my long story on trombone shorty

JAZZIZ Magazine
Cover Story, Winter 2011

Out of New Orleans 
The remarkable rise of Trombone Shorty

By Larry Blumenfeld 

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Hurricane Irene bore down on New York City in late August. The forecasts sounded dire. An email from a Long Island music club called Stephen Talkhouse announced that a scheduled performance by Trombone Shorty and his Orleans Avenue band was canceled. "Having lived through Katrina," the promoter explained, "they have opted to head home." 
A week later, having returned to New York, Troy Andrews -- Trombone Shorty's given name -- rubs the sleep from his eyes at a midtown Manhattan hotel. "Imagine that," he says, in a soft, direct voice. "A New Orleans musician going home to avoid a hurricane." The breakfast sandwich a publicist had provided sits untouched, either simply because Andrews isn't hungry or perhaps due to the disdain most people born and raised in New Orleans feel about food in cities other than their own.
Andrews knows a great deal about the threat of a hurricane. He's even better acquainted with the enduring lure of the unique characteristics, from food to music to the warmth of everyday life, that distinguish New Orleans. We'll never know precisely how many former residents of New Orleans remain displaced since the levees broke in 2005 despite wishes to return. But Andrews is among the many who did return. He was raised to be a musician, and in New Orleans that nearly always means, among other things, projecting what's special about your hometown through your work. Andrews has devised fresh ways of doing that. At 25, his nascent career beyond New Orleans is hot. Hence the bleary eyes. "We did a gangsta tour of Europe," he says. "Hard core -- 29 shows in 31 days with just about that many flights." 

Several hours later, after sitting in with The Roots for a taping of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon", " Andrews is a ball of energy on the stage of a small Lower East Side club called The Box. His eyes concealed behind stylish sunglasses, his sinewy frame leaning forward, his feet planted like a boxer's, his trombone pointed straight ahead, he plays crisply articulated lines and, when singing, is as smoothly declarative as any R&B singer. When he switches to trumpet, the notes come brightly, often high and sweet, much like those of a Cuban player today or an early New Orleans jazzman. The big, dense sound of his Orleans Avenue band contains the heft of arena rock, the crunch of heavy metal, the scruffy textures of alternative rock, and the bottom-heavy throb of hip-hop. Running through it all, suggested more by the horns than drummer Joey Peebles' beats, is the insistent, rolling groove of a New Orleans parade. At precise moments during "Hurricane," a track from his Grammy-nominated 2010 CD "Backatown," Andrews entices the crowd to shout "Hey!" For most dancing in the audience, this must seem a typical hands-in-air dance-club impulse. But when I speak to Andrews about the construction of the song and about that "Hey!" he says he was thinking of that moment -- anyone who attends Sunday second-line parades in New Orleans knows it -- when the Rebirth Brass Band issues its call and the second-liners respond.
Andrews coined the term "supafunkrock" several years ago to describe the music he and his band make. Many among the enthusiastic, mostly young and white crowd packed into The Box know him via his latest CD, "For True" (Verve), already atop "Billboard"'s contemporary jazz chart. Some have been drawn to his music through his recurring role in the HBO series "Treme", which chronicles post-Katrina New Orleans largely through its jazz culture. Andrews was a necessary bit of casting there, given his primacy to the city's real-life scene. 

TREMÉ, THE NEIGHBORHOOD from which the HBO series draws its name, has long been a hothouse for New Orleans jazz. You can hear the Treme Brass Band on Wednesday nights at the Candlelight Lounge on North Robertson, or sometimes just wending its way through the streets in a parade. Or it could be any number of other musicians parading through the streets, marking a birth, a death, a graduation, a return home from prison, or just expressing joy. Troy Andrews grew up in the heart of Tremé, in a green house with a brick facade and orange shutters on Dumaine Street. Like his contemporaries, he was schooled by local heroes with memorable nicknames like "Tuba Fats" and "Frog."
By now, Trombone Shorty's own colorful moniker is a misnomer. Andrews stands 5'11" and is just as likely to impress these days with a trumpet. ("Maybe they'll start calling me Trumpet Slim," he jokes.) As a toddler, he would march down his street, beating on cardboard boxes with tree branches or blowing into plastic soda bottles -- make-believe horns -- in mock second-line parades. When he was 5, he was playing trombone for real in parades. During one, his older brother James, 16 years his senior and often referred to as "Satchmo of the Ghetto," shouted out the nickname. It stuck. 
"You've got to understand there's a long history of people playing music in our family," James explains in the warm rasp of a voice that, along with his crowd-pleasing trumpet playing, earned his nickname. On a lovely October afternoon in New Orleans, James is sitting in Jackson Square, near the venues where he began playing for cash as a teenager and where he drew Troy into the action at an even younger age. The history he references includes James and Troy's grandfather, Jessie Hill, who wrote "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," a seminal R&B hit. Hill's brother-in-law, Lawrence "Prince La La" Nelson, was a singer and songwriter whose father played with R&B pioneer Smiley Lewis and whose brother, Walter "Papoose" Nelson Jr., worked with Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. James, who first played in an important revival-era brass band led by banjoist Danny Barker, brought that family tradition squarely into jazz focus. Troy and most of his siblings and cousins passed through James' All-Star Brass Band, as did trumpeter Nicholas Payton. So many members of the Andrews clan dot the city's brass bands today that it would be difficult to imagine New Orleans music without them. One cousin, Derrick Tabb, 11 years older than Troy, is snare drummer in the Rebirth Brass Band; another, Glenn Hall, nine years younger, plays in the upstart Baby Boyz Brass Band. Trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews, yet another cousin, is on any given night the most electrifying and gifted musician in town. Offstage, he's one of the city's most forceful cultural advocates.
   Troy always stood out, according to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Though raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, Ruffins spent much of his teen years at the Tremé home of tuba player Philip Frazier and his bass drummer brother, Keith, as an original member of their Rebirth Brass Band. "I remember seeing this little kid with a trombone," Ruffins says. "Then next time he had a big old tuba. Then I turned around and he had a trumpet. Before I knew it, Troy was out-blowing everybody on the street. Little skinny kid playing the highest notes, playing the strongest and the slickest stuff."
"I'm the one who took Troy off the front porch," James says. "I got him a little suit and took him around the world on tour: Cuba, Japan, Paris, Dubai." Back at home, Tremé was a warm and inviting place. Folks on Dumaine Street would hang out, share their cooking, converse from porch to porch. Every now and then the reverie would be interrupted by gunfire, often emanating from the nearby Lafitte housing projects where their grandmother lived. When Troy was 10, another older brother, Darnell ("D-Boy") was fatally shot there. "He was one hell of a trombone player, too," James says.
"After my brother died, my family was so devastated," James continues, "I had to catch my little brother. I vowed that I would protect him and guide him and pamper him. I had a recording out. I was on a good ride. I tapped my own resources and my friends." He asked Susan Scott, his manager at the time, to take in Troy. Scott, who came from a distinguished Atlanta family and lived in an upscale neighborhood near the bayou, and who died of cancer in 2007, became what Troy calls his guardian angel. "If not for Susan, I don't know what I would have become," he says. "I'm not talking about Trombone Shorty now. I'm talking about Troy, the man." Scott tutored him in academics and had a newspaper -- required reading -- ready with his breakfast. 
At James' urging, when Troy was in eighth grade, Scott arranged for him to audition at the prestigious New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, whose alumni include Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. He was admitted a year early. 
Andrews recalls his audition. "I was pulling out my horn and Clyde [late trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr.] explained, 'Little brother, we already know you can play. It's easy for you to get in here, but harder to stay in.' He gave me sheets of scales and chords to learn overnight. When I was growing up in Tremé, I learned by sitting there and having people show me. NOCCA gave me the tools to approach things from a technical standpoint and not just guess off my ears."
NOCCA also introduced Andrews to a divide that separates traditional New Orleans and modern post-bop styles of jazz. "They didn't really talk about Louis Armstrong there or about the repertoire I learned growing up. They were like, 'Man that's not really swinging,' because it was so simple and funky."
Pianist Jonathan Batiste, who now lives in New York and recently graduated from the Juilliard School of Music, attended NOCCA during the same period and was a member of an early edition of Andrews' Orleans Avenue band. He and Andrews felt an instant affinity. "We were both searching for a sound that broke local stereotypes but somehow stayed true to our roots," says Batiste, who was impressed with Andrews' playing right off. "Even then, Troy could get a sound from his horn that was intense and had a certain conviction that was rare for such a young man."
The cover of 2005's "The End of the Beginning", credited to the Troy Andrews Quintet, shows the group's leader in a dark suit and tie. On the recording, Andrews, joined by guests including pianist Ellis Marsalis and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, plays straightahead jazz and New Orleans classics. He looks more relaxed in an open-collared shirt and jeans on the cover of of "Orleans and Claiborne", his second album with Orleans Avenue, released that same year. That latter recording reveals a truer identity, still in formation. But by the time these recordings were released, guitarist Lenny Kravitz had tapped Andrews for a national tour. For the moment, he put his Orleans Avenue on hold. 

DURING A TWO-WEEK BREAK from Kravitz's 2005 tour, Andrews was back home, scheduled to sit in with the Rebirth Brass Band, when Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans. Once Rebirth's gig was cancelled, "I knew things were serious," he says. "It was time to get out." When he awoke in a Dallas hotel after driving all night, Andrews saw family members and fellow musicians wading through water on TV.
Seventeen days after the disaster, George W. Bush addressed the nation from the French Quarter's Jackson Square. "Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line," Bush said. Troy and James Andrews were there, in the glow of generator-powered lights. They'd been brought in to play on NBC's broadcast. Legend has it that when cornetist Buddy Bolden used to blow his horn, the sound would echo throughout the city and across the Mississippi River. "I thought about that," Troy says. "I blew my horn and it bounced right back to me. The city was empty."
For Troy, the moment held potent meaning. "James and I came back to let them know we were here, that all this won't die out," he says. "We needed New Orleans and New Orleans needed us. I made up my mind right then: I'm going back and I'm going to help lead the new New Orleans."
In October 2006, Andrews and his band were holed up in the "gumbo room" within the Music Shed studio in Uptown New Orleans, which he shares with his cousin Derrick Tabb. The mood was friendly but intense. Andrews showed guitarist Pete Murano precisely how and where a riff should fall. "No, that's not funky enough, make it like the Neville Brothers,' he said. "Whatever you do, keep up the intensity," he instructed his band later. "This is not jazz." Then Andrews cut the lights, demanding that even cellphones be turned upside down to eliminate their glare. "Our ears become our eyes," he explained later. "That's how we get tight."
Andrews had been on tour with Kravitz for months after the flood. When he returned, he had a newfound fire within him and some very specific ideas about his band. "I'll never forget this," Andrews says. "I came back and we played a show, and I was frustrated. I was looking at the clock. We were still jamming, but Lenny had taught me to create something precise. I needed that." Bassist Mike Ballard, who first met Andrews as a 10-year-old at the annual Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong Summer Camp, recalls the shift in emphasis. "We weren't jamming anymore," he says. "We had a formula." For drummer Joey Peebles, "It really did go from throwing something together to 'Hey, you missed your part.'" 
By early 2008, Andrews' appeal had gone viral, literally. On the NBC show "Sunset Strip", Andrews had a bit part, portraying a New Orleans evacuee subbing on a Christmas show, playing "O Holy Night" on trumpet. Viewer response to that performance was overwhelming, prompting NBC to release the song as a free download from the network website. Meanwhile, the Orleans Avenue formula continued to take shape. 
A few months later, at 2 a.m. on a Monday night during the week of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Andrews took the stage at Tipitina's, the Uptown club that's been a home to New Orleans music stars from Professor Longhair to the Neville Brothers. Stevie Wonder was rumored to be a special guest. Andrews imbued the typically dirge-like New Orleans classic "St. James Infirmary" with an uptempo Latin groove, flecked the melody of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" with bebop phrases on trumpet, and used his trombone like a lead guitar on the Guess Who's "American Woman." Somewhere in the middle of "Get Your Groove On," the bombast subsided, and he and his tenor saxophonist traded phrases that, slowed down and shifted in rhythmic emphasis, would have fit at Preservation Hall. By 6 a.m., it was clear that Stevie Wonder wasn't going to show. The crowd didn't seem to care.
Around that same time, Andrews was among the featured musicians in a Jazz at Lincoln Center's "Kings of the Crescent City" concert, focused on early New Orleans jazz. Among the musicians onstage, Andrews likely had the least experience with the repertoire. Yet when it came time to solo on an Armstrong piece, Andrews lifted a trumpet and blew with enough power, bite and soul to bring the upscale, reserved audience to a roar. He stole the show. Which doesn't mean that he overly identifies with traditional New Orleans jazz. Similarly, unlike the many NOCCA-educated musicians who followed a path inspired by the sound of Miles Davis' mid-'60s bands (often to brilliant effect), Andrews has been more influenced by Davis' autobiography than his band concept. "I felt a connection when Miles talked about moving forward, not backward, finding your own horn," he says. "When I read that, I thought, 'I'm sticking with what I'm doing.' When I came back to New Orleans and started doing this heavy rock thing, a lot of people -- my own relatives -- were like, 'What are you doing?' Some of them were offended. I love all the music that came before me. I honor it. I'm a student of that music. But that doesn't mean I have to keep recycling."
Kermit Ruffins says he loves Andrews like a brother and cheers his success, yet still pines for the moment when the two played "On the Sunny Side of the Street" together on "The End and the Beginning". "I was like, 'We got one of the baddest cats from right around the corner playing jazz.' I was in love with that situation. Then, all of a sudden, he changes on me. And I'm thinking, 'Oh, Shorty, why in the hell you want to do that?'"
Ben Ellman, who first sat in on saxophone with Ruffins when he landed in New Orleans in 1989, and who is now a member of the jam-happy, funked-up New Orleans-based band Galactic, helped craft the sound of Andrews' last two CDs as producer. On "For True", his one point of disagreement with Andrews, he says, came over "On the Sunny Side of the Street." "I wanted him to record it, but in a strange, atypical way," Ellman says. "Troy wouldn't touch it, wouldn't go there, not any way. He wants to create his own context now."
 "In the New Orleans music community, I sometimes hear grumbling about Troy's music," says Blake Leyh, who, as music supervisor for HBO's "Treme", has employed nearly every New Orleans player of note during the show's first two seasons. "It's not just the usual sour grapes, although that is of course always a factor when a beloved son of the city finds success. But beyond that, people have a real beef with the music. They think it's not jazz or it's not New Orleans enough or it's too rock or it's too loud or it's too commercial or it's too white. I think what Troy is doing is exactly what the tradition needs. Keeping the traditional music alive and playing the standard repertoire in a traditional way -- that's a vital part of the living history of jazz and New Orleans music, and there are plenty of people who are doing that and have always done that. But no one else can do what Troy Andrews does."
Several of the guest artists featured on "For True" -- from Jeff Beck to Kid Rock to Lenny Kravitz -- indicate Andrews' broad musical interests and his appeal to established stars. (Beck, Andrews recalls, was waiting for him in Tipitina's dressing room following one gig, and soon signed Andrews to open for him on tour.) Others -- like Cyril and Ivan Neville, who thicken and embolden the funk on the stirring "Nervis," and the Rebirth band, whose sound anchors the opening track, "Buckjump" -- underscore Andrews' debt to previous generations of hometown funk stars and jazz musicians. Rapper 5th Ward Weebie is also in the mix of that first track, reflecting the fact that hip-hop and second-line cultures draw from and serve the same neighborhood streets in New Orleans (and that Andrews grew up on those sounds, too). 
Yet the album sounds like rock. And funk. And R&B-based pop. It's engineered music for the most part, largely crafted in the studio from inspired takes, and far removed from the organic feel of Tremé's brass bands or anything that might be called swinging jazz. Neither does it closely resemble Orleans Avenue's early releases or their current high-energy shows. Rather, the disc is the purest example of the formula Andrews has honed ever since he returned from touring with Kravitz, after Katrina. Still, listen closely enough and the music speaks from beginning to end of Andrews' roots, in cowbell beats and layered horn harmonies and riffs ripped from traditional-jazz classics. "For True" begins and ends with "Lagniappe," an overdubbed second-line theme that carries the spiritual fervor and rhythmic imperative of a good street parade, albeit looped and edited to pop-savvy concision. 

IN ONE EARLY EPISODE OF HBO's "Treme", Andrews sat in the green room prior to a New York City post-Katrina benefit concert, eating a slice of pizza and talking to fictional trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (played by Rob Brown), who had moved from New Orleans to New York following the flood.
Don't you miss home?" Andrews asked.
Delmond didn't miss a beat. "In New Orleans, they hype the music but they don't love the musicians. The tradition is there but that city will grind you down if you let it."
How would the real Troy Andrews complete that fictional scene? "I wouldn't say 'for true' to that," he says. "They love me, and I love them. End of story."
Nevertheless Andrews is painfully aware of the hard times faced by many New Orleans musicians these days, not to mention the social and political forces within the city that often inhibit and even suppress the culture in which he was raised. Those conditions aren't entirely new. A 1996 picture by Matt Rose that ran in the New Orleans newspaper "The Times-Picayune" showed Andrews, age 10, playing his tuba. Next to him is snare drummer Sammy Cyrus (now a member of the Hot 8 Brass band), wearing a sign around his neck: "I Was Arrested for Playing Music." "It was my band, and we were protesting," Andrews says. "We got shut down." The noise ordinance and police comportment in question back then remain subjects of fierce debate. Just last year, brass bands were again shut down in the French Quarter. (These policies are currently under review by a city council task force.) 
Andrews was more deeply troubled when, in 2007, his cousins Derrick Tabb and Glen David Andrews were hauled off in handcuffs after police shut down a memorial parade in Tremé. A resident had phoned in a complaint. The charges -- "parading without a permit" and "disturbing the peace by tumultuous manner" -- were eventually dropped. But the ante had been upped up in the fight over the city's culture, which has intensified amid the long struggle to rebuild the city. "That one was worse," Troy says. "You can't stop that in my old neighborhood."
Tremé isn't what it once was. Home and apartment prices have risen steeply since 2005. The Treme Brass Band still plays every Wednesday night at the Candlelight Lounge, but now there's a cover charge and an audience dominated by tourists. On the next block, a brightly painted new coffee shop advertises lattes for $3.50. These are not inherently bad things. Yet many longtime residents lament how few musicians now live in the neighborhood and complain that some among the new residents are unaccustomed to or even offended by treasured rituals like, say, a parade down their street. 
One sunny October day, on the stretch of Dumaine Street that was Andrews' childhood home, Merline Kimball sat on a friend's stoop. She recalled hearing Troy Andrews practicing on the very first horn he owned, a bit too early for her liking, when she lived in the Creole cottage across the street. "The sound of this place is mostly gone," she said. "The smells are gone. But we all come back. Most of us, anyway."
Andrews knows it's unlikely that a kid will grow up surrounded by precisely what shaped him. "But we can save a part of this, even a small part," he says. His mother, Lois, now lives Uptown, in a condominium he bought last year. When he's not on the road -- he played more than 200 dates last year -- he stays with her. His father, James, known throughout Tremé as "12" for an often-winning dice roll, lives a few blocks away. Andrews has no intention of leaving New Orleans. 
"If all the musicians who grew up here leave, then we're all gone," he says. "Then this place is just a breeding ground for talent. But there's something else. People that move from here -- I've listened to them play, and the connection is not really there any more, musically. It's some other type of thing. I just want to be able to have that feeling, to keep it with me." 


Call and Response

In January 2007, after thousands of New Orleans residents marched to City Hall protesting a lack of police protection after a wave of murders, trombonist Glen David Andrews, Troy's cousin, rose to a podium. "We are young black men preaching culture," he shouted. A chant erupted. "Music in the schools!"
Later that year, Troy Andrews' cousin, snare drummer Derrick Tabb, founded Roots of Music. The citywide, year-round, tuition-free music education and mentoring program currently serves 132 low-income students, who work toward performing in the city's largest middle-school marching band, the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders. Troy has helped in that effort from the start, and now serves on the organization's board. He's also an ardent supporter of the Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong Summer Camp, of which he was among the founding class, at age 10. 
Now he's put his own imprint on the idea of giving something back -- literally. He showed up recently at KIPP McDonogh 15 Middle School, the building where he attended kindergarten through 7th grade, alongside New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, to speak about the importance of the arts in education and staying in school. Troy presented the school's music students with professional-level trumpets and trombones, designed to his specifications and imprinted with his name, inaugurating his own "Horns for Schools Program." --LB 

December 20, 2011 11:50 AM |


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