Trombone Shorty: Living for the Crescent City

Taking the sound and spirit of New Orleans to the world

“I’m married to [New Orleans],” says Trombone Shorty. “Everything I do is because of the city.” (photo by Mathieu Bitton)
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Opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shorty thrills at Madison Square Garden in February (photo by Sachyn Mital)
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Shorty and saxophonist BK Jackson in New York (photo by Sachyn Mital)
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Trombone Shorty hits the stage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in February with his namesake horn in one hand, a trumpet in the other and a clear sense of mission in his stride. The New Orleans native and his longtime band, Orleans Avenue—named after the street that runs through his Tremé neighborhood—are on a tour opening shows for the alternative-rock stars Red Hot Chili Peppers. But when Shorty lifts his ’bone for a solo in the first number, the metallic-funk instrumental “Slippery Lips,” he hits the air like the main event, firing a conqueror’s volley of long, high peals, soulful melodic flourishes and deep, cocky growls. It is the same jubilant prowess, steeped in New Orleans’ brass-band tradition, that marked him as a child sensation in Tremé street parades and has made him a crossover success in adulthood.

Now 31, Shorty, real name Troy Andrews—actually a long, lean man with a quietly firm, thoughtful demeanor in conversation—has been a working musician, leading his own bands and touring the world, for more than 25 years. He has also collaborated onstage and on record with a galaxy of stars in jazz, R&B and rock, including Queen Latifah, the rapper Mystikal, the late Crescent City trumpet elder Lionel Ferbos, British guitar heroes Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton and the rock band Foo Fighters.

“My roots are in New Orleans—I couldn’t run from that if I tried,” Shorty insists during a long, revealing interview at his New York hotel. “But I take those roots and put them with a new set of roots I’ve learned from outside the city.

“It’s really incredible,” he adds with wide-eyed awe, “where music can take you.”

That is an apt description of Parking Lot Symphony, Shorty’s latest album and first for Blue Note Records. The grandson of singer Jessie Hill (best known for the 1960 NOLA-R&B smash “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”), he was mentored in brass-band culture by his older brother, trumpeter James Andrews, and his cousin Glen David Andrews, a trombonist. That lineage is duly celebrated on the record in robust covers of vintage Meters and Ernie K-Doe tunes and a pair of funeral-horn processionals. But Shorty also threads his trombone and trumpet through silken ’70s R&B, radio-smart hip-hop and an exuberant, funky stretch of Tipitina’s futurism.

“I know I have a responsibility to represent the city of New Orleans,” Shorty says when asked what goes through his mind while he’s performing for 20,000 modern-rock fans. “Because everything that I am comes from there. My childhood, the things I’ve learned—it’s all coming out.

“Other than that, I don’t think too much,” he admits. “I’ve never really had a chance to think about music—about what I wanted to play—because I started when I was 4. The only thing I know is once I feel the vibration of the horn and the tones come out, the engine starts.”

Is there more wear and tear on your lips when you play a rock show?

I gotta be heavy. There’s already natural wear and tear because I use both mouthpieces. The trumpet goes on the lips; the trombone goes around. The muscle memory is confusing every day. But as soon as I put my horn down, I’m singing. On these rock tours, it’s compact, action-packed. But I took a little trick from Louis Armstrong and sing a little bit more to save my chops.

Did singing and bandleading come natural to you?

In New Orleans, everybody has a frontman—one guy who tap dances, plays washboard or sings. My grandfather was a singer. James was a singer in his band [the New Birth Brass Band]. Even when we were kids, he and my cousins kicked me up front. But it took a while for me to get comfortable. I switched from trombone to tuba for a while—I wanted to be in the back, way behind the drums.

Then when I got out of high school, I joined Lenny Kravitz’s band. I watched him warm up every day, how he took his vocal exercises. And I saw him control those audiences. I got attracted to that and watched him every night like a hawk.

Do you think that you missed a step as a musician—that you didn’t have a chance to analyze your gift or articulate your dreams because you worked so hard as a boy?

Maybe I did miss some opportunities. In school, I was able to have a nice balance—play basketball and football until I started messing up my hands. James saw me hurtin’ one day and said, “You’re gonna have to choose. You’re gonna bust your lip.” Music has always been there. I didn’t have a choice.

You had brothers and cousins bringing you along. Were your parents musicians?

My dad, at one point, was a cab driver. My mother made ceramic pieces and took care of the family. But my parents probably love music more than most musicians. And they can’t play anything. My dad was into the Mardi Gras Indians. He was in one of the street hangout tribes. They think they’re real Indians [laughs]. They just get together on the corner and sing. And my mom is still listening to Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye as if they just came out yesterday. She’ll come to my show, see me do something and go, “Well, Marvin already did that.” [grins] Oh, man.

What were the first jazz records you heard as a boy?

When I first heard jazz, it was when I went outside and saw a street parade. I grew up experiencing that music live. Then James had an album by Louis Armstrong. He didn’t give it to me; I think I stole it. It was older Louis, the Decca Records stuff [from the 1930s and ’40s]. That intrigued me. I heard this instrument—the trumpet—that I could see every day, playing this beautiful music that was also pop: “Wow, he’s playing all these high notes, and then he’s singing. But I can dance to it.” My mom would pick me up and we would dance to Louis Armstrong.

How did you end up with the trombone? There are amazing early photos of you playing an instrument twice as tall as you are.

The only problem I had was it was too heavy. Even today, I lean to the left. I try not to do that. I started on the drums like every kid, just bangin’. Then I had the world’s smallest trumpet. It was the real thing, not a pocket horn. I think James got it in Europe. But James felt all trumpet players [should] have a sidekick. He based that off of Louis Armstrong. He made me his sidekick trombonist.

At the beginning, I played it with a trumpet mouthpiece, because my mouth was too small. It changed the tone, making it higher. I couldn’t get low tones, pedal tones. But I was able to play really high. When I was older, I got a trombone mouthpiece. I was like, “I don’t like this one so much.”

Who were your trombone heroes?

I listened to J.J. Johnson in high school. But Fred Wesley [who played with James Brown and George Clinton in the 1960s and ’70s] is my guy. The people I grew up under, like Rebirth Brass Band, were influenced by the JB Horns more than anything else.

Fred Wesley is complete. If he wants to play standards, he can do that. I could hear his shapes, the way he was playing a phrase. I never got into transcribing. If I listen to something over and over, it will come out naturally. It’s like when you’re in the neighborhood. Somebody comes up with a word, some new slang. You pick it up without trying to be like them.

What was your vision for Parking Lot Symphony?

There is a bridge in the Meters’ cover “It Ain’t No Use”—acoustic guitar framed by saxes—that sounds like a folk-funk break from Beck’s 1996 album, Odelay. Then you come in with the trombone solo.

It takes it right back home. I understand how, to some people, when you put a horn up front, it’s automatically going to be jazz. But I grew up with people dancing around me, hitting my trombone and I’m falling down. That’s what I try to capture in the music—when I go home and see thousands of people marching down a street, jumping on cars, to this music of brass and drums. In New Orleans, people never forgot that jazz was dance music.

The album has a striking, almost narrative arc, like a jazz funeral in reverse. You put most of the party at the top—the Meters and Ernie K-Doe tunes; the straight-up hip-hop of “Familiar”—and end with instrumental roots and contemplation.

I didn’t think of it like that. But it is spiritual, the whole thing. When I wrote the tunes, I spent two weeks in the studio by myself. I had a Fender Rhodes piano, drums, my two horns, bass, guitar and tuba. I didn’t have any concepts. I just went for the imagination.

“Familiar,” that started with one of my nephews. Some of my family would come by, and of course they’re kids, they’re bored and want to play with their phones. My nephew was in the studio, and he was listening to some rapper on his headphones. It was so loud. I couldn’t understand the words, but I heard this rhythm, the hi-hat and snare. I took that and played my own thing on top of it. I still don’t know who the rapper was, but I could feel what my nephew was hearing from his body language. I was just taking this music from the atmosphere.

You may be the perfect definition of “crossover”—a brass-band prodigy cutting contemporary R&B while taking New Orleans second-line funk to rock fans.

It’s always crazy and funny to me. We play reggae festivals, punk-rock festivals. Whatever it is, that’s what they call my music that day. Or people say, “They’re saving jazz.” That’s not what we do. We play where we come from. We play with rappers. We play blues festivals. People are like, “We never heard blues like that by a trombone band.” We call it “New Orleans music,” and people just have to let their ears tell them what it is.

How would you describe the current state of the brass-band scene? Can you still hear the roots and traditions in the changes coming from new, young players?

They’re coming up with the Internet. They listen to hip-hop, what’s on the radio. They’re not thinking about rules or boundaries. They are creating from what they feel and experience. At some point, they’ll need to learn from something besides what they see. But their approach is changing the music. I hear things in the community—the way the drummers are playing the snare—that people weren’t thinking about 10 years ago. It’s moving the music forward without them trying.

I remember running into a fantastic group, To Be Continued Brass Band, a few years ago, just playing for change on Canal Street. Suddenly, in the middle of a dynamite jam, they hit the riff from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

You know what’s crazy? In that music, we get introduced to famous songs without knowing who it is. There’s a possibility they didn’t know where that riff came from, but they heard Jay Z sample it with Justin Timberlake [on the 2013 track “Holy Grail”]. Rebirth would play Michael Jackson songs with a street sound. I’d hear them some night, just eating some food, and never knew they were someone else’s songs. They played it and made it their own.

It depends on what’s traditional to you. You take a rock band like Maroon 5; their tradition may have started with the Rolling Stones. But the Stones were influenced by Fats Domino and Howlin’ Wolf. In New Orleans, we don’t consider Rebirth a traditional brass band. They changed the game. Someone from outside New Orleans will say, “We like the older, traditional music. We like Rebirth and Shorty.” But to me, the Preservation Hall band and the Olympia Brass Band—that is traditional music.

You started the Trombone Shorty Foundation and Academy in New Orleans at an age when most musicians are still learning the code of the road. And you still live in the city. Has success made you feel responsible for the vitality and future of the music—particularly the generations of players growing up amid the violence and economic upheaval left by Hurricane Katrina?

I’m married to the city. Everything I do is because of the city. I didn’t want to wait until I slowed down or retired to have an impact; I want to have it while I’m in my prime. I’ll see kids at a bus stop and say hello. Or they’ll call me on the phone and ask me what note I played on this particular song. I’ll be at a second-line or at the corner store, eating a po’ boy on my car, and people go, “What are you doin’? You’re really here?” Yeah, I never left. Crossing over doesn’t mean going away.

My mom raised me to be a giver, to always help out. Because there was always somebody who grabbed your hand to take you one step forward. It could have been a wino in front of a store. You were thinking of doing something bad, and he said, “Hey, how about if you go home and practice your instrument?” There’s people like that we always remember, and we pass it on.

Does it feel weird to be a grown man, now bigger than your trombone, and still be called Shorty?

Years ago, I did a show in New Orleans; the club owner put me on as “Troy Andrews,” and nobody showed up. A woman there said, “I thought that was you onstage. Why did you change your name?” I was talking to Juvenile, the rapper, and he said the same thing. “I’m a grown man, but I’m still Juvenile. You’re older and taller, and you’re still Shorty. I guess we’re gonna have to live with that.” It’s OK. It’s the music that matters.