Jazz is a creole music, created out of a blend of different sources—African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, French, Spanish, and who knows what else. As it has evolved, it has absorbed other traditions but has also periodically returned to various mother-wells to find new stimulus and inspiration. The early history of the music, much of which took place in New Orleans, was particularly marked by the “Spanish tinge” that came from various islands of the Caribbean. In places such as Haiti, Trinidad, and Cuba, African traditions were vigorously preserved and blended in various ways with European elements, creating new musical traditions that continue to develop to this day.
Trumpeter Etienne Charles, born in Trinidad and raised in a highly musical family, eventually made his way to this country and finished his musical education at the Juilliard School. Like others of his generation he has embraced the rich tradition of bebop and of trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie. But in many ways Charles has the entire tradition of the jazz trumpet at his fingertips, from Storyville brothel anthems to the virtuosic, harmonically complex flights of Gillespie. It is not easy to develop a new take on the tradition, but Charles has managed to do this by being true to his personal history.
The Trinidad traditions that permeate Charles’s music are different from the more commonly encountered Afro-Cuban styles. The rhythms, while no less complex, are more easygoing, the steel drum timbres unique, and the vocal stylings often deceptively relaxed. We often think of calypso as a laid-back form of dance music, but the lyrics, especially early on, have often been highly political, commenting on events of the day and the struggles against economic and racial injustice. Sometimes funny, sometimes quite raunchy, and often laced with a bit of sadness, the various forms of calypso have been an integral part of island life.
Even after all that sophisticated musical training, Charles remains passionately dedicated to the music he grew up with. From the way he carries himself on stage to the way he approaches the hand drum, tinges of Trinidad form an essential part of his personality. His recordings have featured calypso vocals that celebrate a marriage of bebop with the legacy of such Trinidadian masters as Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow, and his trumpet playing likewise exhibits the musical flavors of his island home. Even when he’s playing up-tempo numbers, there’s a relaxed, behind-the-beat spice in the mix, and his ballads are deliciously wistful, as if he were thinking of other places, other sunsets, other rooms.
These days Charles tours all over the world, but his new home is in the Midwest, at Michigan State University, where he teaches in the jazz program. He brings a band of fellow professors to the Kerrytown Concert House on May 4.