When Wendell Eugene was 13 years old, his brother, Homer, gave him his first trombone. By the time he was 15, he was a member of the musicians’ union. For close to 80 years, Eugene kept blowin’ the trombone with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Kermit Ruffins. New Orleans native Wendell Albert Eugene died on Tuesday, November 7 at the age of 94.
“He never forgot how to play that horn,” says trumpeter/vocalist Gregg Stafford, who early on worked with Eugene in trumpeter Teddy Riley’s brass band. In recent years, the trombonist played with Stafford’s Young Tuxedo Brass Band and up until 2016, Eugene was aboard drummer Barry Martyn’s band at its annual appearances at Mandeville’s Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall.
“He was the ideal guy to have in a band because he could play anything that you wanted to play,” says Martyn. “If you gave him the music he’d just play it straight up or he could do it by ear. He had a great ease at picking up numbers.”
Stafford describes Eugene as being the last of the second generation of traditional jazz trombonists who came up under early pioneers such as Jim Robinson and Louis Nelson.
Wendell Brunious’ history with Eugene dates back to the trumpeter’s birth. “Wendell asked my daddy [John Brunious Sr.], ‘What are you going to name this baby?’” Brunious says. ‘I don’t know, I have so many children.’ ‘Well name him Wendell after me.’ Every time I would see him he’d say, ‘Boy, you better be glad your father named you after somebody so good looking.’”
“He was a wonderful guy. He was a wonderful father. He walked with a mail bag for 30 years to take care of his family. That’s a man, that’s a father.”
Eugene served in the U.S. Navy and was recruited into its marching and concert bands. It was during his stint that he had the opportunity to play with the legendary Louis Armstrong at a USO show.
While Eugene worked for the U.S. Post Office, he played on weekends and would schedule his vacations around tours with ensembles like the Olympia and Onward brass bands. In New Orleans, Eugene’s trombone enhanced numerous ensembles, including those led by clarinetists George Lewis and Dr. Michael White and banjoist Papa French.
Kermit Ruffins called in Eugene to record “Basin Street Blues” on his 2002 album Big Easy. The trumpeter first played with the trombonist on the street when Eugene was with the Olympia. “I would chase behind those guys just soaking that stuff up like a sponge,” Ruffins remembers. “He played that old, old trombone style and man, those high notes that he used to do. He was a total gentleman that’s for sure—dressed nice, looked good and his horn was always nice and clean.”
“He was a powerful, strong trombonist,” declares Freddie Lonzo, the keeper of the flame of the tailgate style. “I couldn’t figure out where he got his sound—he was a little guy.”
“He had a lot of wind,” Martyn agrees. “A lot of people followed behind him and tried to play like him but none of them could.”