Interview with Trombone Shorty: Born In The Tradition

When Troy Andrews was four years old, he was onstage in his historic sixth ward New Orleans neighborhood now known as Treme. By five, he was jamming with Bo Diddley. By seven, he went around the world. It sure must have been a kick for the French Quarter denizens who would party on and off Rampart Street to see this shrimp blow big-time trombone and trumpet… thus, the sobriquet Trombone Shorty.
Well, Shorty’s a man now. He’s been on the road for practically two straight years leading arguably the hottest and hippest band in the country at gigs ranging from Bonnaroo and The Playboy Jazz Festival to headlining in Japan and Paris. Oh yeah, and that was him jamming out during the NFL’s televised opening night spectacular with The Dave Matthews Band on a blistering cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House.”
Dude can dance too while wielding that cumbersome ‘bone. He can sing. And he’s pretty like Ali. The fact that he can lead this hard-charging seven-piece band complete with saxophones and Hendrixian guitar on funk-rock workouts as well as sweet Marvin Gaye covers, Louie Armstrong rave-ups and still have the chops to tackle straight-a-head jazz is testament to his greatness. His major label debut, Backatown, might be one of the best CDs of the year, but it’s still no match for his killer stage show. This reporter saw him two nights in a row last summer and hasn’t stopped talking about him since. When’s the last time you saw an action-packed jamband fronted by a trombone man?

We spoke with him just prior to his shows with Jeff Beck in London.

Last summer, you snaked through the crowd and had practically the whole audience following behind you on an impromptu Second Line on “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Yeah, that was cool. We bring the energy of the city of New Orleans wherever we go. We don’t feel right unless we end with “Saints” sometimes. We do a little of that Second Line to let everybody know where we come from. I know it’s unusual for people to see a trombone man in front. It’s a different thing but it’s cool to me. There are no boundaries for me musically. I just want to attack everything.
How’d you hook up with Jeff Beck?

He came to one of my late-night shows in New Orleans. Damn show didn’t even start until like 3:00 a.m. but he hung out and afterwards came backstage and invited me to play with him in New York at his Les Paul tribute. Next thing you know he invites me to open up for him in England. I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time.
Seems like the sky’s the limit for you. I understand you’re even an actor now too.

Yeah, I do a little acting on [HBO’s] Treme. It’s an amazing thing. I get to be myself. I was so nervous, but I remembered all my lines. I got to go back in a few weeks and do more.

How much do the legends of New Orleans enter into your own music: people like Dr. John, Louie Armstrong, The Meters, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, the Marsalis clan, the Neville clan, Fats Domino… I could go on. Do you take from them what you like and incorporate it into your own style and sound?

That’s exactly what I do. I’ve played with most of those people. I’ve spent time with those people and learned from them. I practically used to live at Cyril Neville’s house. The Neville Brothers is a whole different sound from Louie Armstrong yet they taught me so much. Fats too. Every musical situation I’ve ever been in, I take something away from to learn. They’ve all had a major impact on my life. That’s exactly where my sound comes from!

I’ve been so righteously educated and influenced by some of the greatest musicians in the world. Wynton Marsalis, man! And Dr. John is a good friend of my family. We talk all the time; he calls me for different things. Just to have all those people who are masters at what they do, I just try to pick up from them. All those folks you mentioned laid down the foundation for me to do what I do. I listen and study them all. Louie Armstrong the most, though. In fact, the whole city of New Orleans has influenced me greatly. I’m like a sponge soaking it all up. Soon some other kid after me will come along and change it up again, I’m sure.

What is it about that town that fosters such musical depth! It must be in the water.

Yeah, music is the heartbeat of that city, no doubt. They got street people down there playing better than half these guys you hear on the radio. I got family members who were never even interested in music but then they bang on the drum, it sounds like something! I don’t know how it happens, man, and it’s hard to believe. I got a group of young cousins coming up under me. They didn’t ask me to help them back then. I go on tour and stay on the road for almost two years straight, right? I come home and they got a damn band—you wouldn’t believe how they sound! I said, “who taught y’all how to do this? Where y’all get this from?” It’s New Orleans. It’s a special place.

How long can you keep up this pace? I know you’re young, healthy, strong, talented and hungry for it, but, damn, they’re keeping you out on the road all over the world what seems like forever! This pace you’re on could kill a lesser man!

Yeah, it could. Sometimes after the show, I feel like I just did a three-hour work-out with weights. I don’t know, man. It is a hard pace, you got that right. Some of those metal bands play with that kind of energy. And we do play hard! Make no mistake about it. We are physically drained after each show. I don’t know how to answer that question, to be honest. Only time will tell.

I don’t smoke or drink, I can tell you that. Maybe that will make me last a little longer. Sometimes the mental energy seems dead when we have to do 18 nights in a row on the road but it still sounds good to the crowd. Only I can feel it. It still doesn’t stop me from playing as hard as I can, though.

Then there’s the old story of experiencing the high of feeling that love from hundreds or even thousands at a pop before facing that lonely hotel room afterwards. That’s been the downfall of many a great rock star of the past. How do you deal with that disparity?

Yeah, there you are, man. In that dark room. All by yourself. The way I deal with it, I just, uh, man, it is a tough balancing act. I just set the date as to when I can go home. I look at that as my motivation. I think in that hotel room, “I just have to get through this and I can be with my family again.” Then I go to sleep. Then there’s days like today where I have a lot of time to myself before we even go to the gig. I forget about everything only when I hit the stage. But then reality always comes after that. We play so much that when we get to the hotel, we don’t even have time to really think about it too much, we just got to go to sleep because we have to do the same thing a few hours later when we wake up in the morning. It’s funny. Sometimes, when you’re on the road, and you want to be home, and then when you’re home, you want to be on the road.

It’s a weird life that we live. It can get tough at times. I don’t know exactly how to balance it and it can feel very, very lonely at times. But then you get out there and you see the fans and they give you so much love that they become your family. So you be with your new family for awhile and get all excited and, hopefully, don’t think about too much and go to sleep so you can get out there and do it again. We been on tour for years! It’s one big blur.

Shorty’s going to be hosting two nights of New Orleans joy, Red, Hot & Orleans, with an all-star cast (including Dr. John and Irma Thomas) at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music Dec. 3 and 4 before ringing in the New Year at the World Café in Philadelphia Dec. 31.