Trombone Shorty and the Three Jazzes

Listen to the author read this piece: [audio: issue3/nolan.mp3]

In December 2011, Downbeat magazine awarded Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew “Historical Jazz Album of the Year.” What kind of tradition creates an award “of this year” for something from its distant past? Contemporary jazz. In its most commonly known modern iteration, jazz is mostly good, but not exciting. Nicholas Payton had this in mind when he declared jazz dead in a controversial blog post late last year. But Payton was imprecise. The version of jazz he decried isn’t dead, it’s undead. It has been codified and frozen—in 1959, as Payton calls it—by the jazz gate keepers: clubs, listener-supported jazz stations, jazz studies programs and, well, Wynton Marsalis. While the golden age of jazz deserves to be preserved, the promotion of jazz as “America’s classical music” has tended to overshadow more exciting developments in the form.

Trombone Shorty's For True, Verve, 2011

To find an exception to that tendency, turn to the cover of that same December 2011 issue of Downbeat. There you will find a young trumpeter/trombonist named Troy Andrews (stage name “Trombone Shorty”), who with his band Orleans Avenue make music with a decidedly living pulse. A wunderkind from New Orleans’ famous Treme Neighborhood, Andrews has been expected to create musical greatness since he’d hardly left the womb. He hasn’t disappointed.

His band has been touring worldwide for most of the last few years, making appearances on Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman and Conan (when’s the last time any of those shows featured a trombone solo?). His two latest albums—2010’s Backatown and 2011’s For True—were in the top five of the Billboard jazz charts at the same time, with For True peaking at number 72 on the Billboard 200 chart. Andrews would do well to avoid the few over-polished, slightly sterile pop numbers that interrupt the otherwise excellent For True, but he has also created pop gems, like “Roses” and “One Night Only (the March),” that have been key to the band’s rise.

Trombone Shorty's Backatown, Verve, 2010

Given their ongoing success, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue might represent the best chance for anything called jazz to break into the mainstream. It doesn’t hurt that they can routinely tap into a youthful exuberance with loud and aggressive yet skillful and subtle live performances. The band can sound huge live, and, at its best, on songs like “Suburbia” and “Big 12,” combines the ingenuity and craftsmanship most often found (and too often wasted) in jazz studies programs with the joyous middle finger of punk.

This is not, however, the tale of the saviour arisen from jazz’s swampy origins to revamp the scene. Trombone Shorty cannot save jazz because there is no thing called “jazz” for him to save. There are, instead, jazzes. To simplify, in its early history jazz moved from phase to phase, until, starting around fifty years ago, the form began to splinter and the classification “jazz” lost some of its meaning. In fact, even before that splintering began, one word was probably unable to meaningfully describe a music ranging from Fats Domino, to Duke, to Miles. In any case, in its current splintered form, we can identify three trends in modern jazz, all embodied by Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.

The first trend was mentioned at the top and is defined by a desire to keep jazz “pure” or “authentic.” This trend focuses on preserving the jazz tradition in its many past iterations, and the two “Lagniappe” tracks on For True—which nod back to traditional New Orleans jazz—are firmly in this vein. But while Trombone Shorty can hardly avoid paying tribute to his musical roots, he is far more invested in two other major trends in modern jazz: evolution and dissolution.

Among the most striking of jazz’s evolutions is the work of Skerik, the mad genius of the saxophone. Skerik is in incredibly high demand as a soloist, so you can follow his trail to a wide ecosystem of innovative musicians and bands, including the roughly five bands with whom he regularly records. Like Trombone Shorty, Skerik seamlessly—and often violently—meshes his ample jazz chops with the heavy, throbbing tone so often found in contemporary popular music. He has called his Syncopated Taint Septet “punk jazz,” a label that could just as easily apply to Trombone Shorty’s edgier, angrier tracks, such as “Quiet as Kept” and “Hurricane Season” from Backatown.

But today jazz is most commonly found in a dissolved form. Amy Winehouse, The Roots and Radiohead are prominent examples of artists based in other genres who have mixed jazz into their work. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue occupy this trend by basing many of their songs in a variety of genres—from hip-hop, to R&B, to Rock—while endowing the music with certain jazz-based tendencies, like extended solos and complex, horn-led instrumental melodies. In this, they join the ranks of fellow jazz-based genre travellers like New York’s Robert Glasper and Toronto’s Brownman.

You may wonder if there is any clear distinction between the dissolved and the evolved trends I have identified above. There isn’t. The concepts of dissolution or evolution are useful in structuring our understanding of the enormously complex musical realm that has emerged from, and intertwined with, jazz in recent decades. They also help us understand the nature of Trombone Shorty’s ongoing project. But they do not help us name this music, because it does not fit into only one category. Nor should they, because the inability to rigidly classify Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue is a sign that young musicians steeped in jazz can still surprise and demand attention.