Motown trumpeter Johnny Trudell plays Dirty Dog the next four nights

Jan 25, 2017 at 8:00 am
Johnny Trudell, Motown’s most dependable trumpeter, plays four nights at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe

You may not know his name, but you probably love a song or two he performs on. Trumpeter Johnny Trudell is a rare type of musician these days: he joined the American Federation of Musicians in 1958 and is still in it (his union chapter is the Detroit Local 5), which has helped him make a living out of professional music his entire life. His most widely heard work is on too many classic Motown albums of the '60s and early '70s to name; not only did he develop the brass section and coordinate arrangers for the record company, but he was also lead trumpet player and recorded with everyone from Marvin Gaye and Martha Reeves to The Temptations, Four Tops, and numerous other groups.

Trudell actually saw the recording process at Motown evolve, but in a way that prevented him from spending much time with some of the other musicians: “When I first started, we used to record everything live in the studio, with the horns and rhythm section together. Then they decided to separate them into different rooms, so the sounds of the horns wouldn’t bleed into the rhythm section mics.”

In 1979, Trudell decided to release his first solo album: Dream Dance, an attempt to produce a disco jazz crossover hit. He recorded it right here in Detroit for a third of what it would have cost in California, but it was too late — by the time Dream Dance came out, disco had died, and the album didn’t take. Now it lives on (or something) as a well-produced, poorly-timed example of one of the weirder places jazz has been taken in an attempt to gain mainstream popularity.

A native Detroiter, Trudell’s connections do go beyond Motown: of course he knows Dennis Coffey because they worked together when Coffey was a Funk Brother. But they also crossed paths at Coffey’s production company with Mike Theodore and still encounter each other on the gigging scene to this day.

Trudell also graduated from Cass Tech High School, well-known as a breeding ground for notable jazz and classical musicians (including bassist Ron Carter, who reflected on his time there for us last year). Trudell just missed attending at the same time as legendary trumpeter Donald Byrd, but some other alumni that come to mind when he’s asked include Paul Chambers, Don Mayberry (who played with Dorothy Ashby), and Ralphe Armstrong — all bassists.

Members of beloved '70s independent label Tribe Records also pop up in Trudell’s past, although his connection to them is likely through the Motown stops on many of their musical journeys. Nevertheless, he has appeared on one of clarinetist/saxophonist Wendell Harrison’s albums, a live big band recording from 1992 and, as a fellow trumpeter and frequent presence in the local jazz scene, worked with the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave in many capacities too; Trudell was one of six horn players to participate in a trumpet salute at his funeral.

With a life spent playing music as much as possible, Trudell has naturally seen the industry completely transform. “Detroit had a lot of things going on back then,” he says. “It’s gonna resurface, but not in the same way.” In light of that, he feels quite lucky to have been able to experience music as a consistent, full-time job the way that he did.

Semi-retired now, he still practices every day and performs in various configurations, from big band/orchestra to more intimate settings like the one you have four chances to experience for yourself at the Dirty Dog this week.

See Johnny Trudell and a handful of select musicians perform contemporary jazz, standards, and more from tonight, Wednesday, January 25-Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, 97 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Farms; Sets at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.; No cover on Wednesday and Thursday; $15 on Friday and Saturday.