[UPDATED] In a scene from the premiere episode of Treme, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) asks Kermit Ruffins the question all fans of New Orleans music have wondered at some point about their favorites: “Don’t you want to be famous?” So many musicians’ talent is undeniable, and it’s part of one of the many injustices that feeds New Orleans’ sense of itself as an underdog.
“Are you standing there telling me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damned life?” McAlary continues. Ruffins looks at Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) then looks back at McAlary. “That’ll work.”
The exchange highlights something unusual about the show and the city. Often, musicians are depicted on television as figures outside the community, artistic types whose pursuits and expressions mark them as different from everybody else, and they’re caught up in their effort to be famous—something most of us will never be, and certainly not for the right reasons. In Treme as in New Orleans, musicians are the community, and playing a horn is the thing they do, just as others sell shoes, hang sheetrock or balance spreadsheets.
Trombone Shorty occupies a unique place in the city. Since childhood, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has had star potential, first as novelty—a boy playing an instrument taller than him leading his own brass band—then as the real deal, a musician with charisma and chops. He has been groomed for the big time since he started playing at the age of 4. His grandfather, Jessie Hill, told him early on to get his publishing straight, even though he was too young to know what Hill was saying. “I thought that meant Goosebumps or something,” Shorty says.
His older brother, James Andrews, booked him for dates, but “he never treated me like a kid,” Shorty says. “He put me on real gigs and paid me.” He also docked him when he was unprofessional or not up to snuff. When Michael Murphy shot Make it Funky at the Saenger Theatre in 2004, Shorty— then 18—was a part of a cutting contest with Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield. In that 10-minute segment, he told the audience in the room and those who’d see the DVD later that he was as adept on the trumpet as on his namesake instrument, and he easily won the contest, playing with a warmth and sense of playful adventure that outshone Ruffins’ passionate solo and Mayfield’s algebraic offering.
In 2005, the NOCCA grad released two albums, a jazz album, The End of the Beginning, and a funk album with Orleans Avenue, Orleans and Claiborne. The first title proved accurate because the two together marked the end of Shorty as the promising young phenom, clearing the decks for whatever might come next.
That “next” turned out to be a year as a member of Lenny Kravitz’ touring band, and to call it influential would be an understatement. As part of Kravitz’ band, Shorty played before an audience of 700,000 in Rio, and his time with Kravitz changed what he expected of his band and the way he approached music. The days of showing up and everybody doing their own thing for three or so hours onstage were over. He brought and required a new level of discipline and made his band rehearse relentlessly, at times in the dark to make sure they knew what they were doing to such a degree that they didn’t rely on visual cues.
He made his first appearance on a major network television show not in Treme, but in 2006 when he and a host of New Orleans musicians appeared in the Christmas episode of Aaron Sorkin’s look behind the scenes at a Saturday Night Live-like show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The camera loved him and his understated delivery of the few lines he had, but the episode remains moving for his showstopping version of “O Holy Night,” recorded with Kirk Joseph, Kid Merv, Roderick Paulin, Bob French, Steve Walker and the late Frederick “Shep” Shepherd.
The post-Kravitz discipline in his music and the maturation of Orleans Avenue—Michael Ballard, Pete Murano, Dan Oestreicher, Joey Peebles and Dwayne Williams—have raised Shorty’s musical profile. They’ve toured regularly since 2006, and the strength of their live show has been the band’s calling card while it waited on an album that reflected who Trombone Shorty is and can be. That album, Backatown, was released on Verve Records last month and it debuted at number one on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. A flurry of activity surrounded it, including a host of appearances during the Jazz Fest fortnight. He played an all-nighter at Tipitina’s the night before his gig at the Fair Grounds, getting offstage just after 6 a.m. He’s doing a short tour in Europe, then returning to America in time to perform on Late Night with David Letterman on June 22. Most recently, he joined rapper Mos Def, Lenny Kravitz and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to record a new version of “It Ain’t My Fault” as the Gulf Aid All-Stars.
As if all of that doesn’t suggest that there’s something about Trombone Shorty, then consider HBO’s Treme. The first words of the show, said by someone off-screen, are “Did Shorty make it today?” The opening negotiation hinged on whether or not Shorty was going to be playing with Rebirth Brass Band that day, and he occupies a place in the show that parallels that of Kermit Ruffins. Ruffins is the successful New Orleanian who’ll never leave and Shorty’s the one who will, and the fact that he’s seen the outside world without losing the New Orleans in him makes him all the more special.
In addition to all of that, Andrews also has an easy charisma to match his ability. Photographers that can’t get a good shot of him should hang up their Canons because his smile seems effortless and it has personality, often looking as if he’s amused by his own celebrity. If someone with his ability and bonafides can’t make it outside New Orleans and outside of the jam/funk circuit, then there may not be hope for anyone raised on New Orleans music to ever translate to the world at large. At least, not the sense of “The Big Thing,” the band or singer that everybody has to have and/or know about to be part of the culture. Can Trombone Shorty be Lady Gaga?
That question might seem like cheap drama, but when Shorty met with Backatown producer Ben Ellman in Galactic’s studio to start pre-production for the album, nobody thought small or regional. Ellman brought CDs by D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder and Living Colour, and Shorty brought Lenny Kravitz, Maroon 5 and Green Day—all million sellers. The band’s musical influences weren’t the ones you might expect either. “Joey, my drummer, listens to Seal and Garth Brooks,” Shorty says over coffee outside Cafe Rose Nicaud, not one but two cell phones spread out in front of him. “When we were on the road we were listening to Prince and all those type of people, James Brown for the tightness.”
According to manager Dave Bartlett, “The sky’s the limit, honestly. I hate to make comparisons because you don’t want to say he’s going to be this big and have all these expectations, but I think we all expect that he can be as big as he wants to be. I firmly think he’s going to be huge.” Bartlett manages Shorty with his partner Matt Connell and the Rosebud Agency’s president Mike Kappus, and the three talked about the business of selling Trombone Shorty at one of the Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s Sync Up sessions during this year’s Jazz Fest.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of artist,” Kappus thought when he saw Shorty at Rosy’s Jazz Hall Uptown three years ago.
So far, his national reputation rests on his live show. “We just have to get him in the door,” Kappus said at Sync Up. “He’ll knock people out.” He’s already built a strong following on the coasts. He’s big in Tampa and on the eastern seaboard. “In New York, he drew 800 people and sold out,” Bartlett says. “That was in February, so it was two months before the record was out. I know when we play in New York next, it will certainly be bigger than 800. In San Francisco, the last show we did was at the Fillmore but it was co-bill and I think the capacity there was 1,000. Those are two of the stronger markets, and it was 800 to 1,000. I think things are definitely going to change as there’s all this publicity and buzz. I mean, there is so much buzz about Troy, which is great. This summer, he’s doing a lot of festival dates.”
Shorty wanted to have an album by now, but the process of making it took time. He wanted to complete the album then shop it to a label, and his and Ellman’s schedules rarely coincided for more than a week at a time. As a result, it took approximately six months to make Backatown, starting last summer. It was tempting to try to get the studio equivalent of the live show on record, but much like the Ellman-produced Ya-Ka-May for Galactic, Backatown is obviously a studio creation. “We wanted to capture the energy of the live show, but make it a bit tighter,” Shorty says. “We took our time on it, reworked different things and got it to where we weren’t just going in there playing one take and getting out of there.”
To start the sessions, Shorty and his band cut 30 or so songs, pieces that were already in the Orleans Avenue live show or that they had been working on. Then Ellman and Shorty listened to them, deciding to work with some as they were, pulling pieces out of others to build new tracks or writing new songs in the studio. The instrumental “Neph” began with Shorty laying down a groove on drums, then improvising on trumpet over it. “It’s just me and him late in the studio and I’m getting goosebumps,” Ellman says. “It’s so easy for him. He’s got so many ideas and things would just come.”
Another track, “Something Beautiful,” wasn’t in the early tapes at all. While playing at a show at the House of Blues, he tagged a melody to the end of a song. “He just played it for a second,” Ellman says. “I was there with my fiancée and we were like, ‘Wow!’ Right off the bat, I knew it was a great song.”
Ellman had two guiding ideas when working on Backatown. “My number one goal was that Troy loved the record,” he says, “and to hopefully be as artistic as possible— to have him looked at as a serious force, which he is.”
Shorty approached the album as another learning experience. “We’ve been studying records for the last couple of years before we went in here, records from different artists from around the world trying to see what we could do,” he says. “I think I’ve taken enough time to mature and study studio records and see what it was I could learn from those things. I wanted to do something I could be comfortable with and that people who might never have heard of New Orleans music could find some things—‘Oh, I like that tune!’“ For the powerhouse instrumental “Suburbia,” he says, “we listened to Ministry back and forth in the tour bus. We’re bringing it in and making it as tight as it can possibly be. We’re still keeping our New Orleans attitude to it.”
Though Orleans Avenue stretches out in concert—shows don’t last until 6 a.m. without a jam or two—everything on Backatown is shorter than four minutes, and his solos are brief but high impact. “I talked to Lenny and he was just like, ‘You make an album and take an eight minute solo live’ and that made all the difference in the world to be right there,” Shorty says. “That was life changing, what he told me.”
Once the cover art for Backatown got out, people started pointing out, “That’s not Backatown.” The two overpasses with an elevated subway track crossing over them don’t look much like the Treme or the Sixth Ward. In fact, it’s New York, but the cover wasn’t an intentional snub to his roots. “Troy was on the road so much and we had one window where we could get him to New York to do a photo shoot and play a show later that night,” Dave Bartlett says. “That’s the reason why we had it in New York, just the time crunch. That was in February and the record came out in April.”
Still, the issue of the album’s New Orleansness is a curious one. Anyone who’s heard brass bands will recognize the continuity between the brass tradition and “Hurricane Party,” and the album ends with “928 Horn Jam,” a snippet of group improvisation in the brass band tradition. But it’s not a New Orleans album per se. It’s funky, but it’s not made in the Meters image. It’s horn-driven, but it’s not a brass band album. Pete Murano’s guitar is very prominent, giving the music a strong rock edge.
“That never really was our goal,” Ellman says. “We never really talked about it like, ‘We have to make a New Orleans record.’ To me, New Orleans is in there.”
According to Shorty, “I wanted to make something that if we never said we were from New Orleans, they’d still be like, ‘Wow, that’s a cool tune.’ That’s been our thing for a long time—how can we take this to another level and keep our New Orleans thing? Even with the live shows, playing in the arenas. New Orleans is in our blood; it just comes out. We don’t have to think about it; it’s just there.”
That might sound like a lot of conceptualizing, but in conversation, Shorty talks about the “mental” a lot, and when he talks about music, he talks about studying. His appearance on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip wasn’t just a joy because it was his first occasion after Katrina to see old friends. “Frederick Shepherd was there and I was so excited to see him because I hadn’t seen him in like a year,” Shorty says. “I was ready to take some more lessons. Whenever I saw him, he always threw something out at me and I gotta play it back to him right away.”
After his 2005 releases, he took a lunch with Irvin Mayfield. “He said, ‘If you were a watch, what type of watch would you be? If you were a car, what type of car would you be?’“ Shorty says. “I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I understand now. When you go to buy a certain type of watch or a certain type of tennis shoe, you know you’re going to get Nike. I wanted to focus on that and play my own music and develop my own style.”
In his case, that means something from New Orleans but not necessarily bound by New Orleans.
“We weren’t looking to fly the flag for New Orleans,” manager Mike Kappus said at the Sync Up panel. He and his managers were concerned that the label might stereotype Shorty unfairly. In some pitches to labels, he found that the city’s comparative lack of sales in the national market caused people to wonder if he wasn’t yet another phenom who’d be great in New Orleans but flounder in the rest of the country. Still, as the endurance of many careers in the city suggests, being a New Orleans band has benefits. “You can get instantly pigeon-holed as, ‘Well, you’re just New Orleans,’ but at the same time you have an audience that is going to be very receptive to you because you are from New Orleans,” Dave Bartlett says.
So far, Backatown has been fairly pigeon hole-resistant. It charted as jazz and competed for Best Rock Band at the Big Easy Awards.
For Shorty, though, that genre-crossing element is part of what makes the album New Orleans. “I didn’t want to keep doing all the New Orleans standards because I don’t think it helps the music grow,” he says, “trying to recreate what someone else did. What musicians don’t realize is that those people wanted to be different from whatever happened before them. We’ve been collaborating with other genres of New Orleans music like bounce and hip-hop, brass band. We’ve been reaching out to everybody to be a part of the entire music community here. I worked with Juvenile some. We all jam out and it’s a beautiful thing.”
At coffee Shorty has a posse of one. His car’s no Geo, but it’s not ostentatious either. He keeps his sunglasses on but so do I. The two phones? “I’ve been having these for a couple of years now,” he says, grinning sheepishly. “I can write one off on my taxes. I know when someone calls a certain phone, it’s business, and the other phone’s just my friends.” This isn’t a post-Backatown thing, though. He’s had them for years. “One phone didn’t do what the other did, and being a teenager, I was like, ‘I gotta have two of them!’ I wanted the AOL Instant Messenger while I was in class, and the other phone didn’t do it.”
His youth, his work ethic and his charisma are assets. He’s signed to Verve, so he has Universal Records’ corporate muscle behind him. He’s got a recurring role on a critically acclaimed national television show, so his name recognition’s on the rise and the buzz surrounding him continues. On the down side, it’s not clear how anyone becomes Lady Gaga-big these days. There’s no obvious single on the album, and the problem with not being pigeonhole-able is that it’s hard for radio programmers to know what to do with him. At this point, there’s a two-and-a-half year-old introduction to him on YouTube, but there’s no video from Backatown at a point when embedded videos are one of the most common ways that fans share their passion for their favorite artists, and the simple math suggests that it’s unlikely for any artist to become a phenomenon.
Team Trombone Shorty plans to keep building an audience through the road. It’s worked so far. The venues are getting bigger and he’ll play the festival circuit this summer, reaching larger audiences than ever before. He has upcoming dates with Gov’t Mule and Michael Franti and Spearhead, both of which are fellow travelers on the jam circuit, but they’re also different enough from what Orleans Avenue does that they’ll introduce Shorty to new listeners. He’s already had occasions when artists didn’t want to follow him onstage after his opening set. “It’s an amazing show,” Bartlett says.
“We just recently toured with the New Mastersounds from England,” Shorty says. “That’s the last band we toured with, and Salvador Santana who is Santana’s son. He was opening up for us and Santana actually came out and played with his son on one of the gigs. Other than that, we’ve been strong enough to play by ourselves in certain markets and have a big crowd. We’ve been able to get some places we’ve never played before. I don’t know what’s going on! Working, you know? It’s getting there. The hard work—it’s getting there.”
Updated June 22, 9:05 a.m.
Mike Kappus first saw Trombone Shorty at Rosy’s in New Orleans, not in San Francisco.