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Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” is one of the great New Orleans singles, and its Mardi Gras Indian chant, one of the great song-starters. James Andrews recapitulates its call-and-response miracle every time he hits the stage, and crowds all over the world always respond.
“Even if they don’t speak English, they can sing that,” notes James with a deep chuckle. His avuncular conversational style is instantly disarming, and he draws whoever he is talking with into the dialogue by following his assertions with the phrase, “Am I right?”
Brothers James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and their cousin Glen David Andrews have been among the most active New Orleans musicians over the last five years as the city has struggled to re-establish the foundations of its culture. They and a slew of cousins in their extended family populate some of the city’s most important bands.
Each of these three musicians has issued a signature album since the flood of ’05, records that reflect their peculiar sensibilities. They grew up together in the Treme, but they grew up to be very different people. Their experiences in the neighborhood have done much to shape their personalities and their place in New Orleans’ musical world.
James, the oldest by more than a decade, is deeply entrenched in the funk and R&B of the city’s history. His post-Katrina album, People Get Ready Now, features his band the Crescent City Allstars, a literal musical community that includes an eclectic array of his friends including Big Chief Alfred Doucette and Walter “Wolfman” Washington.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, James’ younger brother by 16 years, could easily be mistaken for his son. Where James is loquacious, Shorty is reticent. His just-released album, Backatown, is an impressive series of tight, well-crafted songs that draw as much from hip-hop and rock as the funk and second line music he grew up with.
Cousin Glen David Andrews is nearly six years older than Shorty but still a decade younger than James. He is the most mercurial of the three musicians, a great, enthusiastic storyteller and extremely emotional conversationalist who can take you on a rollercoaster of expression even during a brief exchange. His gospel album, Walking Through Heaven’s Gate, recorded live at the Zion Hill Baptist Church where he grew up attending services with his family, demonstrated his testifying side. His ferocious exuberance made his Gospel Tent set at last year’s Jazz Fest one of the highlights of the event.
Another cousin, Revert “Peanut” Andrews, also plays trombone in Glen David’s band, as well as in Rebirth with another cousin, trumpeter Glen Andrews. More cousins play with the Dirty Dozen and Hot 8 brass bands, while a whole new generation of nephews perform as the Baby Boyz Brass Band.
It’s not difficult to be steered into a life of music when you’re literally surrounded by it from childhood. The house where James and Troy grew up, by the intersection of Dumaine and North Robertson in Treme, was constantly filled with music.
“We came from a musical family and a lot of people in the family were in the social aid and pleasure clubs all over Treme,” James says. “A lot of musicians came by the house—Tuba Fats, Milton Batiste, Efrem Townes from the Dirty Dozen. My dad was friends with Danny Barker, so he’d come to the house all the time. My grandfather Jessie Hill was a big presence in the house. When we were kids, he used to take us on the gigs with him. He took us to Tipitina’s, Jazz Fest, and we’d meet different musicians.”
James and his brothers also met Dr. John at their grandmother Dorothy Hill’s house.
“He and Jessie came by my grandmother’s house a lot,” recalls James. “That was the Nelson family, which is Prince La La and Papoose; my grandmother is their sister. The music in our family goes back to my great grandfather; he was Papoose’s daddy. His name was Walter Nelson. He used to play the guitar outside the supermarket they called the Treme Supermarket.”
Danny Barker taught the Andrews kids about traditional music. James and his brothers played in Barker’s Roots of Jazz band before forming their own group, the All Star Brass Band. They played in Jackson Square in the afternoons, then watched the masters of the craft at Preservation Hall in the evenings.
“We used to go to Preservation Hall and listen to Kid Thomas and Willie Humphrey, Percy Humphrey, Frog Joseph, Kid Sheik and all those guys,” says James. “What struck me was the way they played the music; it just had that New Orleans energy. They could control the crowd through the music. The reflection of the crowd is part of the music.”
James learned his traditional jazz lessons well, but there was one musician who he heard only on record that stood out above the rest: Louis Armstrong.
“That’s the magic for me,” says James. “Louis Armstrong. I think every musician in New Orleans is some kind of influenced by Louis Armstrong. When I was a kid, everybody was talking about him. Papa Celestin was my grandmother’s godfather. She’ll tell you Louis Armstrong was her cousin. Tad Jones told me that too; he said, ‘You’re related to Louis Armstrong.’ Around the house, they were always playing his music. That’s where I first heard him. They would say, ‘That’s Louis Armstrong. He’s your cousin.’” Troy, however, says he hasn’t heard this story.
James became the organizer of his generation of Andrews family musicians. His gregariousness made him a natural leader, and he included the array of brothers and cousins in the second line parades, Jackson Square sessions and impromptu performances by what would eventually become the Andrews Family Band. He was also a charter member of the New Birth Brass Band.
Naturally, James was one of the first to recognize the musical talent of his youngest brother Troy, who began playing whatever he could get his hands on even as a toddler.
“It was obvious when he was, like, three,” says James. “Maybe even when he was one.”
Troy played his first show outside of New Orleans when he was four years old. “We took him on the road with us,” says James. “His first gig was in Arizona. He couldn’t even reach the full slide position on the trombone, but he had it in him.” James began to introduce Troy as “Trombone Shorty,” a nickname that took hold.
Danny Barker took particular delight in teaching the rudiments of traditional jazz to this youngest of pupils. The family decided to open a music club based on the growing fame of their precocious child, calling it Trombone Shorty’s. Troy’s primary recollection of the club is that he wasn’t allowed to play there.
“My mom actually had that place,” he says. “She used to let me come in every once in a while and play, but only for like 10 minutes because I was way too young to be in there. I was 11 years old and my mom named it after me. I guess she thought that would work. I think that’s where the guys from U2 saw me.”
Shorty’s careful remarks contrasted with Glen David’s more florid observations of the same events go a long way toward defining the differences between the two.
“He was playing every time the band struck up,” laughs Glen David. “It was the world famous Caledonia Ballroom and my auntie bought it and named it after Troy. There was even a drink called the Trombone Shorty.
“We’d get out of school at 3 o’clock. Me and Troy go back to the house. It’s after school, we’re gonna play basketball, but not Troy. There’s a limousine there to take him to the airport. I’m talking about he’s 7, 8 years old and there’s a limousine to pick him up. We all looked up to Troy even though he was younger.”
Glen David and his older brother Derrick Tabb, now the drummer in Rebirth, lived a stone’s throw away from James and Troy at Ursuline Street right across from their grandmother’s place, Ruth’s Cozy Corner, which later became Joe’s Cozy Corner. The cousins all bonded as children.
“Everybody born and raised around there hung out at Troy and them’s house,” says Glen David. “We all were raised together. Whenever I went to my grandmother’s house, whether it was my grandmother or James’ grandmother, everybody was equal. That’s why we’re all still so close to this day. Troy and them’s house is the foundation for our family. Jessie Hill was around, but as a young kid I didn’t recognize who he was. I didn’t realize who Fats Domino and all these people were who were sitting in our house.”
Hill made an impression on Glen David.
“I would see him and he’d have a pocket full of money, a brand new tuxedo and a brand new limousine,” he says. “Then the next time I saw him, it looked like he got hit with that same limousine, like it ran over him in that tuxedo. But he was a professional and a very great musician. Jessie Hill was one of the few black musicians from that era to own all his music. I learned from James anything you sing, anything you write down—copyright it. And don’t steal nobody’s material.”
Glen David’s gift for songwriting manifested itself early. He says he wrote the anthem “Knock with Me, Rock with Me” while he was with the Trombone Shorty Brass Band, even though it wasn’t recorded until years later.
“We made that on the corner of Dumaine and Robertson,” he says. “Everything in that song is what was going on in that block. Music playing to drug selling to second lines, to Indian suit making to crime to afterschool homework—there was so much going on on that fucking block. That’s why all our records are named after the Sixth Ward—Orleans Avenue, Dumaine Street. That’s everything for us.”
The Andrews family suffered a deep tragedy when James and Troy’s brother Darnell “D-Boy” Andrews was murdered. The experience may have deepened the family’s desire to nurture Troy’s musical prowess, encouraging him to attend NOCCA to expand on his Treme roots.
“We knew he was special,” says James. “We groomed him to be what he is. He had the best of the best. The best of the best. Am I right?”
For a family that specialized in the music of the streets and churches of Treme, training at NOCCA was a new direction. When Troy started out at NOCCA, Glen David started thinking about his own career.
“I was about 16, 17 and I realized this is what I’m going to do, but I have to make a living at doing it,” he says. “I wasn’t into school. I had fun freelancing with James and everybody, but it was never a real reflection of who I was trying to become. It was about a year before Katrina when I decided to take a real stab at being a professional.”
But Glen David ran into addiction problems that threatened to curtail his career. “There were some things in my life that I needed to tackle,” he admits. “In a way, I think Katrina was a blessing in disguise because it made me take a long look at myself. I was pretty much finished with playing with New Birth before the storm. I’m not good at following; I’m only good at leading. I got back two days after New Year’s Day and contacted Hiro, my banjo player. We went right to Jackson Square and started playing.”
James returned soon after Katrina to play the first major concert at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s “Ogden After Hours” series. It was his first date in town since he and Troy had played a press event in Jackson Square a week after Katrina. “We had a two-week break and then Katrina happened,” Troy says. “After all that stuff, I had gone back on tour with Lenny to finish out the rest of the leg of the tour. At that point we still hadn’t talked to people about the family. It was hard being on the road and knowing that we still hadn’t found all our family members. Eventually we found everybody, but five years later we still have family in Houston and other places.”
Troy learned valuable lessons about performing in front of large crowds from the Lenny Kravitz tour. He had always been an outstanding instrumentalist, but when he returned to New Orleans, he found a new dimension as a singer and front man and his band began to rock audiences like it never had before.
Kravitz also gave Troy valuable advice about recording, a lesson he used in taking all the time needed to make Backatown the kind of conceptual breakthrough it needed to be.
“Lenny Kravitz said you’ve got to make a record when you make a record; it’s not a live show,” Troy recalls. “When you make an album, it has to be its own experience. Then you can play it live, and then you can do long solos or anything you want, but you have to make it a record first. We give them a taste of what we do and when they see us live we can stretch out and play as much as we want.”
Meanwhile, Glen David Andrews was becoming a performing artist to be dealt with. There was no telling what lengths he might go to. At Jazz Fest, he was so caught up in the moment he started laying hands on the crowd; one night he body surfed the crowd at d.b.a.. Soon some of the top musicians in town, including cousin Troy, were showing up to jam with him.
“David really grew right into it,” says James. “He was determined to get back what he had. He never talked to me about it, but he had some problems. I think he’s over it now.”
Recognition of the Andrews family as one of the greatest New Orleans musical families might have been slow in developing, but there’s no end in sight.
“I ain’t counted how many in the family,” says James. “And we got so many parts of the family—the Andrews, the Hills, the Lasties, the Nelsons. We got Halls now. I got at least a few hundred cousins. Family’s the most important thing to me; family and friends are everything. I cherish that. I could be living in a tent, but if I got friends I’m okay. Am I right?”