's music because of his association with Harry Belafonte. So it's been a blessingI mean everyone knows Bob Marley's music. Even on other planets, people are familiar with Bob Marley's music."
"We just play and that's our job as musicians, to advocate for these composers that have passed away and keep their music alive," continues Charles. "Be it Duke Ellington or be it Lord Kitchener. I think that the fact the music [sounds] beautiful is what will help us to keep going. Even though people may not be familiar with the composer, eventually they will be back in there with them."