A few months ago OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey lamented the passing of a generation of New Orleans musical icons who have given this city so much of its rich musical history. Who will be the new icons? The city has changed so much, particularly since the flood following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that’s it’s fair to ask this question. Many of the city’s most popular performers since then are transplants who’ve absorbed the musical history of New Orleans and added some of their own identity to it.
Other New Orleans musicians have taken the path traversed by Louis Armstrong, and moved away to find their audience.
There are a handful of local musicians who have built global careers on their music—off the top of the head you can mention Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Big Freedia, Mystikal, Lil’ Wayne, Master P and a few others.
One young musician, however, stands out as a millennial version of the traditional New Orleans musicians known around the world—icons like Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Fats Domino. Troy Andrews, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty, is New Orleans musical royalty—the younger brother of James Andrews; cousin to Glen David Andrews and a host of other musicians; the grandson of the great Jessie Hill; blood relation to Mahalia Jackson and, some say, Armstrong himself.
Troy was a local star from early childhood, a prodigy whose ability on trombone and trumpet put him in the highest echelons of the city’s live performers. At age 30 Andrews is no longer a child phenom, but his development has never slowed. He is a fully realized artist with a career of unlimited possibilities still there for him, an international star who nevertheless continues to be a regular presence on the New Orleans scene. His Jazz Fest–closing performances, in which he has assumed the mantle once reserved for the Neville Brothers, are iconic in themselves. This past year, despite two days of drenching rain that forced numerous cancellations, he climaxed his amazing set by diving into the crowd on Lake Acura, playing his trombone through the muck and mire to the delight of his amphibious audience.
The great ones have always accumulated extra layers of aesthetic achievement to their mythic status as the years go by.
American legends in particular gather what are sometimes described as tall tales dedicated to the spectacular nature of their accomplishments. Some of them were shrewd enough to play off their myth, adding their own tales to the legend. Trombone Shorty displays that talent in his latest release, which is not music but rather a children’s book, Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, a beautifully illustrated autobiography about growing up in New Orleans.
Though nothing is fabricated or even misleading, the way Andrews tells his story makes it a fairy tale that any child would find delightful to imagine.
“In Treme, music was everywhere,” Andrews writes, “from church, to the street, to my very own house. My grandfather, Jessie Hill, was a musician and my brother James was a musician, and I wanted to be just like them. There were people always coming and going from my house, but music was the thing we had in common. No matter how tough things got, listening to music always made me feel better.
“When I was very young, my neighborhood friends and I would pretend that we were like the brass bands that would parade down our streets, and because we couldn’t afford instruments, we really did make them out of anything we could. The box from a twelve-pack of soda could be fastened around the neck with Mardi Gras beads to become a drum, and pencils became drumsticks. I used to hoist an old Big Wheel bicycle over my shoulders and pretend it was a tuba. Empty bottles became horn and wind instruments. Thankfully, I got my first trombone when I was four years old and by age six, I was leading my own band. The only reason I succeeded as a musician was because I practiced every day. Practicing was easy to do because I loved playing music so much. I knew that if I just kept playing, good things would happen to me. I felt it in my bones.”
Troy’s commitment to practice is a lifelong trait, something I’ve seen him bring up to the young players who flock to after-show meet-and-greets. That dedication made him aware of the deep and varied New Orleans music history.
“I played around town with my friends for many years,” Troy writes, “and together we tried to soak in everything we could about the incredible musical traditions of New Orleans. I felt lucky that the previous generations of New Orleans musicians wanted to share their craft with me. It was my job to carry on the musical heritage.”
Aside from his performances on the streets of Treme and the French Quarter, Andrews first came to public light when Bo Diddley heard him playing in the crowd during a show at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“Who’s that playing out there?” Diddley barked. When he found out it was a kid half the size of his trombone, he brought Shorty onstage to play with his band.
Big brother James took Troy around to his own gigs and came up with the “Trombone Shorty” nickname. He also took him to shows by other musicians, who often asked Shorty up to jam with the band. James and Shorty also played with their cousins in the Andrews Family Band. As a player Troy was a veteran, the complete package, while still in his teens.
“I attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and started to develop my own musical style, one that paid tribute to New Orleans’ own jazz, blues and gospel but also mixed in other kinds of music that I loved, like rock and roll, funk, and hiphop.”
Shorty released several records as a teenager, including the traditional New Orleans jazz album Trombone Shorty Meets Lionel Ferbos, the joyous New Orleans R&B session Trombone Shorty’s Swingin’ Gate and his contemporary jazz debut, The End of the Beginning. When the flood following Hurricane Katrina destroyed his hometown, Troy was only 19 and still exploring his musical options. He had been on a world tour as a member of the Lenny Kravitz band, and though he was able to return briefly to play with his brother James at Jackson Square shortly after the deluge, the tour kept him away from home for another six months, forcing him to miss the performance of the Andrews Family Band at Jazz Fest in 2006.
Troy returned home after the Lenny Kravitz tour’s conclusion with a vision of what he wanted his band to sound like, what he has come to call “Supafunkrock.” He built that band, Orleans Avenue, around young players whose dedication to practice and constant work matched his own. At the time he was assembling the band he told me that he didn’t want stars, but talented young players who could grow with him as a unit. The first version of Orleans Avenue released Orleans & Claiborne in 2007.
That band included Troy’s millennial peer Jonathan Batiste (who also appears on Swingin’ Gate), but Batiste had his own career trajectory to follow. Troy kept bassist Mike Ballard for the next incarnation of Orleans Avenue, adding guitarist Pete Murano, drummer Joey Peebles and Dan Oestreicher on baritone saxophone. This is the band that codified the high powered realization of Supafunkrock you hear today when you go to a Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue concert. They’ve made three albums—the Grammynominated Backatown (2010), For True (2011) and Say That to Say This (2013), adding current member BK Jackson on tenor saxophone for the latter.
The music industry has changed drastically since Troy Andrews was a boy, with live performances now counting much more for an artist’s stature than recordings as the industry has imploded under the weight of streaming and free downloads. Andrews has grown within the new template, particularly as a singer and bandleader in addition to his virtuoso prowess as a player. His stature as an international headliner has grown along with his abilities, a phenomenon I have witnessed over the course of several years of Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue appearances at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.
The Montreal Jazz Festival has an overriding affinity for its sister city from French colonial North America, and New Orleans music is well represented there, from the traditional jazz played by Canadian bands with names like Sweet Dixie, Montreal Dixie and L’Esprit de la NouvelleOrleans to local New Orleans bands brought in for the occasion. This year’s New Orleans visitors included the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Debauche and Jon Cleary.
Shorty has played this festival several times to spectacular effect. He headlined the city’s first “Mardi Gras” parade down one of the main thoroughfares, SainteCatherine Street.
Trombone Shorty took over the entertainment when the crowd reached the massive plaza at the Place des Festivals.
Andrews and Orleans Avenue delivered a bigstage funk rock concert that went over well, playing everything from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “American Woman” to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” with material from the thenrecent Backatown mixed in.
A year later, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue upstaged the great Bootsy Collins with an electrifying set at the Metropolis that climaxed with a medley of “Saints” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” that had the crowd shouting “You! You! You!” This year Andrews returned to the Metropolis with an even more polished set. The band has been mixing original material with a wide range of covers from the Lenny Kravitz songs “Sistamamalover” and “The Craziest Things” to “Brain Stew” by Green Day and “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. This show included an awe-inspiring version of Ernie KDoe’s “Here Come the Girls” and a supercharged James Brown medley that had the crowd screaming along in call-and-response ecstasy.
Though he has always seemed to do the heavy lifting in previous shows I’ve witnessed, Andrews was not the main attraction in this astonishing set. He was the ringmaster, featuring not just himself but all the other members of the band in featured solo spots. Oestreicher’s honking baritone solo may have gotten the biggest applause of the night. And when the band was shredding, Andrews would strike mighty poses at center stage while blinding strobe lights pushed the audience’s fervor ever higher.
Right now Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue are as good at live performance as any band on planet Earth. At age 30, Troy Andrews has achieved a plateau of excellence that most artists never reach in a lifetime.
But his thoughts always return to New Orleans and to the future musicians he’s helping through the Trombone Shorty Foundation and the Trombone Shorty Music Academy.
“As important as it is for me to carry the torch for the music of New Orleans,” he writes in the Trombone Shorty book, “it’s even more important for me to make sure that this tradition continues. In 2010 I launched the Trombone Shorty Foundation and Trombone Shorty Music Academy to make sure that the music and culture of New Orleans stay alive. While I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world and share my music, I always return home to New Orleans. Nothing has been more inspiring to me than working with the children there. I wanted to write this book to inspire hope in kids who might be growing up under difficult circumstances but who also have a dream, just like I did. I’m living proof that as long as you work hard, you can make yourself take flight.”
Those are words fit for an American icon.