Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews' reputation precedes him. So much so that his absence actually causes a stir in the very first scene of Treme, HBO's new series about post-Katrina New Orleans. Two sides engage in a friendly negotiation about the fee musicians will receive for playing in a second-line parade. "Y'all said you were gonna have Shorty kickin' it with you. He's not here now," goes the winning argument. When a lesser musician shows up in Shorty's place, he's greeted with jeers from the band. "Shorty sent me to show ya'll how to play this here music," he says weakly, though everyone knows it's not true. The amazing thing about all this chatter is left unspoken: At the time depicted in this true-to-life scene, the legendary Trombone Shorty was all of 19 years old.
Now 24 and playing 200 shows across the globe each year with his band Orleans Avenue, Troy Andrews seems poised for the kind of international stardom that happens only once or twice in each generation of New Orleans musicians. Last week brought the release of Andrews' first nonlocal CD, Backatown, on the Verve Forecast label, a part of the Universal Music Group —otherwise known as the biggest record company in the world. Backatown shines a bright light on Andrews' potent mix of rock, R&B, funk and hip-hop, which he and his band like to call "supafunkrock." Among local fans and musicians, Andrews clearly enjoys the kind of revered status typically reserved for artists twice his age. In mid-April, USA Today ran a long, glowing profile of Andrews, and he was feted as the Big Easy Awards' Entertainer of the Year last Monday. But is the world ready for the first horn-wielding rock star?
Anyone who saw Andrews' powerhouse set near the end of the recent French Quarter Festival in New Orleans will answer that question with an unequivocal "yes." Prowling the stage like a seasoned pro in his stylish black suit, Andrews had a joyous crowd of several thousand eating out of his hand. He shifted easily between dazzling turns on trombone and trumpet, put across lead vocals with new confidence and strength, and exhorted the band to somehow come off as both spontaneous and precise. Most important, he and the band seemed completely unbound by other people's ideas of what New Orleans music is supposed to sound like. But that's not news to Andrews.
"When I got to my teenage years, I realized the music was not going to grow unless I took my own approach," Andrews says. "When you look at people like Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, they were the new thing of their time. They took from whatever came before and created something new. One day we'd like to be like the Meters, in that category with the all-time great New Orleans bands. That takes a lot of hard work. And you can't be afraid to take risks."
Andrews didn't create his new sound all by himself. Though everyone in Orleans Avenue is around Andrews' age, the core of the band has been playing together for more than a decade. Andrews met drummer Joey Peebles and monster bass player Mike Ballard — now known as "Mike Bass" — when all three were 11 years old and attended Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp in New Orleans. And Andrews and percussionist Dwayne "Big D" Williams first started making noise together "when we were in diapers in Treme," Andrews says. "He lived across the street from me on Dumaine."
As teenagers, Andrews, Ballard, and Peebles attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), which counts Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and many other local legends among its alumni. As Andrews and Ballard both recall, Orleans Avenue began to take shape when Ballard, who had been playing trumpet alongside Andrews for years, decided to pick up his father's bass for the first time and bring it to school. A teacher challenged Ballard to play a notoriously difficult jazz tune, and he somehow managed to pull it off. "Shorty walked up and said, 'Hey man, I got some gigs for you,'" Ballard says. "Shorty says that to everybody — I mean everybody — just to make them feel good. But he was serious. I'm still here nine years later."
Other young musicians — guitarist Pete Murano, Tim McFatter on tenor sax, and Dan Oestreicher on baritone sax — later joined the band, which now gathers in Andrews' rehearsal studio, appropriately called "The Gumbo Room," to create their music. "Everyone in the band has a unique cultural background, and we all bring our different energies into that room," Andrews says. Ballard concurs: "If there's one part that needs to be fixed we'll trim it a little bit, but the individual style is still there."
Making music for live audiences to enjoy is one thing, and cutting records that make a statement and build a career is another. More than one outside observer has noted that New Orleans tends to turn out more great music and great musicians than memorable and influential recordings, despite the presence of world-class producers like Allen Toussaint. Andrews has a persuasive theory to explain this phenomenon, one that guided him when it came time to record his breakout release.
"In New Orleans, everything's built on live music," Andrews says. "It's what we live on, and it's the heartbeat of the city. We go into the studio and try to capture what we did on the gig, and sometimes it doesn't come off well. In other places, musicians cut their records first and then build their live show. I wanted people to enjoy this record even if they don't know we're from New Orleans." To that end, Andrews enlisted Galactic's Ben Ellman to produce Backatown. "His approach was to get it as clean and tight as we could, and still have a bit of looseness in there," Andrews says. "That's why we went to him."
Troy credits his brother James Andrews, another accomplished horn player, as his single greatest influence. But in recent years, no one has cast a longer shadow over Troy Andrews' musical life than rocker Lenny Kravitz, who invited Andrews to join his touring band and changed his life forever. "I was 18 or 19 years old, and suddenly I had to learn 20 years worth of Lenny's music, and play it just like on his records," Andrews says. "The concentration and discipline I needed to do that changed me mentally. After that process, I came back and said, 'This is what I need to bring to my band.' After that we'd sometimes rehearse one song for over an hour just to get the feel right. I'd never done that before."
During two years in Kravitz's band, Andrews traveled the world and imagined where his own career might take him. Playing in sold-out arenas had a huge effect. "I studied Lenny every night. Now, no matter where I am, I try to play like I'm performing for millions of people at once. That's my mindset. I want to reach everybody."
Andrews recently spent a week in the Bahamas laying down tracks for Kravitz's new record. While there, he played some of his own new record for Kravitz, who offered to return the favor. Kravitz added backing vocals and a blistering guitar solo to "Something Beautiful," the first single from Backatown and a track that could have come straight out of Kravitz's own catalogue, or maybe that of Prince in his prime. It's not hard to imagine the song wafting out from car radios this summer. Singer Marc Broussard also guests on Backatown, as does Allen Toussaint, playing piano on the record's only cover, Toussaint's own classic "On Your Way Down."
Though Andrews' music is unmistakably modern, his connections to the traditional sounds of New Orleans run deep. When he was four years old, he started performing in Jackson Square with his brother James, who recalls that Troy made a big splash there even though "he couldn't reach the second position on the trombone. He really only had a couple of notes." One day, James looked over at Troy, saw him holding a trombone that was twice as tall as he was, and called out "Trombone Shorty!" The name stuck, as did Troy's penchant for pleasing his adoring fans. "By the time he was seven he was the leader of the Trombone Shorty Brass Band," James says.
In those days, the elder Andrews served as leader of Treme's All-Star Brass Band. "People would come over to the house to rehearse and leave a bunch of instruments around, and I'd go bang on the drums and climb inside Tuba Fats' tuba," Troy says. "I remember I had a trumpet mouthpiece inside a trombone because my lips were so small. My earliest memories all involve playing music with my brother. He's responsible for everything."
By the time Troy Andrews was eight or nine, his mother had already named a Treme music club after him. "My mama would let me come into Trombone Shorty's on weekends and play a song or two with the band, whoever was there," he says. "I remember they'd lock the door so the police wouldn't come in. I had to hurry up and play, and get out of there."
Andrews' grandfather was R&B legend Jessie Hill, who wrote the New Orleans classic "Ooh Poo Pah Doo." "He'd come around to our brass band rehearsals with a tambourine and teach us showmanship," Troy says. "I didn't understand too much at that age, but now I know what he was talking about."
It wasn't just the Andrews family that saw something special in Troy in those early days." Treme was a tight-knit neighborhood back then," James says. "Troy would stroll two blocks down the street and people would start looking out for him." Troy has similar memories of that time. "I feel like the whole city of New Orleans looked out for me, to make sure I went in the right direction. People saw so many of my friends go down a different route."
When Troy was nine years old, James arranged for him to leave Treme and live with Susan Scott, a beloved supporter of New Orleans' musical community. She lived in the Bayou St. John neighborhood. "Susan took him in and arranged for him to have tutoring, everything he needed," James says. "That was when he started to become the person he is today." Troy remained in Scott's house until he graduated from NOCCA years later.
Troy Andrews is quick to give credit to his family and community for his success, but the drive and focus that now characterize him developed early. "As a kid, I looked at people around me who were drinking or doing drugs, and I saw they'd become a different person. At that young age I didn't know what those things could do to you, but I just thought, 'Nah, I don't want that.' I like to have control over my life."
Now that Andrews is becoming a national figure, there are fellow musicians and casual observers in New Orleans who say he'll have to move away from town to fulfill his destiny and achieve all his goals. But Andrews is having none of it. "I don't know. To me, that sounds like old, 20-years-ago thinking. Wynton [Marsalis], and Harry Connick Jr., that's what they had to do. I want to be one of the reasons people in L.A. and New York come and visit New Orleans."
For the immediate future, the road will serve as home for Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. Their afternoon set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Sunday will be their last local date for a while. Soon they're off to London, Paris, New York City and major festivals in Japan, Brazil and beyond. It's all part of the plan.
"We've got a lot of world to travel," Andrews says. "And it's going to be cool. I'm ready for this journey."