Trombone Shorty: After The Storm
Photo credit: Justen Williams
Dumpstaphunk co-founder Ivan Neville, scion of New Orleans aristocracy, knows a few things about tradition and legacy. So when the keyboardist says that Troy Andrews—better known to the masses as Trombone Shorty—is leading the city’s music into the future and out to the rest of the world, his word is as good as gold.
“Coming from the Neville family, and having been called a torchbearer myself, I can say the music is in good hands,” says Ivan, the son of Aaron Neville, who has known Andrews since the latter musician was a preteen. “And I speak for all my peers when I say that. We all love Troy. We are all so proud of him and are comfortable where the music and the lineage are going. We are so proud of where he’s taking it. There are no boundaries to what he can do and how far he can stretch this New Orleans thing. I love it that he’s the one.”
Neville’s not finished yet. First, he wants to toss a few adjectives around. “Troy’s natural ability is totally astounding,” he continues. “His God-given talent is absolutely mind-blowing. When you hear this guy playing, you’re like, ‘Damn, he’s better at his instrument than anybody in the room.’ That’s the kind of command he has and the musicianship that he shows. And the work that he puts into it is unrelenting; he’s always trying to figure out a way to get better.”
At 36, Troy Andrews is too young to be called an icon but also too old to still wear the prodigy label that’s been affixed to him throughout much of his life. He was all of four years old when, hoisting his chosen instrument—significantly larger than he was at the time—he joined Bo Diddley onstage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Since then, Andrews has done a few things. In fact, he’s never stopped doing— until, of course, the pandemic hit. Then, like every other working musician, he suddenly couldn’t do. It was as if the world had stopped spinning.
“I’d never not played music and performed in front of a crowd in my life up until that point,” he says.
Now, as life slowly returns to what everyone once took for granted as normal, he’s back in his element.
“Man, it’s almost surreal,” Andrews says about playing live music in front of his fans again. “It’s just wonderful to see the smiles from people. And I’m smiling too while I’m onstage because we missed that connection. It’s a blessing to see people excited. And I’m probably more excited than they are—excited to be up there making some sounds.”
Some of the sounds that Trombone Shorty and his band, Orleans Avenue, are currently bringing to the stage come from their new album, Lifted. The cover of the album—Andrews’ second for the venerable Blue Note Records following a stay at Verve—features a black-and white snapshot depicting a very young Andrews being picked up by his mother, Lois Nelson Andrews, who passed away in November. The title song wasn’t written about what the photograph shows—it’s more about the sensation of being in love— but Andrews sees a line connecting that image to the song’s message.
“I wanted to write something that explains being lifted,” he says. “[The song] is about keeping our heads up. It’s about a woman that’s keeping me lifted and is compassionate. But then there was this picture of my mom and it just lined up perfectly; it just happened like that. It sends chills through me to think about it. It’s a perfect picture.”
Lifted, produced by Chris Seefried (Fitz and The Tantrums, Andra Day), arrives a full five years after Trombone Shorty’s previous LP, Parking Lot Symphony. He didn’t intend to take so long between releases, but he doesn’t blame COVID entirely. While the pandemic did impact how most bands could congregate in the studio for the better part of the past two years, even before that, Andrews barely had time to make his way back to Buckjump, his recording studio in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. “It was supposed to come out a while ago,” Andrews says about the album. “But mostly, we tour so much that I didn’t even realize that the years had gone by. And then, of course, the pandemic stopped everything. That definitely held us back a little bit.”
Much like New Orleans music itself, Lifted is an amalgam: It’s got elements of funk, rock, jazz, blues, soul and more. The album features special guests Gary Clark Jr., Lauren Daigle and The New Breed Brass Band. But attempting to pigeonhole it would be a fool’s errand. It’s Trombone Shorty music—that’s what it’s always been.
“Dr. John always said to me: ‘You’re a part of [the New Orleans tradition], but do your own thing,’” Andrews says. “And Allen Toussaint told me: ‘You don’t have to do what we do, but be part of this whole thing.’ I never forgot that—our job is to keep New Orleans up front and to represent the city. That inspired me.”
What comes through most of all on Lifted, and all of Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue’s recordings and live performances—besides the impeccable musicianship and the seamlessness of their musical hybrid—is their sheer dynamism. It is no easy feat to harness that explosiveness in the studio. Andrews says that the new album is the closest the band has come to bottling what fans get to experience at a live show.
“You know, we come from New Orleans and we play with a lot of power,” he says. “We play music from the soul and from our hearts. When we open up for people like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters, we take that experience in. When we see a band that we’ve been influenced by and we’re around them for three or four months on tour, it just amplifies that feeling. We’ll have different ideas and will play in different styles and do different approaches to see what works. I’m still trying to figure out how we do it.”
Certainly, Andrews had a front-row seat as he was growing up in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood, where, Ivan Neville cracks, “they breed musicians.” He didn’t have to go searching for that “whole thing”—it surrounded him. Andrews’ uncle, Jessie Hill, was a popular R&B singer who had a national Top-40 hit in 1960 with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Several of Andrews’ other relatives played music professionally as well—cousin Herlin Riley drums for Wynton Marsalis—and then there were all the other musicians in the neighborhood, some with national or even international reputations. Andrews grew up playing in the second line brass and-drum parades that are a regular sight on the streets of New Orleans. And he realized early on that the music he heard on a daily basis was a medley of styles and cultures.
“When I was coming up, I spent time with the Nevilles, which is a certain style of music,” Andrews says. “And then there’s my family, which is a certain style of New Orleans brass music. And then I would go play with different bands. So, to me, it was all music. The only difference was that, when I’d go to play on a stage with my brother James, we had a drum set and a piano and a guitar, and then I would go in the street, and it would be all horns and drums. You’d see thousands of people dancing and moving right beside you. All of that was a subgenre of New Orleans music, and I’m definitely influenced by that. It’s just different interpretations. You can hear that.”
Trumpeter James Andrews—the trombonist’s older brother by 17 years, who is known as the “Satchmo of the Ghetto”—had a profound influence on him. It was James who gave his little brother the nickname Trombone Shorty. “He’s my idol,” the Orleans Avenue leader says definitively. “I have to give him a lot of credit for where I am musically—and in life as well. He kept me on his side. He had a brass band that played in the street and he also would take me with him on every gig that he had. I would find myself onstage with legends, like The Neville Brothers and Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. I was 7-8 years old and I didn’t really know how impactful these people were yet. They continue to be a part of my life, but James is the one that put me in a position to be able to have all of these great experiences and even be in music. Once he saw me banging on some drums, he made it a point in his mind to keep me right next to him.
“In my house,” he continues, “all the musicians would come over and play and jam with my family—The Rebirth Brass Band, some of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I don’t think I ever had an option or a choice to not be drawn to music.”
Andrews’ stage name could have just as easily been Trumpet Shorty or Tuba Shorty. From the start, he was obsessed with music; his goal was to learn it all and to excel. The future trombonist learned to play several instruments and was schooled formally. By his teens, Andrews had turned pro, working not only with NOLA players but also national acts like Lenny Kravitz, whose influence can be detected in the Lifted track “Come Back.” As word of his skills spread, Andrews became a go-to collaborator and show opener—he’s worked with aforementioned acts likes Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as The Rolling Stones, Zac Brown, Jeff Beck and Ringo Starr—and he grew into a regular feature at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and other multi band festivals. Along the way, he also received several invitations to perform at the White House alongside some top-shelf celebrity guests.
“There was B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Gary Clark Jr. and Booker T. I played with Usher and Queen Latifah,” he says about those memorable occasions. “It was wonderful because I got to collaborate with these big stars that I love and I’m a fan of. Then, I opened my eyes and there was Michelle and Barack [Obama] and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Andrews has even had a custom Muppet designed in his likeness and is the subject of Trombone Shorty, a read-aloud picture book for Storyline Online, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Emmy nominated children’s literacy program.
Today, Trombone Shorty symbolizes contemporary New Orleans music for many. He doesn’t just play Jazz Fest—he’s the closing act, a great honor that in recent decades has gone to the late Dr. John and the now-defunct Neville Brothers.
This summer, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue will once again head back on the road, where they feel most at home. Their Voodoo Threauxdown tour begins on June 10 and will continue into August. Other New Orleans favorites—including Tank and the Bangas, Big Freedia, Cyril Neville and The Soul Rebels— will perform, and there’ll be a tribute to The Meters led by the great bassist George Porter Jr., and featuring Dumpstaphunk. One of the first stops on the tour will be Central Park SummerStage in New York City.
For all the recognition that he’s achieved, the music has always been Andrews’ key focus. Schooled formally at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, he is a strong advocate for music education, and for supporting the community that nurtured him. Andrews is the founder of the Trombone Shorty Foundation and the Trombone Shorty Academy, whose stated goal is not only to teach students how to play an instrument, but also to give them the tools they need to pursue music as a career or an avocation.
“People have taught me and looked out for me and I realized after the storm [Hurricane Katrina] that my neighborhood of Tremé would never be the same,” Andrews says. “I wanted to start the foundation, not only to teach the kids music. We have a program where they’re learning how to be sound engineers, and we have a music business course. I didn’t want the kids to get to a level where any of this would be foreign to them. I want to show them that music can be a passport, as it has been for me. We teach them everything. They can be the future of our lineage of New Orleans.”
One thing that students do not learn at Andrews’ institutions is how to play like Trombone Shorty. What does he tell a student who wants to do that? “I think one of the greatest accomplishments that an artist can have is when someone can hear one or two notes of your voice or your instrument in a particular song and know that it’s you,” he says. “So what I tell them is: ‘I will teach you what I know, but I would advise you to go listen to everybody and pick your own voice.’ I’m always honored that they come up and say things like that, but I would say, ‘Well, I’m me, and you can take whatever you want from me and from my style, but you should go develop your own thing. Because I’m already here. So you go be yourself.’ And they’re getting life lessons too. You have to have a well-rounded education. We don’t tell them that they have to play this [New Orleans] style of music, but you should know what it is and learn it. To be able to move it forward, you have to understand a little bit of it.
“I wanted to [start the academy and foundation] while these kids still think that I’m cool—before they think that I’m some old man,” Andrews concludes. “I’m on my way, but I’m not there yet.”