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The night they arrested Trombone Shorty

by Brian Clarey

To understand how something like this could happen – how a 10-year-old kid could get arrested for playing a trombone in the middle of the French Quarter in New Orleans – you need a little context.

Because New Orleans is a musical town, and the French Quarter its noisy, percussive heart. And of course, right next to it sits the Tremé, the most musical neighborhood in the country. As the old story goes, this poor community which grew up around the edges of Congo Square was the recipient of a cache of army surplus instruments – bugles, trumpets, drums and such – after the Civil War and its residents took up the horns in earnest.

Louis Armstrong is from the Tremé. Kermit Ruffins, too. The ReBirth Brass Band formed its original ranks right there off Rampart Street and Esplanade. And that’s where Trombone Shorty, AKA Troy Andrews came up, too.

For generations kids from the Tremé would cross over into the Quarter to hustle the tourists. Maybe you’ve seen some of them tap dancing on Bourbon Street, with snap-on taps and sometimes bicycle wheels spinning on their heads. Others use more aggressive means to get their due from the hooples. But the talented ones go straight down to Jackson Square and do their thing, utilizing the acoustics from the Pontalba, the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral, the accompaniment of the Mississippi River, rolling just a hundred yards away.

“I always thought it was a blessing to have these kids,” says prominent New Orleans civil rights attorney Mary Howell, “these talented, smart, wonderful kids. We don’t have garage bands in New Orleans because nobody has garages. And music and access to performance space is literally life and death for these kids. For a lot of these kids music is 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 the Tremé under his wing, teach them how to play in a horn section, put them to work.

Fats is gone now, of course… his heart gave out in his home about six months before the floodwaters swept through town. Glad he didn’t have to see that.

Anyway, Shorty was Fats’ most prized pupil. The kid had the genes – his pawpaw was Jessie Hill, he of the “Ooh Pooh Pa Doo,” and he’s got cousins playing with everybody from ReBirth to the Marsalis clan. His daddy, who still haunts the streets of the Tremé, tells about the kid blowing on a tuba before he could walk. Kid has talent crackling around him like invisible popcorn, Fats could see that. So Fats and Shorty and a couple of the neighborhood kids had a pretty good little thing going there on the bench in Jackson Square, and you should have seen the tourists freak when they saw that little 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 ordinance that, if enforced, would change the character of the French Quarter. But the law was enforced… selectively.

Shamarr Allen was one of the kids from the Tremé who grew up blowing a horn. And he was there the night they busted Trombone Shorty.

“It was crazy,” he recalls. “It was so many different things… like we used to play out there, they used to come out with these noise meters; the police would stand in front of us with a decibel meter and if it got past a certain point, they’d tell us to put up out instruments and go home.”

But that day the NOPD pulled out the cuffs.

“They took Glenn David, and it was about two or three other people,” Allen remembers. Shorty, then 10 years old, was one of them.

“I think the charge was that they were children in need of supervision,” Howell says. “And it became a big deal. There was a picture in the paper of everybody marching on city hall with these signs around their necks that they had been arrested for playing music.”

Howell worked for years to fight the noise ordinance which, she says, if enforced would make even conversations on the street illegal. It was rewritten in federal court with more reasonable limits, but not until the people of the Tremé took to the streets.

“You know what the biggest thing was,” Allen says, “we was just kids. We didn’t know what was going on, know what I’m saying? We didn’t know what a big deal it was turning into.”

Allen has since gone on to play with the Hot 8 brass band and form his own group, Shamarr Allen and the Underdogs.

And Trombone 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 Harry Connick Jr. He’s played with Lenny Kravitz, recorded at Abbey Road Studios and played himself in an episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” And he’ll be in Greensboro on July 25 as part of the Eastern Music Festival’s Fringe Series.

“You look at Troy today,” Howell says. “He’s a wonderful young man, a fabulous player. He’s just a really remarkable individual.”

To comment on this story,e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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