On the night last summer that trumpeter Wendell Brunious was released from University Medical Center, he went to Preservation Hall to sit in with the band.
His sisters were worried, but he told them it was a necessary outing. “I was born to play the trumpet in New Orleans,” said Brunious, now 64, who on Saturday played a noontime gig at French Quarter Festival.
He brought along his trusty Conn Connstellation trumpet and two new stents in his heart, inserted in June after he went into sudden cardiac arrest at the hospital within a minute after he arrived at the intake desk, complaining that he wasn’t feeling well.
Cardiac arrest can cause death in minutes without immediate care. “If we’d hit one more red light on the way to the hospital, I’d be gone,” Brunious said.
Doctors sprang into action, providing oxygen to his brain and other organs because his heart was not beating. “I went to the light,” said Brunious. After more than 15 minutes, doctors were able to get his heart restarted.
He doesn’t remember anything until he awoke in the hospital, not knowing where he was or what had happened.
But later that day, trumpeter Kevin Louis brought a cornet to the hospital. “Just play,” he said. “So people know that you’re back.”
“Did people even know I was gone?” he quipped, as he used a pillow to prop himself up in bed and played the Miles Davis tune “Four,” a performance that Louis broadcast live on Facebook.
Since his hospital stay, Brunious has taken a renewed interest in his health, following a vegan diet and losing 20 pounds. He said he also finds he no longer has any interest in anger, hatred or pettiness.
“I’m thankful for every minute,” he said, taking in his surroundings on Saturday, as he stood backstage before his gig, clad in a quintessential traditional-jazzman outfit: a white fedora, white pants, a plaid cotton shirt topped with vest and necktie, and freshly polished shoes.
With his performance just minutes away, he showed no nervousness. “I like to think of stage fright as respect,” he said.
A natural raconteur, Brunious says things like, “I’m the best singer since the sewing machine” as he clowns around with his band onstage, in between achingly beautiful sentimental songs and upbeat tunes featuring stunning runs of notes on his horn.
“Wendell is not only a great trumpet player. He makes it fun,” said noted bass player Mark Brooks, as he laughed at yet another Brunious quip.
Piano player Steve Pistorius, who has worked with Brunious for 40 years, nodded. “But his trappings mean nothing without his musicianship,” said Pistorius, who described Brunious as someone who studies and puts in the work it takes to cultivate his craft and become exceptional at it.
“He’s a real important musician to the city,” Pistorius said. “His family is real important.”
Brunious is the son of John “Picket” Brunious, a trumpeter who wrote songs for Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine and others. Wendell’s older brother, John Brunious Jr., was also a well-regarded trumpet player, as is their nephew, Mark Braud.
In the family’s native 7th Ward, people can tell you everything about the family, including that Wendell has traveled the world with his own band and with stars like bandleader Lionel Hampton.
Despite his travels, it’s New Orleans that really feeds Wendell Brunious' spirit. And he finds the French Quarter Festival perfect for admiring New Orleans, because it’s set amid historic architecture and people doing ordinary, everyday things.
On Saturday, Charmaine Neville strolled down a path in Jackson Square as if she were simply a spectator, not a beloved local singer scheduled to perform in the festival later in the day. A few feet away, a restaurant worker walked past carrying a box of oranges while a cook dressed in black and white pants took in some music during a short break from the stove.
On the lawn, a mother visiting from Alabama wiped her toddler’s runny nose, while a group of young women met up with big hugs not far from a line of young drummers playing on upended five-gallon plastic buckets.
Above, scattered clouds kept the day in the mid-80s, and a nice breeze made it even more pleasant. In front of the festival’s Jackson Square Stage, fans stood in groups or sat on folding chairs under the trees, which bore newly sprouted green leaves in honor of spring.
On the nearby Mississippi River, a ship stacked high with containers floated high above the Quarter because of high spring river levels.
Since it was a few minutes before showtime, Brunious sat backstage and buzzed a little on his trumpet mouthpiece to warm up.
As he did so, he looked around him and took in all the new green growth, acting as a backdrop to the bustling spring festival.
Brunious’ face lit up with one of his trademark smiles. “I would say that it’s the renaissance of the season — and of me,” he said.