Wendell Eugene, one of the most respected and longest-serving trombonists in traditional New Orleans jazz, died Tuesday of pneumonia. He was 94.
Eugene still performed at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe and local festivals as recently as 2015. By then, he had succeeded the late trumpeter Lionel Ferbos as the city’s oldest active jazz musician.
During a career of more than seven decades, Eugene shared stages with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Paul Simon and the Temptations, as well as local jazz luminaries like George Lewis, Paul Barbarin, Albert “Papa” French, Danny Barker, Kermit Ruffins and Dr. Michael White.
Wendell Albert Eugene was born in New Orleans in 1923. His eldest sibling, Homer Eugene Jr., a trombonist, guitarist and banjo player, gave young Eugene his first trombone. By age 15, Wendell was performing professionally.
He served in the Navy during World War II. Stationed in California, he performed with the Navy’s marching and concert bands. He backed Armstrong during a USO show in 1943.
After the war, he hit the road with the Lucky Millender and Buddy Johnson orchestras, performing in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Skilled at reading and writing music, he assisted older musicians and tutored younger ones.
With a family to support — he and his late wife of 54 years, Bernice, raised four daughters — and wanting to stay closer to home, he took a job as a Postal Service letter carrier in 1949.
He also taught trombone at New Orleans’ Grunewald School of Music and continued to perform at night and on weekends. He scheduled vacation time so that he could tour with the Onward Brass Band, the Olympia Brass Band, the Tuxedo Brass Band and Andrew Hall's Society Jazz Band.
He also contributed to hundreds of jazz and rhythm & blues recordings, including many produced by Allen Toussaint.
When he retired from the Postal Service in 1979, he devoted himself to playing music full time. He appeared in numerous documentaries about New Orleans jazz.
He performed at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the first French Quarter Festival. He made yearly appearances at both festivals for decades.
At age 91, he was still performing regularly with Ferbos’ Palm Court Jazz Band, Andrew Hall’s Society Jazz Band and Gregg Stafford’s Tuxedo Brass Band, always as a sentimental favorite with audiences.
He found common cause with musicians much younger than himself while maintaining his standards of excellence. In 2013, he performed at a house party alongside trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who was more than 50 years his junior.
He recorded his final album as a bandleader, “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” at age 90.
Survivors include four daughters, Adele Blanchard, Wendolyn Hampton, Shelia Eugene and Patrice McNeal; six grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and two great-great grandchildren.
A funeral is scheduled for Saturday at Transfiguration of the Lord Catholic Church, 2212 Prentiss Ave. Visitation will start at 8:30 a.m., followed by a Mass at 10 a.m. Interment will be at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Charbonnet Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.