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Trombone Shorty on what happens when New Orleans' musical heartbeat falls silent


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: What was to be on the calendar in New Orleans this week, Jazz Fest, one of the nation's best known and liveliest annual musical celebrations.

Instead, New Orleans remains in lockdown, a hot spot in the COVID-19 pandemic, with close to 6,500 cases and over 400 deaths to date.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with one of the city's musical ambassadors about the toll the pandemic is taking for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In Tipitina's, one of New Orleans most celebrated jazz clubs, a performance by Troy Andrews, known to the world as Trombone Shorty. But it's a performance without an audience, the song, "Big Chief," played just for us.

So, Troy, you were supposed to be playing at Tipitina's this week. How does it feel now?

Troy Andrews: It's different.

I'm excited to be here, because there's something of a normal feeling, and it's really sad at the same time, because I can't actually really play a show.

Jeffrey Brown: Three years ago, he'd shown us the musical street life of his city, even creating an impromptu second line parade outside the Candlelight Lounge, a legendary club in the Treme neighborhood, where he'd grown up.

These days, there's no dancing in the street outside the club. In early April, its beloved owner, Leona Grandison, died from the coronavirus. Mourners had to resort to what they called a drive-by funeral.

Troy Andrews: It's very different. And I think people that have been through Katrina, it feels as if we're preparing for a storm.

And the thing that's really a weird and eerie to me is that this is a city that thrives on music all day, if it's some saxophone player on St. Charles Avenue playing or someone tap-dancing in the French Quarter, or a brass band marching up the street.

You can hear none of that. And that's the most strangest thing for me in a city that the heartbeat is music.

Jeffrey Brown: Andrews is a homegrown star of that culture, a performer since he was a little boy, thus the Shorty nickname.

And he's played around the world ever since, for the past 11 years with his band, Orleans Avenue. We'd been with him in his rehearsal and recording studio. And he spoke with us from there now.

What is it you miss the most right now?

Troy Andrews: I really miss my band and being able to put smiles on people's faces all over the world every day. And so that's been a bit difficult for me mentally to deal with.

But once I get into the studio and start to play, my emotions, as if I'm playing for those people, come out, and I'm just by myself. So, it's amazing what the music can do for you. And I get lost. Literally, I don't realize that I'm here playing by myself for five and six hours.

And then I walk outside, and then reality hits again.

Jeffrey Brown: The large city park and fairgrounds are empty. Usually rowdy Bourbon Street now features signs declaring, "We will survive," the only singing from birds.

It's mostly quiet in the French Quarter, though this couple seemed to hear their own music. A particularly painful hit right now, the cancellation of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, known as Jazz Fest, which turned 50 last year.

Among this year's anticipated headliners had been the great singer-songwriter John Prine. In early April, he died of COVID-19 at age 73.

Trombone Shorty would have been another headliner. In recent years he's held the place of highest honor, closing the festival.

Troy Andrews: I felt sad and everything, but I also understand how serious the situation is. And I felt that it would be canceled because the situation is -- it hasn't gotten any better. And we don't have any answers.

Jeffrey Brown: This is going to be a very hard time for a lot of musicians you know.

Troy Andrews: I have been fortunate enough to play all year round for many, many years now. And some of my friends here in New Orleans, I actually know a few of them, that the last gig they played before we went into quarantine and lockdown, that's all they had.

And that could have been anywhere between $75 to $200. And it's just very difficult.

Jeffrey Brown: Andrews wants to help through his Trombone Shorty Foundation, which, in normal times, runs an after-school music program for gifted young musicians around the city. For now, the foundation that runs Jazz Fest has set up a musicians relief fund.

New Orleans has experience dealing with disasters, of course. No one will forget the destruction of Katrina, but also how the city came back.

Troy Andrews: What Katrina did for us is let me know that, if anything was going to take us down, it would have definitely been Katrina.

It took time and it took energy and it took telling people that we were going to come back and just lead by example. And that's just in us. I think it just passed down generation to generation. It's just part of the fabric of the city that the people are so strong here.

Jeffrey Brown: Part of the sadness is not being able to give a proper New Orleans send-off to loved ones lost to the pandemic, including another of the city's musical legends, Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist, educator and patriarch of the renowned family that includes sons Wynton and Branford.

What's left, a hoped-for return of Jazz Fest this time next year.

Troy Andrews: We might even break down and cry tears of joy because it's actually happening.

I think it's going to be bigger. I think it's going to be better. And I'm looking forward to that. I wish that they can give me more slots to play. If I could play the whole festival every day, I would. That's how excited I am to be able to get back to it.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, let us hope and pray.

Troy Andrews: Let us hope and pray.

Jeffrey Brown: Until then, let Trombone Shorty play for us.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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