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Alumni Q&A With Etienne Charles

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Creole Soul and the Abstract Truth

Etienne Charles

 (Photo by Laura Ferreira)

Under the hot stage lights at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, trumpeter Etienne Charles (MM '08, jazz studies) is working up a sweat doing double duty. Just after the well-heeled and attentive audience signals admiration for Charles's first horn solo of the evening—applauding the keening notes he issues over an adapted rhythm from his native Trinidad—Charles rests the gleaming instrument on a stand and sits down behind a set of congas. As he begins augmenting the grooves of the ensemble's drummer, John Davis, Charles becomes an embodiment of Creole Soul, the name of both his sextet and his fourth album, which came out in 2013.

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Charles's Caribbean heritage has long been a central feature of his work. Even as he was studying trumpet at Juilliard with Mark Gould and the late Joe Wilder, he was forging records that melded jazz sleekness with percolating native pulses. At Dizzy's his group performed pieces from his latest disc, San Jose Suite, which was inspired by the indigenous musics of three different locales that share the name St. Joseph—first the town in his native Trinidad, then the capital city of Costa Rica, and finally, San Jose, Calif. Commissioned through a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the piece's mix of grooves was culled directly from what he learned from scholarship and jamming while he visited each location.

But Charles isn't just a performer. He's become a spokesman on Caribbean culture as well as a Michigan State University associate professor. And on February 22, he returns to Juilliard to conduct the Jazz Orchestra. The concert celebrates Oliver Nelson (1932–75), the soulfully inventive alto saxist/composer/arranger who died, tragically young, of a heart attack in the midst of a wildly successful career.

What Nelson material will you be covering in the Jazz Orchestra concert?

We'll be doing mostly his big band repertoire, including his big band arrangement of “Blues and the Abstract Truth” [from his iconic 1961 album of the same name].

How about anything from his studio work? [Nelson composed background music for such shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, Ironside, and Columbo, among others, and arranged for such movies as Last Tango in Paris and Alfie.]

So far no, but that may change.

This summer you were on a panel called The Impact of Caribbean Culture in America in Washington, D.C., that was convened by the White House, right?

Yes, and President Obama was scheduled to be there for remarks, but there ended up being a sit-in at the House of Representatives, and I think he was a bit preoccupied. I did meet African royalty, the Ooni of Ile-Ifè, though. He's the ruler of the Yoruba people in Nigeria.

Are you asked to speak about Caribbean culture frequently?

What's now happening is that as I do research about music and uncover Caribbean links and connections to things that are new to me, it's nice to be able to speak formally about them.

I understand you did a lot of research—scholarly and jamming—in all three San Joses for San Jose Suite. How did the idea to link the three towns come about?

Well, the piece changed focus a bit. I'd initially conceived it as a look at Spanish conquest; Trinidad, Costa Rica, and California were all products of Spanish colonization, and I was curious about what, if any, sounds had been carried into contemporary times. But what happened as I got deeper into it was discovering this play between the various indigenous people who were already in each place and the Africans who were introduced into the region. There are so many odd cultural crisscrosses, too, like there's this one town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica where the black people speak English that sounds like it's from Jamaica. On the other hand, sometimes people forget that Trinidad, my country, is about eight miles from Venezuela at its closest point, which is why there's actually a Spanish-singing community among Trinidadians who don't actually speak Spanish. It's the songs, called “parang,” that remain.

Did you experience any culture shock between formal jazz and Caribbean practices when you came to Juilliard?

No, not musically. I initially left Trinidad to do undergrad in the music program at University of Florida in Tallahassee, and I chose to come to Juilliard specifically to study with Mark Gould. I think what might have been overwhelming to me when I got to Juilliard was the level of seriousness around me. I'd never been in a place where everyone was not just talented, but so devoted to complete mastery of their craft. The actors always had scripts in front of them. The dancers were always dancing. I still think of Juilliard as the most amazing trade school in the world!

Does your teaching at Michigan State incorporate any Caribbean music?

My responsibilities include conducting the jazz orchestra. I've definitely incorporated my culture into the music and arrangements I put in front of the students, because I think it's important for jazz musicians to be able to interpret any type of music. Mostly, though, the culture comes through in the methods I use to teach them. This is jazz, so I stress things like playing in such a way that the music dances. I also like to keep students in touch with the oral tradition, so I teach some things by ear and memorization. Being descended from African people in the New World, those are things that jazz and Caribbean music have in common.

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