Ernie Cagolatti was a trumpet player in the the New Orleans jazz scene for much of the twentieth century.
Ernie “Cag” Cagnolatti, also known as “Lil Cag,” was a traditional jazz, swing, and brass band trumpeter from New Orleans. With a performance career spanning over half the twentieth century, Cagnolatti performed with many jazz greats, including Herbert Leary, Sidney Desvigne, Oscar “Papa” Celestin, Alphonse Picou, and Paul Barbarin. Also a sought-after brass band musician, Cagnolatti played with the Onward brass Band, the Tuxedo Brass Band, and more throughout his career.
Ernest Joseph Cagnolatti was born to Leonce and Anna Cagnolatti on April 2, 1911, in Madisonville, Louisiana. They were a musical Italian family. Ernie’s older brother, Claibere, was a drummer in Bunk Johnson’s band when Ernie was a child. Though he had begun his musical training on drums, Ernie has said that it was Bunk Johnson’s influence at that time that led him to choose trumpet as his primary instrument. Claibere was involved in bringing Ernie from Madisonville to New Orleans in 1919, an auspicious move that resulted in a long musical career in the city.
Cagnolatti’s first professional gig in New Orleans is thought to have been in 1928, when he performed with Lionel Tapo. By 1932 Cagnolatti had made enough of a name for himself to begin performing with Herb Leary’s society swing band, playing for dances and parties in the city, a gig that would last for a decade. During this period, Cagnolatti’s affiliation with African American evangelist Mother Catherine Seals at her ministry village, known as “The Manger,” resulted in his playing trumpet at her services, during which he was elevated by ropes in the role of the archangel Gabriel.
Performing a more standard traditional jazz repertoire with Sidney Desvigne and Papa Celestin in the 1930s, Cagnolatti distinguished himself as a consistent and talented player. In 1951 he began playing with Paul Barbarin at clubs, such as the Mardi Gras Lounge in the French Quarter. That ensemble also toured occasionally and included a trip to play the famous Savoy in Boston. In 1953 Cagnolatti began playing with Bill Matthews at the famed Paddock Lounge on Bourbon Street, a gig that would last through the end of that decade. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Cagnolatti also performed in several brass bands, including the Tuxedo, Onward, and Eureka brass bands.
In the 1960s Cagnolatti’s trumpeting was sought out by both trombonist Big Jim Robinson and bandleader Harold Dejan, both of whom he accompanied on numerous occasions. Although he participated in some of Ken Mills’s earliest pass-the-hat sessions at Preservation Hall before its official opening in June 1961, Cagnolatti was at Preservation Hall only rarely in the 1960s. In the 1970s, however, he played at the venue more frequently, especially after Dede Pierce’s death in 1973. Despite having a leg amputated in 1970, which brought about an unfortunate end to Cagnolatti’s brass band career, he continued to perform at Preservation Hall until 1980, when he suffered a stroke that ended his performing career completely. He died on April 7, 1983, and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery Number 2 in New Orleans.