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Interview: Wendell Brunious


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If the name Wendell Brunious is not familiar to you, I assure you that the sound of his trumpet will stick with you the moment you hear it. Wendell, 66, has spent much of his life in New Orleans, growing up in a musical family rich in the New Orleans jazz tradition. From 1987 into the 2010s, he led the city's Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and he has been recording since 1977. Wendell is a New Orleans treasure.

Last week, I had an opportunity to ask him a batch of questions:

JazzWax: Growing up, where in New Orleans did you live?

Wendell Brunious: I grew up in a close-knit Creole community in the 7th Ward. Our house was filled with music. I come from two of the most important families in the early development of jazz, particularly New Orleans jazz: the Brunious family and the Santiago family. My dad, John Brunious, was a great trumpet player. He went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York and wrote a lot of music for Billy Eckstein and Cab Calloway. He did an arrangement of Minnie the Moocher that I still play today as a tribute to him. He was followed by my brother, John, who was a great trumpet player for Preservation Hall Jazz Band for many years. JW: What about the Santiago family?

WB: On my mother’s side, my great uncle Wilfredo Santiago was an early jazz guitarist. My mother’s brothers, Burnell and Lester Santiago, also were prominent piano players. This is what you get when you come to New Orleans—a whole lineage of families who pass this music down, generation to generation to generation. This music isn’t stuff you can find in a book. It’s not technical. It’s not a trumpet exercise. It’s the feeling in the music down here. I’m so lucky I was raised on it.

JW: What influence did your family have on you?

WB: I had lots of older brothers and sisters, and everyone could play the trumpet to some degree. My dad would gather them around and jot out a little arrangement and say, “OK, you’re on the first line of music. You’re on the second, you’re on the third, and so on.” He’d have all those heavy chords written out with five or six trumpet players in our living room. I was one of the youngest kids so I would just watch and listen. As a little boy, I never thought I’d get to their level, but I kept a mouthpiece in my back pocket, and I would blow on it every day. I still do that today.

JW: What about your mom?

WB: Any money I earned working as a teenager, I gave it to her. She could do more things with $5 to feed a large household than I could. She taught me a lot about money and being on a budget. She made us feel like we always had plenty even when we didn’t have much. She was very encouraging about my trumpet playing and pushed me to show my dad what I was capable of when I was too afraid to show him myself.

JW: For example?

WB: One day, I was at home practicing an old Savoy record of Dizzy Gillespie playing All the Things You Are. My dad gave me a look out of the corner of his eye like, “Hmmm.” He could tell I was hearing something. Something that is difficult to teach. So he called me into his bedroom and showed me this arrangement he had written for the song What’s New? with a beautiful introduction. He said, “Play this. But when you play it, I want you to really sing it out of your horn.” So I did, and he looked at me, very surprised and said, “That’s good, man. You played it the way I meant it to sound.” I impressed him. That moment changed my life.

JW: Who taught you to sing and which singers influenced you most?

WB: In New Orleans, there is so much music being played that you hear it all of the time. You hear instrumental music as well as vocal music. As a youngster, growing up in New Orleans, I heard singers like Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Lloyd Price, Mardi Gras Indians and all the songs on the radio. It’s so beneficial for a young, aspiring musician to hear all of this. You don’t need a teacher for most of it, you just have to pay attention. Later on, in my teens, I gravitated more toward the style of Nat “King” Cole. I’ve always loved ballads, and he was one of the greatest ballad singers I ever heard.

JW: Was Southern University valuable for you?

WB: It was very beneficial to go to Southern University. I had gotten an associate degree from Delgado College in business when I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree. When I got there, I discovered students that were more advanced than I was scholastically in music. That made me take inventory of my own abilities. I played mostly by ear but realized there were rules for the sounds that I’d been playing. I had done some study by ear with my dad, but by the book seemed to be much stricter. I was a music minor, but I still had to operate under what the book said. A great awakening.

JW: You decided to remain in New Orleans. Why?

WB: First, being a trumpet player from New Orleans is a great responsibility because it goes all the way back to Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and of course, Louis Armstrong, the greatest. We set a precedent for how the trumpet should be played, the melodic concept of the trumpet, having the element of the blues and playing the lead. Not just jazz but rhythm and blues and brass band music. When I perform on the road, of course, I’m representing my years of practice, study and experience, but I’m also representing New Orleans, and that’s very important to me. During my two decades traveling with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, I performed our music all over the world as an ambassador. I’ve lived in other places like Sweden and California for short periods, but I always come back home. I was born to be a trumpet player in New Orleans.

JW: For those who might be unfamiliar, what is so special about Preservation Hall?

WB: From an artist’s perspective, Preservation Hall is a great place for a young, aspiring musician to visit, listen and observe. The setting is very intimate, you’re really close to the musicians, and you can observe and hear them communicating with each other on the bandstand. You also get to hear some of the more simple forms of jazz music and how we take them to a different level. It’s a very beneficial visit if you pay attention.

JW: What do you love about the feel of New Orleans jazz that’s different than anything else?

WB: New Orleans music has an identity unlike any other. The feel of the blues is ever-present. The feel of gospel music is also apparent. It’s music that makes you participate. Whether it’s clapping your hands, stomping your feet, rocking from side to side, it demands something from you. We are there for the audience and they are there for us. This relationship makes New Orleans music so culturally special and based in feeling rather than technique and how many notes and scales you can put on a chord. We’re there to make the audience have fun, dance, intermingle and have a good time. I feel really lucky to have grown up in this environment.

JW: Which of your albums are favorites?

WB: Well, I don’t really sit around listening to my own recordings, but every now and then I’ll hear something that pleasantly surprises me. My most popular albums are: Mama Don’t Allow It and In the Tradition. But I also like how I sound on Witchcraft, from an album I did with Tom Hook called Where Do You Start? I also did a few cuts with Henri Smith. We did Walk On By, and I thought I played pretty well on there. I just try to be in the moment when I perform. That’s what I owe my audience and how I honor my forefathers who taught me everything I know. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to play When the Saints Go Marching In for tourists over the years. But I guarantee that if you hear me playing it in New Orleans, I’ll be playing it to the very best of my ability that day.

JazzWax clips: Here's Wendell and pianist Tom Hook singing and playing All of Me at the Danny Barker Banjo & Guitar Festival in 2019...

Here's Wendell singing and playing Witchcraft...

Here's Wendell Brunious playing I Can't Believe That I'm in Love with You with the Louis Nelson New Orleans All Stars in 1988...

And here's Wendell on Buddy Bolden's Blues...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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