It’s a typically hot and humid Friday afternoon in New Orleans. Trumpeter and vocalist James Andrews is sitting in a coffee shop on Royal Street sipping peach tea. When I ask him what he thinks of Louis Armstrong, he becomes suddenly pensive as though contemplating a very serious situation. Eventually, his face lights up and he sits up higher in his chair and shakes his head as he tries to conjure up the words to express his feelings for Armstrong.
He then tells me what most of us already know, that in his opinion Louis Armstrong is the greatest American musician of the 20th century, that if you play trumpet and your idiom is jazz, there is simply no way to get around Armstrong and his sound. He goes on like this for a while, only stopping for brief pauses to sip his tea.
“I try to imitate Louis Armstrong, not just to sound like him,” admits Andrews. “You can’t go around his sound. He laid the foundation…I use Louis Armstrong as the reference for my music. I just try to do a few things like him and add my spice to it.”
Growing up in New Orleans just a few blocks from Louis Armstrong Park, no doubt Andrews was very much aware of the legacy of the great trumpeter. More than anyone else in the history of the music, Armstrong was responsible for legitimizing and popularizing jazz and introducing it to a wider public. During his lifetime, he was as admired by his fellow musicians as he was by an adoring public both inside the United States and around the world. Armstrong was a complete entertainer, able to expand his career from instrumentalist, to popular singer, and into film and television. By the time of his death in 1971, Armstrong had become a one-man cultural phenomenon.
On his record Satchmo of the Ghetto, released in 1998, James Andrews humbly offers up a tribute to this American icon, a man whom he clearly idolizes. In the making of the record, Andrews was able to enlist the help of two masters of New Orleans music. The prolific producer and highly respected pianist Allen Toussaint produced the record while funkmaster Dr. John plays piano or organ on all 11 tracks that compose the record.
Satchmo of the Ghetto exhibits Andrews’ great respect for tradition–both the traditional sounds of New Orleans and the traditional mentor relationship between experienced musicians like Toussaint and up-and-coming musicians like Andrews. Indeed, the record burns with the New Orleans sound, calling to mind second line parades on hot summer days. With his gravelly voice and soulful trumpet solos, Andrews infuses each song with the soul of gospel music. The skillful rhythm section, which includes Charles Moore on bass and Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson on drums, provides the record with an enthusiastic Caribbean flavor, tempered only by unhurried accent of the Crescent City.
Andrews contends that it was his idea to call the record Satchmo of the Ghetto. “It was a thing where I wanted to remember Louis Armstrong,” he explains. “I wanted to remember the place and I wanted to remember the man so I came up with ‘Satchmo of the Ghetto.’ It was a tribute to the Treme neighborhood and paying respect to Louis Armstrong.”
In the liner notes for Satchmo of the Ghetto, music critic Roger Hahn writes, “James Andrews brings something to these proceedings well beyond the affection for the traditions he has been fortunate enough to inherit and for those family members who have shared with him their experience in the tradition. For him, as for many musicians who came up on the streets of New Orleans, the Treme neighborhood located directly north of the French Quarter, represents a distinct musical heritage.”
Andrews speaks fondly and at length about the Treme neighborhood where he grew up. He credits his upbringing with providing him with the raw materials for all that he does musically. It is on the streets of Treme that Andrews mastered the trumpet and learned the words to classic songs like “The Old Rugged Cross,” which he recorded on Satchmo of the Ghetto.
At only 31-years-old, Andrews has already experienced a rich life, filled with happiness but unfortunately sometimes colored by tragedy. His experiences with pain and loss can be seen in his young face, heard in the clarion sounds of his trumpet and the confessional tone of his singing. While he has enjoyed great success as a performer, he admits that these successes are colored by the loss of his brother Darnell Andrews. “D-Boy,” as he was known among friends and family, died in 1995 at the age of 17 after being shot down in the Lafitte Housing Development. James dedicated his first record with the New Birth Brass Band to the memory of his brother, calling it simply D-Boy.
For Andrews, there was no more appropriate tribute to his brother’s life than a brass band record, for he sees the brass bands as a positive and healing force within the community. If you ask him, Andrews will tell you that he is happiest performing in his old neighborhood in the high-spirited second line parades with a brass band. “You have all your family and all your friends there and you’re just playing for everyone you love, so you get a different feeling for the music. That brings the brass band music to the forefront because it’s something that everyone wants to do. The brass bands is like a team, like a football team. We’re all playing together and everybody loves the music.”
When discussing his work with the brass bands, Andrews says it is another area where he finds similarities between himself and Armstrong. In Andrews’ opinion, it is Armstrong’s early experiences playing New Orleans brass band music that provided him with much of the fire he was known for playing with. “By Louis Armstrong being a natural person and being a brass band trumpet player, he could stand any kind of situation. He was a showman and a brass band player is always more of a showman. In the brass band, you gotta play harder and play more for the people. Your chops gotta stand a lot of heat. Satchmo, he could go from that to any kind of situation.
“I think what made Louis Armstrong such a good performer was that he came from New Orleans and hung around with all kind of people and he heard all kinds of music. The way he grew up in New Orleans, you can hear it all in his playing.” As Andrews points out here, Armstrong was known for his versatility and that is one of the things he admires most about Armstrong and tries to imitate in his own work. It is this ability to adapt to many situations which Andrews says allows him to perform one day at a posh New York hotel and the next in the streets of the Treme neighborhood.
Aside from Armstrong, Andrews credits his many mentors with teaching him how to adapt his performance to any situation. One of his earliest mentors was his grandfather Jessie Hill. Like many of New Orleans’ best musicians, Andrews comes from a family deeply involved in music. Jessie Hill has been credited with planting seeds for the development of New Orleans funk and he was known as a master of New Orleans rhythm and blues. He scored a major hit in 1960 with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Hill died just a year before Andrews recorded Satchmo of the Ghetto, but for Andrews, the record is as much a tribute to his grandfather as it is to Armstrong. The first song on the album is a memorial tribute to his grandfather entitled “Poop Ain’t Gotta Scuffle No More.” The sincerity with which Andrews delivers the song’s touching lyrics makes it one of the best songs on the record.
Through his music, he says he has tried to demonstrate respect for his grandfather and the lessons he taught him growing him up. One of the ways he says Hill taught him at a very early age to respect the power of the New Orleans sound was by introducing him to the music of Louis Armstrong.” I grew up listening to Louis Armstrong and that style of music,” he reminisces. “I discovered Louis Armstrong by listening to a lot of records and watching a lot of videos. My grandfather (Jessie Hill) used to always talk about him. I also had people like Mr. Danny Barker who would give me a lot of stuff on Louis Armstrong.” Andrews also credits the late Barker as being a major influence in his life.
One of the most important lessons Andrews thinks he learned from Hill and Barker and, from watching taped performances of Armstrong, was the importance of entertaining an audience. Indeed, Armstrong once said: “I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show. My life has always been my music, it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.”
As cultural critic Stanley Crouch wrote in an article for the New York Times earlier this year: As an instrumentalist and a singer, Armstrong asserted a level of individuality in musical interpretation, recomposition and embellishment far more radical than any that had preceded it in Western music. When faced with a theme, Armstrong improvised an arrangement then boldly rephrased it, dropping notes he didn’t want to play and adding others. His featured improvisations brought the role of the jazz soloist to the fore. The immaculate logic of his improvised melodies, full of rhythmic surprises and virtuosic turns, influenced show-tune writers, jazz composers, big band arrangers and tap dancers. His harmonic innovations, as Wynton Marsalis has noted, were the most brilliant in the history of jazz.
Andrews echoes these sentiments, saying “Armstrong was the greatest trumpet player ever. He played with fire and he could light up a room. And that’s one thing I try to do. I can actually reach out to a crowd and take them with me. I can walk into a room and light the room up just like Satchmo did,” Indeed, the change one sees in Andrews when he takes the stage is sometimes remarkable. Offstage, he tends to be serious, often wearing a look of deep contemplation, a look that does not call to mind the smiling Satchmo who played with great energy and excitement night after night.
But onstage, Andrews takes on a different persona. Often flanked by his 14-year-old brother, the musical prodigy Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, he offers up spirited and soulful performances. He often brings audiences to their feet with songs like “Got Me a New Love Thang” and his classic hit with the Treme Brass Band, “Gimme My Money Back.”
In Andrews’ opinion, the legacy of Louis Armstrong is timeless. He has little patience for musicians who he feels do not fully understand and respect what Armstrong has meant to American music. “I think all the trumpet players from New Orleans and all over the world hold Louis Armstrong in high regard. Even people like Clark Terry and all the wonderful, best of the cats, I think they hold Louis Armstrong to the highest respect ever…Then you have some of these young guys who are playing the modern style, they don’t really respect Louis Armstrong because they don’t really know and understand the power behind him. They can’t really play that style and it’s not really meant for their soul and their spirit.”
Respect for music is a concept that Andrews seems to cherish and one that he tries to advocate through his actions. “I’m just trying to uplift my culture and my music through me and that’s all I’m trying to do. The music is always bigger than one individual.” One of the ways that Andrews embraces this concept is by mentoring his little brother Troy.
The two brothers are practically inseparable both on and off stage. “I try to shelter him…We’re always together. We’re always playing on a gig or traveling or talking. He gon’ be all right because we all let him know what’s happening. He’s playing all the stuff from the Treme [Brass Band] already. He’s got that already in his blood.”
He tries to impart the same lessons to Troy that he learned from his mentors. “My biggest mentors were my Mom and Dad first and then Mr. Danny Barker. I learned a lot from Mr. Barker about music and a lot of stuff about being a man and knowing how to conduct myself. All of that stuff is still with me now.”
Like his idol Louis Armstrong, Andrews is a versatile performer and musician. While jazz is the music with which Andrews is most often associated with, he admits that he has a deep love for rock music. He talks excitedly about his collaboration with rocker Michelle Shocked and confesses that he would be happy to work with her again if she only asked. “I enjoy playing more with the rockers than some of the jazz musicians,” he says with a laugh, “because the jazz musicians are uptight. With the rockers, the set is open. That’s also what I like about the brass bands, because it’s open. It’s not put together or cosmetic.”
Andrews also has plans to record a gospel album. “I want to do a gospel album with the brass bands. I’m always looking for inspiration and the gospel music is driving. It always has fire and it never gets corny. I’ve always wanted to do a gospel album. I can hear jazz in gospel music…music is music. If you can play it, you can play it.” And Andrews has certainly proven that he can play music of all kinds.