In New Orleans, roots trump everything. So the average fan might look at 30-year-old musician Trombone Shorty and say, “He sure is young!” Or the traditionalist might listen to the amped-up gumbo of funk, hip-hop, alternative rock, blues, soul, and R&B and say, “Not jazz enough.”
But the man born Troy Andrews is a seasoned vet with an unassailable pedigree: His grandfather Jessie Hill was a lifelong musician, who wrote the classic R&B track “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Shorty first started performing in his native Treme neighborhood of the Crescent City at age four. He was leading his own band by age six — playing a trombone nearly twice as long as he was tall, hence the stage name. He began touring with the Stooges Brass Band and his older brother James’ All-Star Brass Band when just a teenager. Andrews went to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the same prestigious professional arts training center Harry Connick Jr., the Marsalis brothers, and Wendell Pierce attended. And, just two months after graduation, he joined Lenny Kravitz on a worldwide stint opening for Aerosmith.
So it’s easy to see that Trombone Shorty’s artistry and work ethic are innate. He’s released nine studio albums in 11 years, appeared in countless television and film roles, and worked with all manner of musicians, from The Meters to U2 to Green Day to Mystikal to Jeff Beck to Mos Def to Rod Stewart to Kid Rock to Zac Brown to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony to Foo Fighters. He’s an expert trombone, tuba, and trumpet player, and is quite adept at handling the saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. Oh, and he’s been touring at least 150 nights a year since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina instilled in him a new desire to both big up New Orleans and break free of the city’s easy-living borders.
Shorty’s music is forever rooted in his hometown jazz tradition, but with the help of electrifying Orleans Avenue bandmates Pete Murano, Michael Ballard, Dan Oestreicher, Joey Peebles, and BK Jackson, he tosses in heaping helpings of alternative rock, funk, hip hop, R&B, and soul, an uptempo mix Shorty calls “supafunkrock.” It fits that his music can pierce any veil. He’s big in Europe, bigger in Japan, biggest in Australia. He’s performed at
the White House, the NBA All-Star Game, Tulane University’s Unified Commencement Ceremony, and an AIDS Task Force concert. Consider him a bridge joining the dignified old-school New Orleans of the late Allen Toussaint and the rowdy new-school New Orleans of Big Freedia. As Shorty told Complex.com in 2013, it’s all the same to him: “When we’re talking about music, it’s just one language — everybody communicates like that.”
Beyond his role as a global ambassador for the Big Easy, Shorty is committed to giving back to the community that nurtured him. His Horns For Schools Program joined forces with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to donate professional-quality instruments to area students who wanted to play music. In 2012, his Trombone Shorty Foundation teamed up with Tulane to institute an official after school program, Trombone Shorty Academy, for aspiring high school musicians. According to Shorty, it’s all in the name of preserving and perpetuating the city’s unique musical culture by reinterpreting it and passing it on to the next generations. As he told Jazziz Magazine in 2011, “When I came back to New Orleans [after Katrina] and started doing this heavy rock thing, a lot of people — my own relatives — were, like, ‘What are you doing?’ Some of them were offended. I love all the music that came before me. I honor it. I’m a student of that music. But that doesn’t mean I have to keep recycling.”
In many ways, Shorty’s reshaping of that vaunted tradition is the only thing that can be held against him. The only other blemish on his record is his arrest at age 10 for playing too loudly in New Orleans’ iconic Jackson Square. But even that incident was staged by
a local civil rights lawyer to call attention to the city’s archaic enforcement of noise ordinances pushed by the mostly white business establishment.
Even though Shorty’s music now appeals to a mostly white audience, you can’t deny the power it has to introduce folks all over to New Orleans’ gumbo. And you definitely can’t deny Shorty’s roots. He’s suffered at the hands of the crime and poverty that still flourishes in New Orleans as much as anyone; in 1996, his older brother Darnell was gunned down in the Lafitte housing projects, and in 2012, his cousin Glen was arrested on attempted murder and aggravated assault charges.
Which may explain why Trombone Shorty has kept his focus squarely on achieving success. It can be encapsulated by one scene in HBO’s acclaimed series Treme, in which Shorty has appeared several times. Another homegrown musician and longtime friend, Kermit Ruffins, is urged to spread his wings by an eager local DJ and aspiring musician: “Kermit, is all you want to do is smoke weed, barbecue, and stay in New Orleans for the rest of your life?” To which Ruffins, in his inimitable rasp, replies, “That’ll work.”
But that’s not Trombone Shorty. As he told Dan Rather in one of the legendary TV newsman’s “Big Interviews” in 2014, “I’ve never had the urge to smoke or drink … I’m after something. I don’t know what that something is, but I have to reach it. I have to continue to want to be a better musician, and I’m not there yet.”