Etienne Charles will return to the Kerrytown Concert House this Saturday for the release of his fourth album, Creole Soul. Charles’s jazz mirrors his own cultural diversity, drawing from the musical traditions of his roots. Creole Soul is in many ways continuing this style.
Saturday at 8 p.m.
Kerrytown Concert House
“Definitely an expansion,” Charles said, “and a lot less caution.”
Charles has taught jazz at Michigan State for the past four years. Originally from Trinidad, Charles moved to Tallahassee, Fla., and later New York in pursuit of a career in jazz performance. While a person of diverse culture and an artist of diverse style, Charles does not look to brand himself as unique.
“I’m not necessarily promoting (cultural diversity),” Charles said. “I’m a living example of cultural diversity. Anyone who lives in America is an example of cultural diversity. … There are certain people that forget that America is the land of immigrants. So many people say that they are American and immediately forget that their grandfather is Polish and their grandmother is Italian.”
“Whether they accept it or not or actually know that it is relevant is a different story,” Charles added.
His first album, Culture Shock, served a dual purpose in this regard. Culture shock generally refers to a state of dishevelment or disorientation when confronting cultural displacement. For Charles, the shock was both his own upon entering the music industry, and an attempt, through his music, to create a sense of culture shock with the reminder of our own forgotten roots in cultural diversity.
To convey this message, jazz was the natural medium of choice.
“In respect to the genre … (jazz is) supposed to include many different styles of music because that’s what jazz is at the core,” Charles said. “At the core of this music, there are many different cultures that contributed to it. So I’m really just continuing that tradition of bringing new styles to the table.”
Having performed jazz since his late teens, Charles has taken his music around the world. However, for him, it’s always the audience that is most important.
“I think it depends on the audiences,” Charles said. “I like audiences to be themselves and to contribute themselves to the musical experience. … There are those special places all around the world.”
The jazz club scene has ebbed and flowed over the past century, and in Ann Arbor, the jazz clubs, with the closing of the Firefly, have all but vanished.
“I moved to Michigan after (the Firefly) closed, so I missed that bus completely,” Charles said. “And they still talk about it. The same way they talk about the Village Gate in New York. Or Bradley’s or Augie’s. All of these different, famous clubs that used to be major hangouts for the young musicians to meet the older legends.”
“Clubs will fold all the time,” Charles added. “But we’re not losing what we have, the bond between the band and the audience. And we can take that anywhere.”
In response to this shortage of venues, Charles has encouraged his students at Michigan State to create their own spaces. While the students of the Michigan State Jazz Studies Program have university spaces like concert halls to perform, the greater East Lansing community, for a while, lacked its own jazz venues.
“When I started teaching, students came to me saying, ‘We don’t have any places to play,’ ” Charles said. “And I said, ‘Well, go find some.’ We put on our suits and went to the nicest restaurant in town and said we want to play some jazz for you. We’ll play for X amount of dollars and dinner. And they were like, ‘OK, fine.’ And we’d do it for a little while, and some of them caught on and some of them didn’t. There was one place we played every Saturday night for four years. It became the jazz club in town.”
Despite this shortage, Charles is optimistic about the Michigan jazz scene, a scene that, with Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, boasts of the world’s oldest operating jazz club.
“There’s definitely a great culture of jazz in Michigan, and it’s heavily rooted in tradition, but there’s a lot of innovation,” Charles said.
Much of the continuation of this legacy will likely come from the schools.
“There is a high level of musicianship among young musicians in the state of Michigan,” Charles said.
“The level is extremely high at (Michigan State),” Charles said. “I’m not just saying that because I teach there. It’s just based on the community aspect of it. It’s like a family. Every year it sees students grow, and when they leave, we miss them.”