Wendell Brunious was done with his set at a club on Bourbon Street and was headed down St. Peter Street when he decided to stop and listen to Kid Thomas play at Preservation Hall. Thomas and the other members of the band were out on break. Brunious, who was only 23, approached them, still holding his trumpet in its case, and asked if they needed a trumpet player. When they told him no, instead of leaving, he pulled the trumpet out of the case and began to play for them right then and there. By doing this, he got the attention of Allan Jaffee, the owner and manager of the famed New Orleans jazz institution.
It had been a musically rich road that led Brunious down St. Peter Street that day. He was born and raised in a tight-knit Creole community in New Orleans 7th ward. His father was John “Picket” Brunious, Sr., a Julliard educated pianist and master trumpet player, who composed music for Billy Eckstein and Cab Calloway. His mother’s side was equally important in the early development of jazz – especially jazz in New Orleans. She was Nazimova “Chinee” Santiago, the sister of Lester and Burnell Santiago, who were two of the top pianists in early New Orleans music. She was also the niece of guitarist and banjoist Willie Santiago, who worked with the legendary Buddy Bolden.
As Brunious played for Kid Thomas and the others outside of Preservation Hall, they were hearing that loud “Brunious” sound that was heavily influenced by his father. Brunious, Sr. played at a time before amplification, so he had to play loud and above the others in the band so he could hear himself, and it became a style and sound that was easily recognizable. The young Wendell had, who had already being playing and performing for nearly 14 years by that point, had developed that sound, as well.
Music was just a way of life. It was something to feed the spirit and soul. When Brunious wasn’t playing music with his immediate family, he was off playing it somewhere else. He went to Southern University and played with Danny Barker, who was known for his passion for studying jazz music and passing that knowledge along. He eventually met up with Justin Adams, and the two helped to launch the first jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace restaurant in the mid-1970s. But through it all he credits much of his early development to working with his cousin, Harold Dejan, and the Olympia Brass Band.
That impression he made on Jaffee that day paid off, and by 1979, Brunious was playing regularly at Preservation Hall. After the band leader, Kid Thomas Valentine, passed away in 1987 at the age of 91, Brunious was appointed the band leader – which made him the youngest musician to ever lead the Preservation Hall band. He continued to play his “Brunious sound” as a regular performer all the way into the 2010s.
He has seven albums under his name, and has also played on countless others. He has recorded with the Tuxedo Brass Band, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Wynton Marsalis, Lionel Hampton, Harry Connick, Jr., Sammy Rimington, Gladys Knight & and the Pips, and many more. His most recent recording is on the soundtrack to the new hit Netflix movie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, staring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.
Over his 4 decades of playing, Brunious has become extremely knowledgeable in music traditions and history – especially those that come from New Orleans jazz. He has said before that he knows over 2000 songs by heart, and when he plays one of those songs, especially one that had been written by his father, he plays it to honor all of the great jazz musicians that have come before him.
Wendell Brunious has been a bridge to the beginnings of jazz music in New Orleans, and has become the modern day legend that continues to impress all that come to see and hear him play that “Brunious sound“.
Who makes the best red beans and rice?
Every Creole thinks he or she makes the best beans and rice, but the best beans and rice is made by me in my kitchen. 😊
When did you learn to make red beans and rice?
Most people in New Orleans learned to cook red beans and rice from their parents, most of the time, their Mother. That’s where I learned.
What does red beans and rice mean to you?
It’s a meal that I’ve eaten more times than I can count, so it just means dinner time in New Orleans. Growing up with 7 brothers and sisters, we had dinner at 6 pm daily, ate dinner and watched the news with my parents. Many days, that meal would be red beans and rice. Fond memories for me.
Do you only eat red beans and rice on a Monday?
Red beans and rice is a staple in the diet of New Orleanians, so we eat red beans and rice almost any day.
What’s your process for cooking a pot of red beans?
I usually have a trinity that I flavor my beans with. That includes onion, bell pepper and green onion. If I have it, I try to use two or three types of onion and two or three colors of bell pepper. I also include garlic, four or five cloves. I fry it until the onion is translucent then add it to a different pot which I have been boiling the beans in.
When the beans are soft, I usually use a potato masher to make the beans creamier. Some cooks add ham to flavor the beans, but I sometimes fry smoked sausage and add to it. Different cooks and different things. I usually add Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning to taste, and in a while, I’m enjoying red beans and rice.
What do you serve with your red beans and rice?
Lots of times, Creoles fry hot sausage and serve that with the beans and rice. A piece about six inches long usually suffices. French bread with garlic butter is often served also. In 1949, my Mother and Father bought a lot on which we would build our family home.
My Aunt’s husband was a great carpenter named Frank Mercadel, and he and his brothers helped my Dad build our house. My folks couldn’t afford to pay them, so much red beans and rice was cooked and lots of beer was consumed on the way to building our house. It was the Creole way at that time.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my red beans and rice experiences.
Wendell Brunious worked on the soundtrack to the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which premiered on Netflix and was also recently awarded the Legacy Award from Preservation Hall. During lockdown, he continues to perform live concerts on Facebook and other outlets that can be viewed virtually. He looks forward to New Orleans opening up again as soon as it’s safe and being in front of a live audience again.
Thank you to Karen Kennedy for supplying the photos.
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Eric Olsson is the food blogger of RedBeansAndEric.com. He publishes new recipes and interviews weekly. He has developed recipes and written articles for the famous Camellia brand in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has been mentioned in Louisiana Cookin‘ magazine and has had recipes featured in Taste of Home magazine – with his Creole Turkey recipe being runner up in their annual Thanksgiving recipe contest. He lives outside of Detroit, Michigan, with his wife and four children.