Obituary: Johnny Trudell, 1939-2021

Longtime trumpeter/bandleader Johnny Trudell passed away on May 31 at age 82 after a long career. He was born in Detroit on May 11, 1939, and attended Cass Tech where he graduated in 1958. He credits his music program director at Cass, Dr. Harry Begian, with teaching him the intricacies of band rehearsal, which came in handy when he became a bandleader. He was also influenced by two of his uncles on his mother’s side who were bandleaders. It is no wonder that Trudell’s first job as a bandleader was at thirteen years of age. His uncle Pete was a trumpeter and an early role model. He introduced Trudell to the music of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie and brought him and his aunt to see Gillespie at the Paradise Theater (now Orchestra Hall) on Woodward Avenue. When Trudell was a child he experienced many big bands live, including Ellington, Basie, and above all Tommy Dorsey. After seeing Dorsey at the Michigan Theater he told his aunt that he would one day play with that band. Which he did four years later! When asked to define his role as a musician he often replied “studio musician.” He was proud that he could master a number of styles of music, from New Orleans jazz to modern jazz to funk.

Soon after graduating from Cass he landed a job as bandleader on the Boblo boats, playing for people who visited Boblo Island. It was during his two-year tenure on the boats that he met Maurice King, a saxophonist who had led the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II and became leader of the house band at the Flame Showbar on John R in 1950. King’s band backed some of the top talent in African-American music until changing musical tastes forced the Flame out of business around 1964. King became a mentor for young Trudell and his entree into the black musical universe. The Flame was a primary source for early Motown talent and production staff, including Maurice King. Trudell became a regular in the Motown studios around 1962–1963 and played on many hit recordings until the label left Detroit in 1972. Trudell led his band (Johnny Trudell’s Horn Section) on Temptations Live! in 1966 and he was part of Marvin Gaye’s “What ‘s Going On” in 1971. The Temptations recording was made at the Roostertail restaurant on Detroit’s riverfront where Trudell led the house band. The recording remained on the Billboard Album Chart for almost a full year.

In the 1980s Trudell embarked on a new venture when he became leader of the band at the Fox Theater. This was a high-profile position, as the band backed many Broadway shows and singers like Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Trudell leaves behind relatively few recordings under his own name. Most recently (1993) he released But Beautiful, which includes a number of jazz evergreens, and features his soulful trumpet throughout.

Trudell was a founder of the Michigan Jazz Festival in 1995 where his crack big band always performed as the last band of the evening. In 2019 he was chosen as a Legacy Artist by the Detroit Jazz Festival. During an all-star big band performance, Trudell played a plaintive, soulful version of “Round Midnight” that brought forth a standing ovation from the packed room. Johnny Trudell was a beautiful spirit who touched everyone in the room that night. Trudell has been fortunate to have a son, Jeff, who is a prominent musician. Jeff started playing drums with his father at age seven and will take over several of the projects that his father was involved in. Jazz is clearly a family affair to the Trudells. The Trudell family encourages donations in Johnny’s name to the Michigan Jazz Festival, a project near and dear to Johnny.

Drummer Jeff Trudell led his quintet in a memorial to his father at Shield's in Southfield, Saturday, June 5