The night they arrested Trombone Shorty

by Brian Clarey

To understand howsomething like this could happen – how a 10-year-old kid could getarrested for playing a trombone in the middle of the French Quarter inNew Orleans – you need a little context. Because New Orleans isa musical town, and the French Quarter its noisy, percussive heart. Andof course, right next to it sits the Tremé, the most musicalneighborhood in the country. As the old story goes, this poor communitywhich grew up around the edges of Congo Square was the recipient of acache of army surplus instruments – bugles, trumpets, drums and such -after the Civil War and its residents took up the horns in earnest. LouisArmstrong is from the Tremé. Kermit Ruffins, too. The ReBirth BrassBand formed its original ranks right there off Rampart Street andEsplanade. And that’s where Trombone Shorty, AKA Troy Andrews came up,too. For generations kids from the Tremé would cross over intothe Quarter to hustle the tourists. Maybe you’ve seen some of them tapdancing on Bourbon Street, with snap-on taps and sometimes bicyclewheels spinning on their heads. Others use more aggressive means to gettheir due from the hooples. But the talented ones go straight down toJackson Square and do their thing, utilizing the acoustics from thePontalba, the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral, the accompaniment of theMississippi River, rolling just a hundred yards away. "Ialways thought it was a blessing to have these kids," says prominentNew Orleans civil rights attorney Mary Howell, "these talented, smart,wonderful kids. We don’t have garage bands in New Orleans becausenobody has garages. And music and access to performance space isliterally life and death for these kids. For a lot of these kids musicis the ticket; it’s their way out." Back in the day, Tuba Fats -known by his mama as Anthony Lacen – would take these kids from theTremé under his wing, teach them how to play in a horn section, putthem to work. Fats is gone now, of course… his heart gave outin his home about six months before the floodwaters swept through town.Glad he didn’t have to see that. Anyway, Shorty was Fats’ mostprized pupil. The kid had the genes – his pawpaw was Jessie Hill, he ofthe "Ooh Pooh Pa Doo," and he’s got cousins playing with everybody fromReBirth to the Marsalis clan. His daddy, who still haunts the streetsof the Tremé, tells about the kid blowing on a tuba before he couldwalk. Kid has talent crackling around him like invisible popcorn, Fatscould see that. So Fats and Shorty and a couple of the neighborhoodkids had a pretty good little thing going there on the bench in JacksonSquare, and you should have seen the tourists freak when they saw thatlittle man blow. And here’s another something you need to know:Young kids from the Tremé aren’t necessarily welcome in the Quarter.Business owners held much sway at the time, backing a noise ordinancethat, if enforced, would change the character of the French Quarter.But the law was enforced… selectively. Shamarr Allen was oneof the kids from the Tremé who grew up blowing a horn. And he was therethe night they busted Trombone Shorty. "It was crazy," herecalls. "It was so many different things… like we used to play outthere, they used to come out with these noise meters; the police wouldstand in front of us with a decibel meter and if it got past a certainpoint, they’d tell us to put up out instruments and go home." But that day the NOPD pulled out the cuffs. "Theytook Glenn David, and it was about two or three other people," Allenremembers. Shorty, then 10 years old, was one of them. "I thinkthe charge was that they were children in need of supervision," Howellsays. "And it became a big deal. There was a picture in the paper ofeverybody marching on city hall with these signs around their necksthat they had been arrested for playing music." Howell workedfor years to fight the noise ordinance which, she says, if enforcedwould make even conversations on the street illegal. It was rewrittenin federal court with more reasonable limits, but not until the peopleof the Tremé took to the streets. "You know what the biggestthing was," Allen says, "we was just kids. We didn’t know what wasgoing on, know what I’m saying? We didn’t know what a big deal it wasturning into." Allen has since gone on to play with the Hot 8 brass band and form his own group, Shamarr Allen and the Underdogs. AndTrombone Shorty. AKA Troy Andrews, now in his early twenties,eventually graduated from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts,putting him in the same company as the Marsalis brothers and HarryConnick Jr. He’s played with Lenny Kravitz, recorded at Abbey RoadStudios and played himself in an episode of "Studio 60 on the SunsetStrip." And he’ll be in Greensboro on July 25 as part of the EasternMusic Festival’s Fringe Series. "You look at Troy today," Howellsays. "He’s a wonderful young man, a fabulous player. He’s just areally remarkable individual." To comment on this story,e-mail Brian Clarey at