Trinis Making Waves Abroad: Etienne Charles, jazz trumpeter extraordinaire

As a teen living in Trinidad, Etienne Charles was often told that he couldn’t make money as a musician.

A five-week music workshop at Berklee University in Boston changed that perspective and the fresh out of A’ level student with his Spanish, French and Math qualifications decided to follow his gut and make music his sole focus.

The gamble paid off.  Charles 33, is an Associate Professor of Jazz Trumpet at Michigan State University, where he was recently awarded tenure, tours worldwide with his Band, Creole Soul and has produced six albums under his Culture Shock Music imprint.

He has played with many icons including the likes of legendary soul singer Roberta Flack, as well as jazz legends, Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Miller, the Count Basie Orchestra, Maria Schneider, Marcus Roberts, Bajan jazz saxophonist Arturo Tappin, the late percussionist and composer Ralph Macdonald and Trinidadian composer, arranger and pannist Ray Holman.

Charles has also racked up a number of accolades and awards.

In 2006, he won first place in the National Trumpet Competition Jazz Division in Fairfax, Virginia. In 2012 he was written into the US Congressional Record for his musical contributions to Trinidad and Tobago and the World and in 2013 he was awarded the Caribbean Heritage Trailblazer Award, by the Institute of Caribbean Studies, Washington, DC

In 2015, he was named a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in the Creative Arts and earlier this year was featured as a panelist and performer at the White House Briefing on Caribbean American Heritage in Washington D.C and received the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center Millennial Swing Award.

Charles holds a Bachelors degree from Florida International University and a Masters degree from the prestigious Juilliard.

“Music started long before the trumpet,” he told Loop, reflecting on his early years.

Music came from all sides of the family.

His dad was a DJ with an insane vinyl collection and also played pan with Phase II. His paternal grandfather played the guitar and cuatro while on his mother’s side, both grandfathers played instruments.

Charles said every day his mother would come from work and immediately put on music.

“She said the way I reacted to the music she knew I would be involved,” he said.

At Bishop Anstey Junior School, Charles sang in the choir and played the recorder, He attended music camp at Queen’s Hall during one August holiday. Music was everywhere.

A trip to Canada at the age of four introduced him to the saxophone when his Uncle Peter let him try the instrument.

“When I was 10, that same Uncle sent a trumpet for me and after Common Entrance I started taking lessons with Dr Edward Wade,” Charles recalled.

At Fatima College, Charles studied Trumpet, Theory and ensemble under Tony Woodroffe in a programme that was designed for young people.  The academy was known as The Brass Institute and the students played at least two concerts a year. At the same time, Charles joined the National Youth Orchestra as well. 

“I was a semi-professional from pretty early on. When I was in Form Two I went to Venezuela and I said hey, I get to travel too? Right before that trip  I remember we when to Fyzabad to play at a spiritual Baptist church and I had to play a solo and at the end the church mother shook my hand and when I moved my hand there was $10 in it and I was like great I get paid too? “

By the time he was in Form Six, Charles had performed in two school productions My Fair Lady and Treasure Island, with some of the country’s then emerging artistes such as Kees Dieffenthaller, Michelle Xavier and musical director Roger Henry.

He also did a stint with Orange Sky, a then fledgling rock band.

“That was my introduction to arranging and composing. Their album, Of Birds and Bees, features my first horn arrangement,” he revealed.

Thanks to his father, he also became a pannist with Phase II.

“Carnival Monday when I was in Form two, dad said come with me and bring yuh pan sticks. We met up a Phase II truck and we started playing. I learned the tune right there and played. My dad and I used to do that every Carnival Monday and Tuesday. After CXC, I started playing full time with Phase II,” he said.

Charles vast and varied musical experience at home has certainly influenced his work on the international stage.

Hailed as “an auteur” by the New York Times, he has carved a niche by translating stories into his music.

His latest album, the San Jose Suite is a prime example of that.

Made possible with support from Chamber Music America’s 2014 New Jazz Works grant funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, San Jose Suite took Charles on an immersive journey to three San Jose cities – St Joseph, formerly San Jose in Trinidad, San Jose in Costa Rica and San Jose in Northern California.

The album pays tribute to the indigenous people and music of each area with one publication describing the album as a joyous and truly enlightened musical narration of the story of New World peoples told by one of today’s most accomplished griots.

Charles will hold the Caribbean premiere of San Jose Suite on November 20 at Queen’s Hall. The concert will also feature his former Juilliard colleague Danielle Brookes, a Tony-nominated star and actress on the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black.


This article was originally published on Loop News (

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