New Orleans music, in its purest form, flows easily and effortlessly. It swings with a spirited strut, infused with an unabashed sense of fun.
The music of New Orleans jazz trumpeter and vocalist Wendell Brunious is all that and more. The standard-bearer for a family of musicians with deep roots in the Seventh Ward’s close-knit Creole community, Brunious ranks among the city’s most astute and elegant jazzmen, a trumpet titan in a trumpet town.
His repertoire of more than 1,500 songs, built across a 40-year career, ranges from Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown to the Beatles and Burt Bacharach. Early Dixieland, the Great American Songbook, gospel hymns, second-line standards, pop melodies, New Orleans rhythm & blues, intimate ballads — all are brought to life via his horn and a warm, expressive voice.
His chops are formidable – he’s equally adept at trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn — but his goal is always the same. “I’m there to please the audience,” he says. “I’m not there to show off. And I’m always paying homage to the guys who came before me.”
His personal lineage includes his father, John “Picket” Brunious Sr., a trumpeter who studied at Julliard and arranged music for Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine. His uncle Willie Santiago was a renowned early jazz guitarist. His older brother John was a trumpeter who, like Wendell, led the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Inspired by his father, Wendell first picked up a horn at age 7. At John McDonogh High School, he honed his chops as a member of the marching band while also starring on the baseball team. “The reality set in that I was not going to be the third baseman for the Kansas City Royals,” he recalled, laughing. “Reality is a very harsh mistress.”
Instead, he earned a business degree from Southern University, even as he realized music was his true calling. He put in the time to master his craft. “I came up in a real dues-paying society. You actually had to do the work.”
During late nights at the Bourbon Street nightclub the Ivanhoe, he played and arranged horn-heavy hits by the likes of Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. He hit the road with Gladys Knight & the Pips and logged a year in New York City with legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. He apprenticed alongside many great New Orleans musicians, including guitarist Justin Adams, with whom Brunious launched the first jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace restaurant in the mid-1970s. “He knew tunes to no end, and I was green as a cucumber. Justin would fuss at me: ‘You got to learn these tunes.’ That’s when I really started cramming.”
He painstakingly transcribed music and lyrics for dozens of traditional jazz songs. He marched with the Olympia Brass Band, whose leader, Harold “Duke” Dejean, was his father’s first cousin. He spent years alongside Albert “Papa” French and former Ink Spots singer Lloyd Washington in the 100-year-old Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. “That was a great experience, to be around that band. It was a who’s who of real New Orleans jazz. It was an education just to show up and see how people were dressed, how their shoes were shined, how poised they were.”
Brunious honors tradition, but is not bound by it. Just as there is no one way to cook gumbo, there is no one way to play jazz. “I never was the classic old-time player, because I had so many other influences. I brought what I had to the music. I tried to put those songs in my voice.”
That philosophy informed his 23 years of fronting the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — he still performs at its namesake French Quarter venue most Sunday evenings – and his multiple albums. He also scored and starred in – portraying a trumpet player, naturally — the film “Once,” and contributed to the soundtrack of “Blaze,” starring Paul Newman as irascible Louisiana governor Earl Long.
Brunious is an in-demand featured guest for other artists’ recordings. His gorgeous, golden-hued flugelhorn solo on “That’s My Home” is a highlight of Dr. John’s 2014 Louis Armstrong tribute, “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch.” Brunious recently recorded a song with slide guitar virtuoso Jerry Douglas featuring Eric Clapton on vocals.
Now something of an elder statesman, he has mentored such next-generation stars as his nephew, Mark Braud, and Nicholas Payton. He always directs young trumpeters to the classic ballads collection “Clifford Brown With Strings.” “My daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t play it slow, you can’t play it.’ You’ve got to master the melody.”
His students in the University of New Orleans’ acclaimed jazz studies program can testify to Brunious’ dedication to the blues. “With Charlie Parker, the blues was ever-present. With Louis Armstrong, the blues was ever-present. Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, all these great soloists – the blues was very, very present.
“A lot of these young guys come up with ‘brain music’ — they play their instrument well, they’re into complex scales. But you’ve got to feel it. I don’t know if Charlie Parker knew what any particular scale was. He just played the hell out of his horn.”
Enjoyment is essential. “I want to have fun playing the trumpet,” Brunious says. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do: Have fun in your art. So many kids, they’ve got a pocket full of scales, they’ve got their game face on – it’s like, ‘Are you having any fun, son? It would be nice if you were.’ If you’re not having fun, what are you here for?”
His horn has taken him around the world, from navigating the intricate “Cornet Chop Suey” during an Armstrong tribute at the Ascona Jazz Festival in Switzerland to recreating clarinetist George Lewis’ historic 1964 tour of Japan with an all-star band. =
“I’ve been so lucky in my life,” Brunious says. “But the harder you work, the luckier you get. I feel privileged to have been around the people I’ve been around. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, man. I hope I’m carrying on a legacy that they would be proud of, too.”
He is, every time he picks up a horn.