By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Musician Troy Andrews, better known as "Trombone Shorty," witnessed his first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at age 12 - not from the viewing area but on stage.
"I was playing with my brother's brass band," said Andrews, now 27.
At this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Andrews will be given a high honor. He will perform for the first time as the closing act of the final day on the biggest stage. That time slot previously had long been occupied by one of New Orleans' most famous bands, the Neville Brothers.
The festival, which began Friday and ends May 5, has music lovers filling the walkways linking 12 stages arranged across 150 acres of the festival grounds, not far from downtown.
During the next two weekends, some 500 bands will perform at the festival, including a sprinkling of big names from Billy Joel, Dave Matthews and Adam Levine to Jill Scott, George Benson and Willie Nelson.
The stars will help draw some 400,000 people through the gates over the seven days of the festival, but many fans are interested in less famous local performers such as Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Rebirth Brass Band, Irvin Mayfield, Anders Osborne and Tab Benoit, among the 400-plus bands in the lineup that hail from New Orleans and the surrounding area.
"I can't believe the mix of music here," said Keith Oliver, who came to the festival from Richmond, Virginia.
"I don't know where else you could hear great blues, jazz, gospel and all the rest all in one place," Oliver said as he and his wife merged into the sea of flowered shirts and sun hats heading for the next stage.
Festival producer and director Quint Davis said the festival showcases New Orleans' "musical DNA."
"People in New Orleans are wired different for music," he said. "It's not just entertainment here, it's sustenance. It's like po-boys and fried oysters - we can't live without it."
Davis, in his 44th year of producing the festival, said he continues to be impressed by the depth of the local talent pool. That enables him to book one out-of-town headliner per day on each stage and fill all the remaining slots with Louisiana bands in genres including jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, hip-hop, Cajun, zydeco, Latin and Caribbean.
PASSING IT ON
Davis said what distinguishes the New Orleans sound has to do with history.
"No matter what genre they're playing, a lot of this music has been passed through many generations," he said.
Trombone Shorty, one of the hottest musical artists in New Orleans, is an example of that history. His brother gave Andrews his nickname years ago, he said.
Andrews wields a trumpet as easily as the trombone and is also skilled at keyboards, drums and songwriting. His music mingles jazz, funk, hip-hop and soul in high-energy compositions that rev up audiences on frequent tours that take him across the country and abroad.
Andrews has played at the festival nearly every year since his first appearance, and this year, Davis contacted him about performing in the final festival slot.
"Quint Davis sent me a text saying it could be time for the passing of the torch and he asked if I'm ready," Andrews said, recalling how the scheduling came about.
Landing the time slot "is a dream come true" for a young man who grew up among the city's most famous musicians.
Andrews' grandfather, R&B singer-songwriter Jessie Hill, made musical waves in the 1960s working with Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny and Cher and New Orleans artist Dr. John.
Andrews' uncle played in Fats Domino's band "way before my time," he said, "and just about every brass band in the city had a member of my family in it."
As a kid growing up in the Treme neighborhood, Andrews hung out with the Neville family and often "sat in" when the Neville Brothers played around town. "I was put on so many different musical stages growing up that I didn't think about what kind of music we played," he said. "I just thought music was music."
Andrews said he was keenly aware that local musicians have a responsibility to pass musical styles from one generation to another.
"When I was younger, we all wanted to play like Rebirth (Brass Band), but people in the neighborhood said before you can play like that, you've got to learn some traditional music so you can understand how Rebirth got where they are," he said.
Now, he's helping his younger cousins, who are anxious to follow in his musical footsteps.
"It's what we've been taught to do," Andrews said. "We have to let the younger generations take our music - and approach it the way they want - but just teach them where it all comes from."
(This story is corrected to Adam Levine from Adam Lambert in paragraph 5)
(Editing By Brendan O'Brien, Greg McCune and Bill Trott)