A New Orleans native, Trombone Shorty has made a life out of music. He’s been playing trombone, trumpet, tuba, guitar, organ, and drums ever since he was a child, and he’s spent most of his adult life either performing his own R&B and rock-inspired music, or backing artists such as U2 and Usher. His most recent project is Parking Lot Symphony, a collection of dynamic tracks that are warmly robust like bourbon and bubbly like champagne.
How does someone go from performing in the streets of New Orleans at four years old to recording music with artists like Prince and Eric Clapton? What drives and inspires Andrews, a multi-genre multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, and bandleader? Enthusiastic for his upcoming show in Saratoga, Shorty chatted with SF Weekly about all this and more.
SF Weekly: I have never been to New Orleans. How would you describe the city’s music culture to someone like me, who has no firsthand experience with it?
Trombone Shorty: New Orleans, we live and breathe music. There’s probably music being played 24-hours-a-day — that’s the heartbeat of the city. This whole vibe and atmosphere was created before I was even born, and I’m just a part of it now. Music is so important there that even when normal, non-musician people are talking to you on the street, the way they say hello to you is that they sing your name. Music is just really important there — you can hear it on the street, you can hear it in the club, you can hear it in the alley. There’s always dancing going on. It’s just one of those magical cities where that part of our culture is very important and it just happens naturally. It’s an energy. Without music, I’m not sure there’s New Orleans.
SFW: In addition to your own music, you’ve performed alongside a ton of different artists. Of all the artists that you’ve worked with, who is someone that you’d want to work with again and why?
Shorty: That changes all the time. Being able to play with all these different musicians from different genres of music is just a dream come true for me, because I’m always learning some type of new thing. When I worked with Prince in the studio that was incredible, and I learned a lot from that. Also Lenny Kravitz is like an uncle to me — I’m always talking to him — and he’s taught me a lot. Everybody I’ve worked with in the past I’ve learned a bunch of things from, and I would play and record with them at any of them at any time. Everything I get placed in is always a different experience and that’s what it’s about for me. If I can just be in that standing and take something away from it to bring back to my music then I’m good.
SFW: The Trombone Shorty Foundation focuses a lot on music education for youth. When you were a kid exploring music what was the most helpful advice you have ever received?
Shorty: To learn how to play all styles of music, because before you become a band leader you may have to back other people up, and you should be authentic to whatever style there is. That was told to me when I was about eight years old, and that stuck with me even until today. And then I had another teacher who always told me, “Fundamentals, fundamentals!” and he would always drill that into my head and that was the most important thing that I could remember.
He said, “We have a lot of people that can play but they may not be technically prepared to jump on stage and approach different types of music.” I wanted to start the foundation is because I just wanted to introduce that to some kids who may not be getting that care in school. I just wanted to give them that opportunity.
SFW: Are there qualities in a student that immediately stand out and make you think, “Wow, this person has a lot of potential”?
Shorty: We don’t give the students extra credit, extra anything, so the kids that come to the program are serious about music on their own. And when you hear some of them play you can tell that they’re serious about it. Also, when a kid has the ability to improvise, that’s when you can always tell that a kid has great potential. Anybody can learn how to play a song, but that doesn’t really prove if you can play with creative imagination. When I hear some kids improvise, some of them sound like grown men already, and they just have so much potential to grow.
SFW: You seem very optimistic about the future of music and all the innovative directions music is taking today. Are there any popular music trends that you dislike?
Shorty: Not really. I don’t think anything is lame or anything like that, because I can always learn something from something. A song could be terrible, and I might not even listen to the lyrics, but there might be some type of chord progression underneath that must inspire me to do something else. I listen to everything and I respect all types of music — Cuban music, death metal music — and there’s always something I can pick up from and find a way to incorporate it in my music.
SFW: Is there one genre that speaks to you the most?
Shorty: It would probably be soul and funk rock music. The Chili Peppers, Lenny Kravitz, Rage Against the Machine, things like that. Some of that music I grew up listening to because my mom listened to Ray Charles and James Brown. So some of those things have stuck with me because of my childhood and my mom, so you can hear that type of influence in my music.
SFW: My favorite song from Parking Lot Symphony is “No Good Time.” Can you tell me more about how that song was developed?
Shorty: Actually I was watching TV — and I never usually watch TV — and this movie Addicted came on. It was about this woman who was cheating on her husband because she was addicted. And I wrote the melody thinking in that state of mind. And then I got with the producer Chris and I gave him the song and he wrote most of the lyrics and helped put the song together. The lyrics are basically about how life lessons usually come from doing something and not getting a good result. You never learn nothing from a good time. If we’re hanging out on Bourbon St. and always having a good time we’re always gonna be going to Bourbon Street. But if you go down to Bourbon Street. and get really wasted and lose your wallet and stuff, there’s your life lesson right there. Most of the lessons in life are from things we went to go try and it didn’t work.
SFW: It’s a heavy message for a song that initially sounds so upbeat.
Shorty: That’s one thing about New Orleans. We could be talking about the saddest thing in the world, and people will be dancing. I think Bob Marley had that same type of thing. Like if you listen to “I Shot the Sheriff” — when people be listening to that I don’t even know if they realize what they’re hearing because they’re smiling and dancing. In New Orleans, we find joy out of everything — New Orleans is the only place where you’ll find people dancing at funerals. Even in sad songs there’s always gonna be some uptempo groove that’s gonna make you tap your foot. It’s not gonna make you cry unless you’re really listening to the lyrics.
SFW: Any last comments you want to share?
Shorty: I just want to say that I love playing music, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to share it with the world.
Trombone Shorty comes to the Bay Area on Aug. 22 at the Mountain Winery.