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Music Inside Out: Wendell Brunious

Music Inside Out
Wendell Brunious

By his count, Wendell Brunious knows more than 2,000 songs. Some are from the Great American Songbook, some are traditional, swing and bebop jazz gems and many are from the golden era of New Orleans rhythm and blues. A goodly few are homemade. Wendell’s father, John “Picket” Brunious, Sr. was a composer and arranger, as was his brother John, Jr. Wendell says he plays their music to keep them ever-present, but he has his own of stock of originals. Over a more than 50 year-career in the business, he says his number one rule remains, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

“It’s kind of like my golf swing,” Brunious tells Gwen.

Brunious has recorded seven albums under his own name and been featured on many more. He hasn’t always lived in New Orleans, but his roots in the city’s musical tradition run deep, beginning at home with his family. Brunious couldn’t be more proud of his multi-generational, trumpet-playing clan. His father and seven of his siblings cleaved to the instrument, as did his nephew Mark Braud. Four of them have led the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, including Wendell who played at the Hall for more than 20 years. Picking up a trumpet is not like picking up any other instrument, he says, because “No matter whose name is on the contract, the trumpet player leads the band.” So how do eight leaders sound in one household? “Noisy.”

That may be why Wendell has a particular fondness for melody. “My daddy used to say, ‘If you don’t know the melody, you don’t know the song,” he said. And to the melody, a seasoned trumpet player adds economy. “You don’t have to be hitting a high note just to unnecessarily prove you can do it. You hear a lot of examples of that. You do hit high notes, but when they mean something. When I play, I try to play almost in paragraphs, to make a statement. Then my next chord is another paragraph, and so on.”

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.