Loving the jazz life at MSU
Busy Etienne Charles pauses to reflect on students and the MSU community.
Etienne Charles is a jazz musician in demand. The trumpeter is traveling the world with gigs coming up in Aspen, Spain, London, New York, Italy, his native Trinidad and more, and he resumes dates in the fall with the renowned San Francisco Jazz Collective. Yet with all his travels, his mind is never far from his roots, those of his home country and those in East Lansing where he has taught for the past decade.
He came to the U.S. in 2002 and began creating his own sound through the fusion of Caribbean influences and American jazz. After earning degrees from Florida State University and Juilliard, Charles performed in New York and worldwide before joining the jazz faculty at MSU in 2009.
In 2015, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and immersed himself in composing music informed by the traditions and culture of Trinidad. Following the release of his critically acclaimed “Carnival,” Charles continues to captivate audiences through works that meld African, Caribbean and American music.
He returns to MSU to play at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival in East Lansing on June 21 and 22 which has a lineup full of MSU jazz players, including pros like College of Music faculty Rodney Whitaker, Diego Rivera, Michael Dease, Xavier Davis (with special guest Regina Carter), and Randy Gelispie.
Though he may be traveling the world, recently he reflected on his years with the College of Music and how his MSU family is never from his mind.
How do you feel about the quality of the jazz program at MSU, and what sets it apart?
It’s world class! The difference that sets MSU apart is having a full-time faculty of working musicians in the jazz industry. Another difference is the MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Program which has brought numerous world-renowned artists to campus to work with our students for a week.
I know from talking with students that they highly enjoy the opportunity to tour with these esteemed artists during their residencies at MSU. This aspect of our program creates a unique opportunity for our students to gain professional-level advice and development from gamechangers in the jazz industry.
When you think about your students at MSU, what comes to mind as your proudest moment as an educator?
It’s hard to have a single proudest moment. In the ten years I have been here so far, I have had many proud moments with my students. Every time a student builds confidence, finds their soul in the arts, or moves people with their art, I’m proud and grateful. I’m especially proud of students who take their music worldwide as well as those who find ways to pass their knowledge on to others through mentorship.
I’ve been lucky enough to take students and MSU alumni with me on performances around the world. When I do, I immediately remember the times my mentors Leon Anderson, Marcus Roberts and Ralph MacDonald took me on the road for performances in which I learned so much. My hope is that the trips I’ve taken with students will be as memorable.
What has been your favorite thing about being on the faculty in the MSU College of Music?
My favorite thing is being able to work with my big band and with my studio. I enjoy learning from my students as well as watching them grow as instrumentalists, improvisers and composers. With the big band, it’s a joy to see them evolve as ensemble players and to watch them learn the history of the jazz orchestra.
Being on the faculty in the MSU College of Music is an honor. It’s great to work with all the profs when we get together to perform or do masterclasses. Professor Rodney Whitaker has assembled quite the squad here.
What has been your favorite thing about being at MSU as a whole?
Our campus is gorgeous! There is simply a great group of faculty and students all across campus who work with us. My favorite thing about being at MSU is being on this fantastic faculty and working with all the eager and enthusiastic students. While most everyone was helpful in some way when I first got to campus, Dean James Forger, Professor Whitaker and faculty member Randy Gelispie – also known as “Uncle G” – were super warm and welcoming and made sure I had everything I needed. They were just like true family.
Tell us something about jazz at MSU that perhaps a lot of people don’t know.
We have four generations of mentorship going on within the MSU Jazz Studies area. Uncle G mentored Professor Whitaker. Professor Whitaker mentored Associate Professor Diego Rivera. We all mentor our students, and we watch our students mentor high school and middle school students in the area through our camps, workshops and private teaching.
When can we look forward to seeing and hearing you in East Lansing?
I always enjoy the chance to perform at the annual Summer Solstice Jazz Festival in East Lansing in June. This year, it’s super exciting to get to bring my band Creole Soul to town for the festival! I’ll be in and out of East Lansing throughout the year while I compose my new projects.