Taking Bourbon Street on Road : Appearance: Trumpeter Wendell Brunious leads the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, playing Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
On the day the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration reached its climactic frenzy earlier this week, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, that cornerstone of New Orleans music, was starting its day in . . . Cedar City, Utah?
“We’re on our way to Salt Lake City,” said trumpeter Wendell Brunious, leader of this particular Preservation Hall band (there are three), in an early-morning phone interview before the group’s bus headed north.
The current tour--with stops in Tempe and Sun City, Ariz., Barstow and Malibu--arrives at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts Saturday.
“I’m kind of glad to be out here,” he said.
Even had they been at home on the day known as “Fat Tuesday,” they wouldn’t have been at Preservation Hall, the Crescent City landmark in the French Quarter dedicated to the perpetuation of traditional New Orleans jazz.
“We close Preservation Hall on Fat Tuesday,” Brunious said. “It’s the only day of the year that it’s closed. It’s just too much. You’d have to have 30 cops around there. Not that it would be violent, but just because it would be so mobbed.”
“I’m going to miss it,” he added. “But I’m not going to miss it, either. I just talked to my wife and she was all whipped up about getting out. I said, ‘Go ahead, baby. It’s just too damn wild out there for me.’ ”
If closing Preservation Hall on Fat Tuesday is not what one expects, neither is Brunious. Not the grizzled grandfather that’s been the stereotype since the hall was founded in 1961, Brunious is only 38.
He ruffles when asked if he’s the junior member of the group. “I’m the leader of this group,” he said.
Nevertheless, Brunious is tied with pianist John Royen as the youngest member of the band he fronts. The musicians in the seven-piece ensemble are a cross-generational mix, with drummer Robert French, banjo player Neil Untscher and clarinetist Jacques Gouthe all in their 50s. Bassist Frank Fields is 78. Trombonist Worthia Thomas is 85.
Brunious is not alone among musicians of his generation in his interest in preserving the New Orleans tradition. His friend, clarinetist Dr. Michael White, sometimes appears with the Preservation Hall bands and has recorded several albums of New Orleans-influenced music. Two of those, “Crescent City Serenade” and “New Year’s at the Village Vanguard,” feature both Brunious and fellow New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
“Quite naturally, we’ve changed the music a little bit,” Brunious says. “I have more knowledge from the older generation, plus youth, enthusiasm, energy and exposure to other kinds of music. But still, the root of the whole thing is New Orleans.”
Brunious, who shared leadership of this particular Preservation Hall Band with trumpeter (Kid) Thomas Valentine until the latter’s death in 1991, says the coming together of the generations is the way the music has always been perpetuated.
“You learn the music from older people, you know? You’ve got to respect those years. That’s basically the way the whole New Orleans music flow has gone through history. There’s been a passing of the torch. And contrary to what you may think, we’re not really manufacturing 85-year-old people in New Orleans. Though I guess in 47 years I’ll be 85.”
The musical heritage of New Orleans is a family affair, he asserts. “My dad was a trumpet player, my mother was from a musical family. New Orleans has a thing of its own, man, it really does. You have to come out of the culture, the New Orleans flow of life, to do that thing. People like me, Bob French, Michael White--we came from the real New Orleans families. People from those families three and four generations back were playing that music in society bands before Louis Armstrong was born.
“Now there are young people behind me coming up playing this music. And that’s great. That’s what preservation is all about.”
Brunious began playing trumpet at 7. At 9, he made his first recording with his father’s band. At 11, he sang with Chief John & the Mahogany Hall Stompers Band. He spent time touring with Lionel Hampton’s band and with Gladys Knight & and the Pips. He listened not only to New Orleans music, but also to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
One day when he was 23, Brunious, who was playing early sets at a Bourbon Street club, stopped by Preservation Hall.
“My car was parked over that way and I wanted to hear (late trumpeter) Kid Thomas. He was on break, eating a sandwich, then his whole band came back and he just stayed there. And I said, ‘Do you-all need a trumpet player?’ And took my horn out, ‘cause that’s just the way you do things in New Orleans. And the older guys were like, ‘We don’t let people sit in here, you know.’ But I was young and brazen and said, ‘Well, I’m playing.’ ”
Preservation Hall founder and tuba player, the late Allan Jaffe, was impressed.
“He’d seen me play other styles and said, ‘I didn’t know you were interested in that kind of music.’ And I said, ‘I was born into this kind of music.’ And Jaffe says, ‘Hey man, start hiring this guy.’ ”
Next to his father, Brunious cites Louis Armstrong as his biggest influence.
“He was the greatest cat that ever lived. Louis had to overcome adversities that you and I could never understand. From a dirt-floor shack in Storyville to the most-recognized jazz musician that ever lived: that was quite a jump.
“There isn’t a jazz player alive that hasn’t gotten something from Louis. People like Charlie Parker came from Louis, Miles came from Louis, Prez (Lester Young)--everybody. He was the first real cat of jazz; he revolutionized the whole thing.”
With his fellow band members urging him to get on the bus for Salt Lake City, Brunious explained his view of the secret that makes the New Orleans sound eternal.
“New Orleans music was always dance music, always dance music. That two-beat rhythm that goes into the concept, it makes you move. If you’re not moving listening to New Orleans music, there’s something wrong with you.”
* The Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays Saturday at 8 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. $23 to $30. (310) 916-8500.