The silence that befell New Orleans this year sounded different from that in other locked-down cities around the world. Mournful isn’t the word, not in a town where death—like most every other significant event—is marked with exuberant music. It was perhaps especially unnatural to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who led his first street band when he was six and has gone on to become a global ambassador of New Orleans music.
“I don’t know if normal people who are not musicians, if their ears are listening to the sounds of the city, but I do,” says Andrews, now 34, speaking by phone from his recording studio off leafy St. Charles Avenue. “To me it was very sad to be in the city that’s usually full of noise— beautiful noise, tap dancers, even the steamboat organ, you know?—and not hear anything.”
Andrews has been confined to his hometown longer than at any time since 2005, when he began touring the world, first with Lenny Kravitz, then with his own band, Orleans Avenue. He’s spent much of this year alone in the studio, fine-tuning his as-yet-untitled next album, recorded largely before the pandemic and expected to be released early next year on the Blue Note label. With this record, he says, he has sought to capture the rambunctious energy of his band’s crowded and sweaty live shows. Working on it throughout the spring and summer—uncertain when and where such shows would be possible again—only reinforced the strangeness of the moment. While he had all the time in the world to woodshed, the echo of his unaccompanied horn had a tree-falling-in-an-empty-forest quality.
On Instagram, the closest thing he had to an audience, Andrews found a way to perform alone together: He shot video of himself playing trombone, trumpet, keyboard, bass guitar, and drums, and layered them using a specialized app. The short clips showcased not only his versatility as an instrumentalist but also his fluency in a range of genres. In one he plays “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over,” a tune he came to know inside and out after joining Kravitz’s band at age 19. In another—an Easter request from his mother, he says—he performs the spiritual “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” at a dirge tempo, stacking five trombone parts to re-create the at-once warm and bracing sound of the New Orleans brass band.
Andrews’s high-octane mix of rock, funk, and R&B owes much to Kravitz, as does his rock-star swagger. “He helped shape the way that I even walk on stage,” he says. Yet his own style remains deeply rooted in traditional New Orleans jazz. Andrews grew up in the Treme neighborhood, scion of a musical dynasty: His grandfather Jessie Hill collaborated with Dr. John and wrote the Mardi Gras staple “Ooh Poo Pah Do,” and his two older brothers, trumpeter James and trombonist Darnell, became fixtures of the streetmusic scene.
“It’s very hard for me to depart from New Orleans emotionally,” he says. “You’ll hear the history of where I come from in my vocabulary, musically. It’s like having an accent, you know?” (It’s an apt comparison, considering his own raspy NOLA drawl.)
“Troy represents the great artistic tradition that connects him to the past and the future of New Orleans,” says actor and passionate New Orleanian Wendell Pierce, who starred in HBO’s post-Katrina drama Treme and urged showrunner David Simon (The Wire) to cast Andrews in a recurring part. “He is connected to Buddy Bolden and Papa Celestine, but he is putting his sound into the tradition for the future.”
In the past couple of years, New Orleans has lost a heartbreaking number of musical giants, including Fats Domino, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Ellis Marsalis, who died of COVID-19 in April. Andrews is well placed to pick up the mantle, though he balks at the suggestion. “You just made me nervous with that one!” he says. “I never thought of it that way, but...I stand on their shoulders. Hopefully I can be what they were for me to other people.”