Travis Hill can really blow a horn and hit some remarkably high notes on his trumpet. On hearing Hill as a member of trombonist Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet or sitting in with his cousin trumpeter James Andrews, the response is often, “Hey, who is that?” Someone who’s been on New Orleans scene since back-in-the-day might answer, “Oh, that’s Trumpet Black. When he was a kid he used to play with Trombone Shorty’s Brass Band.” They remember the talented young trumpeter and singer who would be out at Jackson Square or at Donna’s Bar and Grill with his cousin, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ group. He also played sporadically with the New Birth, Lil Rascals and the Hot 8 brass bands until, when he was still a teenager, he was incarcerated for eight years and nine months for armed robbery.
“I was a young kid when I went in and I came out as a man,” Hill, 27, says admitting some “bad decisions” he made in his life. Upon his release in 2011, Hill’s first gig was again performing with Shorty for a Christmas show at the House of Blues. He also jumped back in with the New Birth Brass Band. “The New Birth will always be home for me,” Hill declares. “I just started to play gigs around town with people who I knew before I was incarcerated—Galactic, Big Sam [Williams], my cousin Glen David Andrews, the Treme Brass Band, my cousin Herlin Riley.”
It’s notable that Hill was able to retain his trumpet chops as he only had a few occasions to play the instrument during his many years of incarceration.
“I never really thought about how I would keep my chops up and actually my embouchure mark on my lip went away,” he says. “I still never thought it was over for me on trumpet. I just felt that if I put the horn to my mouth I could play it. Some things you never forget and you have to thank God.”
“My form of rehabilitation was that I wanted to become educated in things I didn’t know. I was more concerned about focusing on academics. I was very intrigued by history—world history, musical history, European history, African history. I learned how to speak Swahili, Arabic and I’m working on my Spanish.”
While incarcerated, Hill became a Muslim, a faith which, he explains, requires its members to be educated. “That’s what inspired me,” he says. “So I decided that while I’m in here I’m not going to be one to sit up in prison and do idle time and come out more ignorant than I came in.”
Hill returned to a changed New Orleans that had suffered through the floods following Katrina.
“I found it a lot different because after the hurricane you didn’t see a lot of people that you once saw playing music,” he says. “Before I went to prison, they only had a few brass bands and you knew who they were—New Birth, Rebirth, Lil Rascals, Hot 8, Stooges. Now you have a bunch of new, young, up-and-coming musicians that are carrying on the tradition.”
Trumpet Black, which is a nickname given to him by James Andrews, started playing music when he was eight years old. He attended Andrew J. Bell and McDonogh 28 high schools though he never played in the marching bands. “I have always liked it but I never wanted to play marching music,” Hill says. “We grew up [playing] in Jackson Square so I never had time to join the school band. We were trying to make ourselves known.”
He did attend the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp where he studied with the late trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. and saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan. In 1997 Hill won the Louis Armstrong Trumpet Award.
Presently, when he’s not busy blowing with the Funktet, the New Birth or a recently organized group, the New Breed Brass Band led by yet another cousin, James Andrews’ son, drummer Jenard Andrews, Hill spends time studying with trumpeters Marlon Jordan and Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown. He’ll be heading to England and Switzerland this summer to perform with a group of English musicians. Later, the trumpeter will travel to Africa with percussionist Damon Batiste and to Finland with the Rebirth Brass Band.
And about those high notes… “That’s like one of my specialties,” he concedes. “I listen to a lot of trumpeters that play a lot of high notes like Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. I’m working every day to become a more modern jazz trumpeter.
“My [number one] trumpet player right now is Trombone Shorty,” continues Hill who was on stage with the Funktet, the New Birth and trumpeter James Andrews at Jazz Fest but resisted the temptation of making a guest appearance during Trombone Shorty’s historic closing set of the festival. “That was actually a real big emotional moment for me because I was proud to see my cousin achieve something that we had been around all our lives.”