Trumpeter Etienne Charles and his Creole Soul band bring blend of styles to jazz fest

A report by Duante Beddingfield for The Detroit Free Press.

Trumpeter-composer Etienne Charles brings the flavor of Caribbean and Gulf rhythms to Saturday’s Detroit Jazz Festival lineup with his Creole Soul band.

The Trinidadian musician has been lauded as “an auteur” by the New York Times and “a daring improviser who delivers with heart-wrenching lyricism” in JazzTimes.

Charles is no stranger to Detroit. Along with being a jazz festival veteran, he taught at Michigan State University for 12 years and launched Community Music School’s jazz program.

“Detroit contributed so much to so many musical traditions,” he told the Free Press. “To jazz, of course. You look at the history of who came out of Detroit – even the people who may have been from other places but had their training there, as well as the native artists. You go back to McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Gerald Wilson, Ron Carter. Paul Chambers, even though he’s from Pittsburgh, grew up in Detroit. Miles Davis did rehab in Detroit. Frank Foster cut his teeth in Detroit, Joe Henderson. Thad Jones, Hank Jones, Elvin Jones – from Pontiac, but learned in Detroit. George Gershwin spent time in Detroit early in his career.

“A lot of people know Motown,” he said, “but a lot of the jazz traditions that became popular in New York came up through a lot of people who developed their skills in Detroit. So many great musicians and composers have come out of that city.”  

Charles was born into a musical family.

“My father played in a steel band and was a DJ,” he said, “and my mother came from a musical family and played records all the time. So there was always music in the house, all different styles. When I was about 4 years old, I started singing in a choir. I got a trumpet when I was 10 and played a little steel pan, a little percussion.”

Educations at the Berklee College of Music, Florida State University, and the Juilliard School of Music bolstered Charles’ talent and his understanding of musical roots. He studied with Tiger Okoshi and Marcus Roberts, and went on to perform and record with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Maria Schneider, Roberta Flack, the Count Basie Orchestra, Monty Alexander, Wycliffe Gordon and others.

The sounds and rhythms of his youth and heritage stayed with him even as he became a rising star on the American jazz scene. He began to blend those pan-Caribbean sensibilities, the boisterous brass flavors of New Orleans that benefited so richly from them in the early 20th century, and the sophisticated swing of New York straight-ahead to form a flavorful blend that has won raves from critics.

“It’s really about musically unifying the African diaspora without misunderstanding that there are many roads to take to get back to the continent,” he said. “There are so many different facets of musical expression, cultural expression, that enriched my understanding, and I try to bring those elements together.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.

“It’s like how I was born and raised in Trinidad, but I have cousins who were born and raised in New York, who grew up in Florida, the U.K., in Canada. Even though we speak different dialects of the English language, we have the same blood, and when we get together, we have a common trait we share. I think it’s the same with the music of the pan-African diaspora. So Creole Soul is really about moving around the dial so you get a taste of what it’s like to be in the Caribbean, to be in the Deep South, Haiti, Trinidad, Tobago, Martinique, Detroit, New York – specifically, all of the Black towns and countries that have contributed to the music we all share.”

In the coming year, Charles looks forward to the release of a few albums he recorded pre-pandemic, but for now, he’s excited about returning to the Motor City for his jazz festival set.

“If you want to hear some music that’s going to get you off your couch,” he said, “we play music that makes people move. That’s our calling – making people understand that the music has a role, to take you out of one state and put you into another state. I’ve played the festival many times, but this is my first time playing it with this band, and I’ve been dreaming about it for years. This is the best free jazz festival in the United States – maybe in the world.”

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