Trumpeter and vocalist Wendell Brunious boasts a towering musical family tree primarily flowered with trumpets. He is the son of trumpet master John “Picket” (or “Picky”) Brunious Sr. and Nazimova “Chinee” Santiago, the niece of guitarist/banjoist Willie Santiago. Brunious who leads his band at Satchmo SummerFest on Sunday, August 5 and the previous day, Saturday, August 4, pays tribute to his father alongside his nephew (well, of course) trumpeter Mark Braud at Preservation Hall, believes what’s considered the “Brunious sound” all began with his father.
Brunious believes what’s considered the “Brunious sound” all began with his father’s influence. “When my father first started to develop as a trumpet player was in an era before amplification, so you had to play loud enough to hear yourself and to be heard in the band. I kind of think that’s where what some people call the Brunious sound kind of started. That ‘sound’ is being able to interpret ballads when you are also trying to hear the actual words coming out of the end of the trumpet. What was important was the tone, playing in tune, and being able to play nice ballads—not just fast stuff. My daddy used to say this: ‘If you don’t know the melody, you don’t know the song. ‘Bourbon Street Parade,’ ‘Paul Barbarin’s Second Line,’ ‘Hold that Tiger’ and a million other songs have the same form but what segregates the tunes is the melody.”
At Satchmo SummerFest’s Sunday, August 5 performance, Brunious and his band will delve into some of Louis Armstrong’s more obscure material, like “Azalea,” which Satchmo famously recorded with Duke Ellington, and “You Go to My Head.” His band includes drummer Gerald French, bassist Richard Moten, reedman Roderick Paulin and pianist Tom Hook.
“He was just the ultimate melodic player,” declares Brunious, who praises Armstrong’s everything, all the time. “Every solo he played was a new song.”
To demonstrate how the great Satchmo would redefine a tune to make it his own and make it New Orleans, Brunious begins singing the classic “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” which Armstrong reimagined as “Good Night, Angel.” “We’ve all done that to some extent because we’re New Orleanians, but he was in a class by himself.”
“Louis Armstrong came up to become the most recognizable face on the earth; it just speaks volumes about the man, his personality, his music and the way he could touch people. Like wow. There was a quote from him about when he was playing a song before the King of England and he just pointed at him and said, ‘This one’s for you Rex!’ It’s like who could get away with that? Even though he moved to Chicago in 1922 and then eventually to New York and later bought a house there, he was still a New Orleanian. Yes, through and through.”
“I think my first influence was my brother John [trumpeter John Brunious, Jr.]. He was closer to my age [14 years older] and he was my godfather, so we were pretty tight. My dad was working in the daytime and John was in high school and college when I was a kid. My brother heard my dad play and imitated that. You know the old saying, ‘You are what you eat.’ And I heard my daddy and my brother play. John used to carry his mouthpiece around in his back pocket. I wanted to be like John, so I used to carry a mouthpiece in my back pocket before I even played the trumpet. I used to pull it out and blow a few notes.
“When I got into the seventh grade, I became a little more serious about music,” Brunious continues, adding that he began taking lessons from the noted William Houston.
My daddy’s [John Brunious, Sr.] opening song was “Alabama Jubilee,” so I’m going to suggest to Mark [Braud] that we open with that [on Saturday, August 4],” says Brunious. At that gig, the trumpeter will be joined by his nephew Braud, drummer Shannon Powell, bassist Richard Moten and pianist Rickie Monie. The leader also has calls out for reedman Louis Ford and trombonist Freddie Lonzo.
John Brunious, Sr. was a highly regarded trumpeter, arranger and composer who graduated from high school when he was just 15 and in 1935, at the age of 19, had already graduated from Juilliard, where he had been awarded a scholarship. He would go on to work with orchestras led by Cab Calloway and later Lionel Hampton.
“My dad had very high standards and that was a wonderful thing to grow up with,” Brunious says with a sense of pride. “He was also called Picky because he was very, very particular. Then during the depression times, he started building picket fences, so then he got the name Picket.”
“He started writing for Cab Calloway’s band. Danny Barker was in that band and living in New York so Danny started trying to help my daddy get gigs and stuff. That’s a real New Orleans thing. We’re gonna help our people out. That’s the music that we believe in and that’s the feeling of the music that we believe in.”
Brunious’ father wrote the arrangement for Calloway’s signature tune, “Minnie the Moocher.” “It was kind of a steal from ‘St. James Infirmary.’ Many times I do my daddy’s arrangement of ‘Minnie the Moocher’ but I do it on the introduction of ‘St. James Infirmary’ just to keep that alive.” The trumpeter promises to do just that as part of the tribute. Also listen for “Dwight Braud Blues,” a song the elder Brunious wrote for Mark Braud’s father.
Some of Brunious, Sr.’s original material from his album Bye and Bye, which was recorded under the name of Chief John Brunious and his Mahogany Hall Stompers, might also turn up. A nine-year-old Wendell sang “That Old Green River,” a drinking song on that album that was recorded in 1964 and released, well, by-and-by. It also included “Hot Sausage Rag,” a song that Mark Braud resurrected on his album of the same name.
The talented and dedicated Wendell Brunious credits some of his early development to having worked with the Olympia Brass Band under the direction of his cousin, bandleader/saxophonist Harold Dejan. Extremely knowledgeable in the music’s tradition and history, Brunious enjoys sprinkling his conversation with advisory quotes from his father and other artists who have crossed his musical path through his decades-long career. He also throws in some of his own words of wisdom.
He says he would tell his students at UNO and these days at various music clinics: “When you guys go to these colleges, if you pay attention to your New Orleans roots you’re going to bring something that’s not there. What’s here is nowhere else.”
“When we think of New Orleans, we think of somebody just pouring their heart out like any note could be your last note which I found out about a month ago,” declares Brunious, referring to recently suffering a heart attack. “That’s what we know, the emotion of playing. The techniques and all that stuff are almost incidental.”