The Kennedy Center

Etienne Charles


Born on the island of Trinidad in 1983, trumpeter Etienne Charles defies easy musical categorization.

His musical lineage runs four generations deep. His great-grandfather, Clement Monlouis, emigrated to Trinidad from Martinique, bringing his folk music to the village of Mayaro. His grandfather Ralph Charles’ distinct cuatro style can be heard on the classic folk and calypso recordings of Growling Tiger. His father, Francis Charles, was a member of Phase II Pan Groove, one of Trinidad’s most progressive steel bands and one that Etienne himself would later join. Immersed in his father’s vast record collection, and suffused with the sounds of calypso, steel pan, and African Shango drumming, Charles imbibed many of the influences that presently constitute the diverse colors of his harmonic palette. The Bishop Anstey Junior School proved to be a potent incubator of his talent. There he began playing the recorder. At the age of 10, he received a trumpet from his uncle and began to take formal lessons.

He excelled at Fatima College and was a member of the school’s football, cricket, swimming and water polo teams and won the Provincial Cup three times, first at the age of 13. He also studied trumpet briefly with Major Edouard Wade and then at the Brass Institute where he would quickly become the youngest member of the school’s professional band, TBI Brass. Charles added drums and percussion to his arsenal and landed a job playing in the pit for local theater productions of My Fair Lady and Treasure Island. He also accompanied his father on the road during the carnival season on J'ouvert morning, Carnival Monday and Tuesday, as well as for the Panorama steel pan competition with Phase II.

At sixteen, Charles attended the summer performance program at Berklee College of Music where he studied with Lin Biviano and Tiger Okoshi.  Three years later, he enrolled on a scholarship at the Florida State University, studying with Marcus Roberts, and graduated as the College of Music Brautlecht Scholar with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music. In the summer of 2005, Charles placed second in the International Trumpet Guild Jazz Competition in Bangkok, Thailand and performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, Netherlands. In March 2006 he placed first in the National Trumpet Competition in Fairfax, Virginia.  While attending the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles in 2006, he recorded on the album Elevation, which received two Grammy Award nominations.  Charles received a full scholarship to pursue his master’s degree at The Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where he studied with Mark Gould, Joe Wilder, and Chris Jaudes, and toured extensively to Qatar, Costa Rica, Aiken, South Carolina, and St. Louis, Missouri with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra.  He began to freelance arduously around New York. He has performed and recorded with such artists as Roberta Flack, Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Mandel, Ralph MacDonald, Maria Schneider, the Count Basie Orchestra, Marcus Roberts, Monty Alexander, Frank Foster, Wycliffe Gordon, René Marie, Lord Blakie, and David Rudder.

His debut album, Culture Shock (2006), features a unique mélange of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and straight-ahead jazz. In August 2007 Charles made his debut as a leader at the New York City’s Museum of Modern Art Summergarden series where he premiered Folklore Tales ? a suite of original music inspired by the folklore characters of Trinidad.  In 2009 Etienne released Folklore, an enticing album of original music. The music employs jazz improvisation and harmony with folk rhythms and chants inspired by the African experience of Trinidad and Tobago. At the album’s core is a suite of compositions based on characters of the Afro-Caribbean folkloric tradition: La Diablesse, Douens, Soucouyant, Mama D’lo, Mama Malade and Papa Bois.  These mythical creatures have been a part of the Caribbean folk heritage for centuries as they were brought over by West African slaves and passed down from generation to generation through stories, chants and dances. The album explores these stories, interpreting images and tales and opening up a true rhythmic and harmonic dialogue between history, tradition, and multiple music genres. 

Etienne Charles stands at the vanguard of a new generation of musicians who are from the with a fresh and broad-ranging artistic vision and a myriad of influences encompassed in their soundscape.
Etienne Charles