Interview: Trombone Shorty on Closing Out Jazz Fest, Keeping Music in Schools and More

Dean Budnick on May 11, 2019
Interview: Trombone Shorty on Closing Out Jazz Fest, Keeping Music in Schools and More

photo by Dino Perrucci

Troy Andrews was only four when he first appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Now 33, the lifelong Crescent City resident known as Trombone Shorty will once again close out this year’s Jazz Fest along with members of the Neville family.

Perhaps due to his precocity, Andrews has long taken an interest in the youth of his home city, providing instruments and instruction through the Trombone Shorty Foundation. He also has written two acclaimed children’s books, Trombone Shorty (winner of a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award) and The 5 O’Clock Band (nominated for an NAACP Image Award), which looks back on his own youth.

“I’ve received a lot of great feedback but the funniest thing for me is when these kids come to a show to meet me, and I disappoint them because they think I’m still a kid. I’ll tell them, ‘I’m Trombone Shorty,’ and they won’t believe me,” he says. “I have to explain, ‘I’m a grown man. I’m a bit older now.’”

The musician is currently working on a new studio album which, he explains, “sounds extremely funky.” Then he adds, “As I’m putting the songs together, I’m also starting to hear some featured solos and singers. So I think, on this one, I might invite a couple of my friends to join us.”

There’s a well-known photo of Bo Diddley watching you perform when you were only four years old. Do you have any memories of moment?

I remember marching in the second-line parade. I remember my mom walking me through the crowd to get a snowball after I played with my brother’s band. I guess that was my payment or my treat for walking in the hot sun and playing. My lips were so small that I used to play with a trumpet mouthpiece on a trombone, so it made a very weird sound, and I was able to get this loud note.

I do remember people picking me up, almost crowd-surfing me to Bo Diddley. I didn’t know who he was, of course, but I remember that.

You grew up in New Orleans, and one of your earliest bands also featured Jon Batiste and some musicians who still appear with you in Orleans Avenue. Is there a particular moment that jumps out at you from that era?

Jonathan Batiste, Christian Scott, Sullivan Fortner and most of my band all started playing together before we got to high school. We were probably 8-9 years old. We still, to this day, call and check up on each other.

Jonathan and I would actually miss class sometimes just so we could rehearse together in the practice room, because we were figuring out some things. He would teach me, and I would teach him, and it was just a wonderful thing. Then, we would go to class and “hip” the other students to what we’d been dealing with, and that would open up a whole other conversation. It was just a really special time, and it still feels special whenever we get a chance to play with one another.

Speaking of education, how did your foundation come about?

I started it to give away instruments to the schools because, sometimes, I would go there and the instruments would be pretty banged up. Then I started the Academy, where we teach music every Monday night. Not only do these kids learn music, but they also learn the music business. I just want to give them the tools because, growing up in New Orleans, I noticed that while we know how to make music, sometimes the music business part of it is a bit foreign. That hurt a lot of artists.

We have to make sure that music stays in the public schools because a lot of my friends would’ve definitely dropped out of school if they didn’t have the band. I was just driving down the street and there were kids marching with their snare drums, practicing—just out of the blue. It always warms my heart. It happens every other day; I’ll get off a flight and be driving home tired and, as I get closer to the city, there are kids at the bus stop playing their trumpets, mellophones and baritones. Music is king in this city. It’s a beautiful thing.

You’ve appeared with artists from many different genres over the years. Is there a particular collaboration that even you were surprised about?

I never saw any restrictions because I played the trombone. I always wanted to be like Lenny Kravitz and Prince. So while I’m not sure if anything surprises me, I did open for Zac Brown Band for about two months. I could always imagine us playing with people in the country arena but, with the first note I hit, I was like, “Oh, wow. That really just happened.” I also have been able to play with Dierks Bentley. It’s been great.

I jammed with Stevie Wonder, and we did a little trade-off. One time, during Jazz Fest, we played at the Playhouse club—where he played harmonica and I was playing the trumpet or the trombone—and we were playing off each other a little bit. That was incredible.

I’ll never forget being able to play at the Essence Festival in front of all those people and having Prince bring me out as a special guest in my hometown. That’ll forever be a memorable moment for me.

You’re closing out Jazz Fest again this year. What does that mean to you?

It means a lot. I used to play with The Neville Brothers when they were closing it out. Omari Neville, Cyril’s son, and I would jam with The Neville Brothers starting when I was 12-13 years old. We wanted to join The Neville Brothers band so we could feel what it’s like to close out Jazz Fest and, years later, the dream came true for me. It’s still very shocking and I’m just honored that Quint [Davis] had that much confidence in me. And to have some of them perform with me this year is just mind- blowing.

Closing out the festival, like The Neville Brothers did, lets me know that all of our hard work is being recognized. We can bring all the people who have seen us in Japan and Australia and have them mix in with our local crowd. It’s just a championship for me and my band. It’s what we look forward to every year.

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.