Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, 29, performed at his first French Quarter Fest as a member of the Trombone Shorty Brass Band when the trumpeter was just eight years old. “I’ll never forget it—we kept playing the “Food Stamp Blues” because that was the only song that we really, really knew and could stretch out on and have fun on besides ‘Glory, Glory (Lay My Burden Down) and ‘Jesus on the Mainline,’” he recalls with a laugh. “They always taught us all those gospel hymns. We actually played on that concrete slab in front of the Natchez. I think it was the first young brass band to play out there. It was a blast.”
Hill, who is the grandson of the great Jessie “Oop Poo Pah Doo” Hill and a member of the musical Andrews family, will make his first appearance as leader at the French Quarter Fest on Thursday, April 9. He’ll front his own band, Trumpet Black and the Heart Attacks, that includes some impressive New Orleans veteran musicians including bassist Chris Severin, pianist Thaddeus Richard, drummer Raymond Weber plus guitarist June Yamagishi and saxophonist Andrew Calhoun.
The band has been working as a solid unit for about six months, ever since trumpeter Kermit Ruffins decided to give up his long-standing Tuesday nights at Bullet’s.
“Thanks to Kermit Ruffins for handing over a great gig,” Hill exclaims enthusiastically. “When he did that, I knew that I would have a regular place to play. That’s when I made the phone calls [to the musicians] and said, ‘Let’s see how it works.’”
“It’s a blessing for me,” Hill continues of working with such powerhouse music veterans. “They’re really helping me out. Every time I play with them I get advice and inspiration. Those guys are so flexible.”
Hill compares Trumpet Black and the Heart Attacks’ shows as being similar in verve to those once performed by this city’s R&B greats like his grandfather Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe and Earl King, with the addition of his trumpet. “I would consider the music to be something like that old school New Orleans R&B updated with some modern day funk. I do a lot of entertaining,” adds Hill, who also acts as the band’s animated lead vocalist. He knows how to pump up a crowd.
Hill will be rather omnipresent at the festival. He’ll also be blowing as a member of Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet on Sunday, April 12. The trumpeter finds playing with trombonist Henry—as he does every Thursday at Vaughan’s—as challenging. “There’s enough music to keep Trumpet Black on his toes,” says Hill, who was nicknamed by his cousin, fellow trumpeter James Andrews. “You have to remember every single thing when you play with Corey. With my band, it’s more of a free spirit.” Hill points out too that the Treme Funktet plays more of a James Brown/Fred Wesley soul funk because trombonist Wesley is Henry’s idol. On the other hand, the Heart Attacks go for more of the New Orleans funk—provided by the back beat of Raymond Weber—and this city’s R&B groove.
On the fest’s opening day, Hill plans to stop by and sit in on James Andrews’ set, and on Sunday, he’ll be on hand for the New Breed and New Birth brass band’s shows.
“You ask me the truth, I’ll tell you no lie, I’ll be a New Birth member ‘til the day I die,” Hill poetically offers. “They showed me the way when I was just a young trumpet player trying to get it together. Those guys were always there to support me. Whatever they do, I’m down for it.”
In turn, Trumpet Black has been mentoring the youngsters in the New Breed Brass Band that is led by his cousin, and James Andrews’ son, drummer Jenard Andrews. The New Breed, established in 2013, is also making its debut appearance at the fest. Hill stepped in when the group first got together as they were lacking a trumpet player. He continues to make guest appearances with the band. The trumpeter will make a return trip to Switzerland’s noted Ascona Jazz Festival with the New Breed and also bring the Heart Attacks to the event for the first time.
Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill is digging in, playing as much as he can, and making travel plans for shows in Europe, Japan and Australia. Every Monday night he can be found leading a session at Orleans Avenue’s hotspot, Oop Poo Pah Doo.
The trumpeter does have some time to make up. Some “bad decisions” landed the talented teenaged and award-winning musician in jail for eight-plus years. Since his release in 2011, Hill has been back on track, major on the scene and blowing strong—check those high notes.
“I’d like everyone to have a lot of patience with me,” says Hill who plans to release an album sometime this year. “I’m working very hard to try to keep this thing going.”
“I don’t like the French Quarter Fest,” he finally exclaims. “I love the French Quarter Fest. Whatever you like, they’ve got it. It was the first festival that I ever played.”