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Trombone Shorty on His New Album and the Future of New Orleans

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Needless to say, it’s been weird. He’s been living with his mother (“She lives with me,” he clarifies, then adds, “Don’t tell her I said that.”) Most mornings he gets up, does a few push-ups, and heads to the studio. “It’s like I have a commute,” he says, wonderingly. This week he’s found himself waking up at 7 a.m., a time about which he had previously only heard distant rumors unless it involved catching a flight. Early in quarantine the rapper Juvenile would stop by the studio and the two worked together on beats. These days he’s mostly alone. He’ll play a little trumpet and trombone, just to keep his mouth in shape. Sometimes he puts on a pair of headphones, chooses a random new-music playlist on Spotify, and plays along with whatever comes up—hip-hop, country, heavy metal, pop—honing the chops that have made him a prized guest for such unlikely acts as U2, Zac Brown Band, and the Foo Fighters. Occasionally he’ll leave the soundproof inner-studio door open, as he did while playing piano this morning, and emerge from these reveries to find puzzled pedestrians outside. All in all, his vibe is somewhere between an athlete keeping in shape during the off-season and Martin Sheen waiting for his mission in Apocalypse Now.

“I try to switch it in my mind to, ‘Okay. This is a well-deserved break,” he says, sounding not quite convinced. “But it’s strange. I have to figure out how to be…normal.

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That’s a word rarely used for Andrews, whose story has such the quality of a fairy tale that it’s been the subject of not one but two children’s books. He grew up in Tremé, one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the United States and the cradle of New Orleans’s protean Black street-music culture. “Every block had a musician living on it,” Andrews says. Many of them were family, nearly all of them “family” in a neighborhood of honorary uncles, aunts, and nephews. Troy’s older brother James is a bandleader who brought the younger sibling he dubbed Trombone Shorty out to perform on the streets, and on tour around the world, long before the younger Andrews reached adolescence. He learned by ear and “on the slab,” brass band-speak for the grueling four-hour-plus street parades called second lines. If James’s tuba player didn’t show up, well, Troy was a tuba player now, expected to pick up bass lines and harmonies on the move.

Even in this music-soaked world, Andrews’s gifts were evident. Wynton Marsalis, watching him play alongside James at the storied Little People’s Place bar when Andrews was no older than 10, leaned over to a companion and whispered, “This little man right here can truly play.” The trumpeter took enough of an interest to later send Andrews some jazz history books, including a biography of Louis Armstrong.

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Andrews soon drew the attention of businesswoman and arts patron Susan Scott, who secured him an audition at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a local arts high school, and allowed him to stay with her part-time at her mansion on Bayou St. John. From then on, Andrews lived in two worlds: One of charts, scales, and theory, the other of instinct, improv, and soul. If his musical lives were sometimes at odds—fellow jazz students at NOCCA expressed confusion over his interests in rap and alternative rock, while neighborhood friends razzed him for playing “that school stuff”—the result was a union of remarkable technical ability and undeniable groove.

“I had friends who relied too much on natural ability, which can only take you so far. And I’ve got friends that became too much technicians and don’t know how to shut that off,” he says. “My goal from a very young age was to maintain where I came from, but enhance it and learn.” As longtime New Orleans food writer Brett Anderson puts it, “Whatever the It of New Orleans music is, Trombone Shorty was practically built in a laboratory to carry it forward.”

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