Trombone Shorty: Even Funerals Are Parties in New Orleans

Mathieu Bitton
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue headline Red Rocks on Wednesday, August 16.
Troy Andrews, also known as Trombone Shorty, was born into a musical family and has lived a musical life.

He started playing trombone at four years old, knows his way around funk and jazz, and has been working as a professional musician since he was a teenager. While he's been immersed in music for most of the 31 years he’s been alive, he spent the day before he and his band left for Japan to play the Fuji Rock Festival driving around New Orleans, his home town, with his car stereo off.

It’s during breaks from listening to music that Andrews's brain starts to work and creativity hits.

“I’m not really influenced by anything at that moment,” he says. “It’s like having a blank canvas, and sometimes I might be driving down the street, and some people next to me might be having some hip-hop music on, but I can’t really understand what song it is, but I hear certain rhythms and my interpretations of those rhythms – what I think I’m hearing, even though I might not be hearing it accurately. But what I think I’m hearing – that triggers another whole idea in my head that I just start to hum in my phone and do different things. Sometimes the silence is the key.”

A similar thing happened when Andrews was in the studio with his nephew, who was listening to trap music on his headphones. Andrews, who could only hear patterns of the drums, ran down to a drum set, played what he’d heard, and the song became “Familiar,” which ended up on his new album, Parking Lot Symphony, released on Blue Note last April.

“I didn’t ask him what he was listening to,” Andrews says. “I didn’t ask him to let me hear it. But the pattern.… You know, these kids, they play music really loud, so you get a lot of hi-hat and snare and some vocal, but you don’t really hear the music.”

While some ideas for songs come unexpectedly, Andrews also collaborates with fellow musicians. He recorded a ’70s R&B-steeped title track on Parking Lot Symphony with Alex Ebert, frontman of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. Andrews says the term “parking lot symphony” refers to his experience playing music in the streets of New Orleans.

“We’re marching in the street with all these thousands of people with horns and drums, and we’re marching four hours during a second-line parade,” Andrews says. “That can be like a parking lot symphony. That’s what I got when I got the name.”

Listening to Parking Lot Symphony or seeing Andrews’s spirited live shows, it’s evident he has the music of New Orleans in his DNA, and he pays homage to his town with covers of songs by Allen Toussaint (“Here Come the Girls”) and the Meters (“It Ain’t No Use), both legends in Crescent City.

“What Allen Toussaint and the Meters did…if it wouldn’t be for those guys, I’m not sure if I would have a funk platform from New Orleans to be able to build on," Andrews says. "From their platform that they created together, I was able to have a sound that I could be influenced by and do what I do. Without the Meters and Allen Toussaint, New Orleans would probably a bit different.

“Those two, they’re giants in our music scene, and I don’t know where we’d be without them," Andrews continues. "Any chance I get to record and create something, either a cover or create something with them in mind as a reference, I always try to do that, because they’re that important and dominant in New Orleans as far as music goes.”

Along with being inspired by New Orleans music greats, Andrews says he’s had great teachers and people in his Treme neighborhood who cared about him and passed along a wealth of knowledge.

“They saw something in me at a young age to where they wanted to show me,” he says. “They saw someone playing, and they just wanted to give me some tools to work on to get to the next level. And then they’d come back in a few months or even a year later and check up on me and ask me to play what they’d showed me, and they’d give me another lesson. It’s just a natural thing. And then I started to play with some of the older musicians, and there’s a lot of learning on the job here in New Orleans. So, a lot of that wasn’t formal training, but it was experience being right next to the person and them guiding you playing by ear or making certain gestures to you.”

Andrews wasn’t learning songs by playing along to the album; he says the younger players learned from older musicians who took them under their wing. And if the youth played something wrong, their mentors would teach it to them right on the spot without anybody even knowing they had given a lesson.

Being from New Orleans, where “everything feels good,” he knows that also applies to music, even when playing in a second line during a funeral.

“Even though we’re celebrating a life, the music is uplifting, and it’s probably the only place in the world you’ll see people dancing at a funeral,” he says. “So, everything I play, everything that this city has created for me to be, is about bringing joy and fun partying to the world, and that’s what New Orleans creates. That’s what our music is about, and in all my music, you can feel that.”

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, with the Record Company and Jamestown Revival, 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 16, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, 720-865-2494, $37.50-$45.