Walking to grade school in the historic Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews would see one brass band at a funeral, then another at a birthday party on his way home.
“It was like a dream place,” says Andrews, who got to hang around local legends like Kermit Ruffins and the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth brass bands that grew out of the city’s second-line social traditions. “Right now, it’s nowhere near what it was. I’m used to people dancing and jumping on cars and second-lining. That’s the type of music I grew up playing and listening to. We were just bringing joy.”
Now, as Trombone Shorty (a moniker he earned by playing his horn in that neighborhood since age 4), the 28-year-old Andrews brings joy in his own role of musical ambassador, performing what he calls “supafunkrock” with his world-trekking band, Orleans Avenue.
“If we did what everyone’s been doing for 50 years, the music would never grow,” Andrews says, acknowledging that some old-timers weren’t so supportive of his rocking funk but have since come around. “They see, ‘OK, y’all doing something that might not be what we thought y’all be doing, but y’all doing something that’s actually helping everybody.’”
Trombone Shorty has topped the contemporary jazz charts and played late-night TV shows, the White House and even the closing slot at last year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in place of the Neville Brothers.
“I don’t think genres really exist in New Orleans—it’s just New Orleans music,” says Andrews, whose group hits House of Blues on Jan. 18. “As a kid, growing up and being able to share the stage with the Neville Brothers, Dr. John and some of the Marsalis family, and even working with Mannie Fresh as a teenager on some hip-hop things, I always thought that was normal. Music is music.”
As he got older, Andrews learned something else. “New Orleans never forgot that jazz music was dance music,” he says. “There’s a certain bounce to the music and a beat that you have to get up and dance.”
For his slick, robust album Say That to Say This, released in September, Andrews tapped R&B iconoclast Raphael Saadiq, whose former group Tony! Toni! Tone! had influenced the young horn player.
“What I love about him,” Andrews says, “is the knowledge of the music that came before him and his imagination on how to push it forward.” He says that Saadiq influenced the writing for the album, adding unusual chord changes on guitar in jams with Orleans Avenue, which features guitarist Pete Murano, saxophonists Tim McFatter and Dan Oestreicher, bassist Mike Ballard and drummer Joey Peebles as well as Andrews.
In addition to his work on trombone and trumpet, Andrews shows his development as a vocalist on assertive tracks like “You and I (Outta This Place)” and “Fire and Brimstone.” “In my early years, I wouldn’t even speak on the mic,” he says. “If you’re the leader of a band in New Orleans, you have to sing and you have to entertain, and that comes from the model that Louis Armstrong left for us.”
Andrews also takes pride in his attention to songwriting and arranging, giving credit to Allen Toussaint as a mentor and noting that it’s helped him in collaborations with the Dave Matthews Band and the Zac Brown Band.
He continually cites New Orleans musicians who nurtured him, including family members, led by his trumpeter brother James. “They didn’t treat me like a kid when it came to music,” Andrews says. “Only when I took the horn out of my mouth, then they’d say, ‘OK, we got to get you home. You have homework to do.’”
Andrews even convinced the original Meters to reunite in a studio for the first time since 1977 to recut “Be My Lady” for his new album. “They’re like my uncles,” he says. “I didn’t know how deep it would be.”
He gives back as well through his Trombone Shorty Foundation and Music Academy, housed at Tulane University and providing lessons as well as instruments to city youngsters. “I just wanted them to see that music could be their passports to see the world.”
Trombone Shorty plays House of Blues on Jan. 18.