Only a few minutes after stepping inside the dimly lit performance room of Preservation Hall, Wendell Brunious sat on one of the Hall’s wooden chairs and pulled his trumpet out of his bag. His cream-colored suit matched his hat, while a polka-dot tie added a pop of color. He played a complex melody, quickening in its pace, and the few people in the room — employees at the Hall, a communications representative, a Verite photographer — stopped speaking.
“That was a warm-up,” Brunious said when he finished, and walked across the room to sit at the piano.
Last month, Preservation Hall named Brunious its first-ever musical director in its more than 60-year history. The new role includes overseeing musical repertoire, collaborating with the Hall’s creative director Ben Jaffe, recruiting new artists, and working as an ambassador for the Hall’s philanthropic organization, the Preservation Hall Foundation. In his new position, Brunious hopes to “teach people about [New Orleans] music and get them more playing out of their heart than out of a book.” The practice and learning of music, he believes, should be fun.
Brunious boasts a lifelong relationship with Preservation Hall. A trumpeter and vocalist, Brunious first played at the historical music venue 45 years ago, at the age of 23. Five years later, he became the Hall’s youngest bandleader when he inherited the position from legendary trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine. Born and raised in the 7th Ward, Brunious comes from a family of esteemed musicians — fellow trumpeters, as well as banjoists, pianists and composers.
In an interview with Verite last week, Brunious discussed his new position, the “Brunious sound,” and an old scowling trumpet player. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Verite: I read that you first picked up the trumpet when you were 11. What was that like?
Brunious: Actually, I really started when I was about seven. My dad was a trumpet player. So I would take his mouthpiece, just this part, just buzz on it, make noise. Finally when I was 11, I was in seventh grade and I started in the junior high school band.
And it’s just kind of how it starts, you know, the note G, and then F and you know, commit those to memory. And then C and after about three months of learning those, you start learning simple melodies: “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and, you know, “Red River Valley,” those kinds of songs.
Verite: Was trumpet the first instrument you ever played?
Brunious: Piano actually. We were playing that when we were like five or six years old and we used to take my mother’s cooking spoon, the spoon she made beans and rice and stuff like that with, and we’d use it and beat on a regular box, a baseboard box, and that was our bass drum and the symbol was the cover to my mother’s rice pot. So boom, boom. Like that. It’s kind of how most young musicians my age started.
I think it’s quite a blessing, you know, to have started that way. I’ve heard formal [music] teachers say, you know, “I’m glad my kids didn’t start that way,” and it’s okay. But the thing about it, I’ve had a 50-year career. Now where are the kids that didn’t start that way? Where are they? You know, and it’s not a put-down, it’s just like, where are they?
The people that play with that groove are working. You know, we got all these great, great players, but no one can feel what they’re doing. And that’s what I like — playing the music that people can feel. That’s just where I’m at with it. Everybody’s got their own way of presenting what they’re playing.
Verite: You were just named the first musical director here at the Hall, but you also were the youngest band leader in its history.
Brunious: I was playing on Bourbon Street right at the corner there. And I was parked right over where I’m parked and about to get a ticket, but they weren’t giving tickets then. But you know, I got off at nine o’clock and when I walked down the street, I passed right by Preservation Hall by these gates right here. And I thought, “Oh, I’ll go in there.”
Verite: How old were you?
Brunious: This was 1978 I think, so I’m about 23 or something like that and I noticed they didn’t have a trumpet player. Well, I’ve got my trumpet. And I’m like, “Hey bro, y’all need a trumpet player?” And they were like, “No, no, we don’t have people sit in here.” I’m not sitting in. I’m coming here to play. I wasn’t being disrespectful, just filling what I thought was a need — they needed a trumpet player.
Come to find out they didn’t need a trumpet player. The old trumpet player that was playing here was back here [the Preservation Hall’s library] having a sandwich, and he just was late getting back to the bandstand. Finally after the second song, he came and he opened those doors and I was like, “Oh.”
The guy could scowl, you know? And finally he said, “Get him a chair.” So I sat next to him the rest of the night and played. Jaffe was here, Ben’s dad, Allan Jaffe [co-founder of Preservation Hall, who died in 1987]. And he said, “Oh man, you sound good man.” He said, “You know, you willing to start playing at the Hall?”
Verite: What does your role look like today as musical director?
Brunious: I try not to force anything. I just try to keep things as, you know, as they were, but just help smooth out some sharp edges. You know, there’s a young trumpet player who plays here, Branden Lewis, and he asked me, he said, “Man, what can I do?” I said, “Well, I’ll come by and observe you.” So I came by last Wednesday and observed him, and he did great. And I told him he did great.
I haven’t talked to him. I’ve been busy. But I didn’t come to critique him critically, just to critique him to enhance him. And this is what I’m going to tell him about the texture of the songs that he’s playing, because he played many traditional songs in a row and that you know, it can get a little monotonous. Whereas if you play a traditional song, then you feature the piano player and then you do “High Society” or something that kind of features the clarinet player, but it’s got all the parts to it, then do a Mardi Gras song. This is what I wanted to tell him: “Changing those textures is what makes your show interesting.”
Verite: How do you define the “Brunious sound”?
Brunious: Yeah, I’ve heard that before. My daddy was a great trumpet player, played lead trumpet, went to Julliard. Played lead trumpet with Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine and people like that. When you’re playing lead, you have to sing the lead, you know, not just hit notes, but play the notes that lead to harmony between the whole trumpet section and blend with the sax section and the trombone section and all of these things like that.
As he left the big band thing and started playing more New Orleans style, that became his sound and my brother followed that. I followed that. This is the great thing about New Orleans. You can have a hundred different New Orleans musicians and everyone has his or her own style and interpretation of their particular instrument and how they play behind the trumpet and the accompaniment.
So when you say the Brunious sound, it’s just the sound that my dad heard, but it was still based in Louis Armstrong, Buddie Petite and King Oliver. All of those things become you. I have young people and they ask me, “How do you develop your sound?” If you transcribe 25 different individuals, those 25 will become you, or you become them, or however you want to look at that. It was a great piano player named Herbie Hancock. I don’t know if you ever heard of him. Great piano player and he always said this: “If you want to play like me, don’t listen to me. Listen to the people I’ve listened to. Then you play like me and you play like you.”
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