A life performing was practically predestined for Tom “TomCat Trumpet” Burke.
Growing up around musicians and the touring lifestyle as the son of a Broadway musician, Burke spent his early years moving around the country before his family settled in Glenview when he was in third grade. With a steady pulse of Broadway tunes in his veins, Burke said he knew music was going to be his life.
“I often said, and I’ve felt it to be true in my heart, that I really didn’t choose the trumpet. It kind of chose me,” he said. “As soon as I was old enough, there’s pictures of me super tiny holding a trumpet.”
Fast forward to today, when the Glenbrook South grad is 28 and still holding that trumpet. But his years in jazz bands have made way for nightclubs and yoga studios, and his colleagues are often DJs. Even though Burke’s path was laid out for him, he said, he needed to cast it aside and do some exploring, returning to it on his own.
But with his own spin.
“I feel like I knew it the whole time,” he said. “Every job that I worked in restaurants for many years, in my heart of hearts, I knew at some point I would come back to music.”
Burke saw his chance when he was encouraged to perform in 2018 at Electric Forest, the annual four-day jam and electronic music festival held in Rothbury, Michigan, he had been attending for years. He locked down a gig as a character performer in a 1940s-style speak-easy tucked away in the back. But he brought his trumpet along.
“It became a hit! I would just walk around playing classic jazz tunes,” he said. “I stumbled across a couple of DJs who were like, ‘Hey, man, why don’t you come play with me?'”
TomCat Trumpet was born. And when he returned home, Burke was charged up to perform again.
Instead of jumping into the orchestra pit like his dad or stepping back into a jazz band, in pre-COVID times, Burke started spending more evenings accompanying DJs at clubs, combining his twin loves of trumpet and dance music. Working more with music producers around Chicago, Burke quit his restaurant job in favor of forging a new path on the music scene.
“I started doubling down on hustling and gigs. I also stopped drinking. I stopped partying, and I literally just made gigging and my career my sole focus,” he said. “As I got more clear and more motivated, the more gigs I got. I got to play Prism Nightclub. I got to play at the Green Mill. I got to play the Aragon. The more places I got to play, the more hungry I got for just sharing my performance with more and more people.”
He started new collaborations with different DJs of different styles. He returned to Electric Forest, as well as playing Spring Awakening and many of the clubs around Chicago. He’s been leveling up his production skills, setting up a home studio, focusing more on writing his own music and has a clothing brand on the verge of release. He also held a year-and-a-half residency at Alive One in Chicago, where his monthly TomCat Trumpet Experience brought artists, poets, musicians and often onstage collaborations with his dad. But that was before the COVID-related lockdowns.
“If I’m being completely honest, there were a couple months throughout the quarantine when my inspiration was lost because live performance is the main aspect of the trumpet,” he said. “It was just really tough to find the motivation, really tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel when I’m going to be onstage again.”
Having taken yoga classes, he turned his focus to that for motivation.
“I used to do a lot of rock climbing and stuff like that, but all those gyms closed and I just needed to stay active,” he said. “Yoga and movement really helped me with my mental health, and I’ve actually tried to push some of my other friends who are musicians and independent contractors to try it to keep up with their mental health.”
That opened yet another career opportunity. Working with his booking agent, Kice Akkawi at Treblemonsters, Burke started curating playlists for and playing music at livestreaming and then in-person yoga sessions with partner Emily Blackwell at Wrigleyville’s 365-viii, a venue with a retractable roof, making it safer during quarantines.
“It was really a loophole for me because I couldn’t go out and play shows, but because it was a fitness class, it was still allowed at the time,” he said. “So that’s where that hustle aspect came into it because it’s not a gig … but it’s still a gig! It ended up being something we’re both really passionate about and we had fun doing it.”
Burke’s biggest project on the near horizon is the five-day Rise & Vibe Yoga and Wellness Retreat he, Blackwell and his agency are running in Cancun, Mexico, March 4-8. Burke said he’ll be providing the music for the sunrise and sunset yoga sessions each day.
And after that tropical recharge, you better believe TomCat Trumpet will be back and ready to hustle.
“There’s no greater feeling in the world than being out there and making music, playing trumpet and having people just lose it, you know?” he said. “It’s all about the experience. The more I got lucky enough to be able to share that experience, the more I realized that this is the way I want to live my life.”