Early in 2012, Trombone Shorty played one concert where he got so caught up watching the legendary players assembled onstage — Jeff Beck, B.B. King and Mick Jagger were among the musicians jamming with the New Orleans trombonist at the time — that he momentarily forgot where he was.
These surreal experiences have become increasingly commonplace for the non-short jazzman (he’s actually about six feet tall), who recently spoke by phone about everything from his recurring role on the HBO series “Treme” to the famous rapper who turned up at one of his band's gigs.
You got the nickname Shorty because the instrument was taller than you when you started playing. What inspired you to pick up the trombone at such an early age?
I have a really musical family. A bunch of my cousins play with the Rebirth Brass Band and Dirty Dozen Brass Band and various bands around town, and my brother James is a trumpet player. Instruments were the toys growing up in my house. It was one of those things that was part of everyday life. As time went by, my brother put a little trombone in my hand and made me his sidekick.
You've said in the past that you were born humming “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
That's what my mom told me. I don't know how true that is [laughs].
Does everyone in your family have some musical ability? Or do you have that one random accountant brother who can't even clap on beat?
[Laughs] New Orleans is really strange place. I think everyone here creates some type of music. I have some friends who don't know anything about music from a technical standpoint, but you can give them a drumstick and they'll play the most intricate rhythms just because they've grown up around it and heard it their whole life. It's a really musical city. Even when people speak to you and say your name there's a note to that. I see people at the bus stop with no headphones on just dancing for no reason. It's just that powerful.
Even the funerals are celebrations there. How much does that spirit inform your music?
The spirit is everything. We celebrate in New Orleans. At funerals, everyone is going to cry because of course we lost someone, but after we get through whatever it may be everyone starts dancing and doing whatever to celebrate the person's life. That is a part of my music. I played a bunch of those funerals ... and you can see it lift people up. My music is feel-good, and it's a direct product of the culture and the way we live.
What did it mean to you to perform your grandfather Jessie Hill's song “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” on an episode of “Treme”?
It was great. My brother, he spent a lot of time with my grandfather, and he keeps that song alive, so it felt great to be able to play that song with my brother standing alongside me. I was honored they allowed us to play it.
You grew up in the heart of the Treme. How has the neighborhood bounced back in the years since Hurricane Katrina? Has it recaptured some of the magic you remember from your childhood?
We got a little percentage of it left, but it's not what it was. My neighborhood didn't really get damaged by the storm [because] that part of the city is higher up. But the people that made the neighborhood what it was, they're not there. We hanging on. We have a little Treme Brass Band and we have one or two bars where we try to keep the music going. But when I was growing up I'd walk to school and I'd see a funeral going on and I'd come home at the end of the day and there was another celebration going on for someone's birthday party. Now it's different because you have people who may have moved into the Treme and may have heard of the Treme, but they have no idea what it's really about.
Dr. Dre recently attended one of your shows. How tempted were you to call out from the stage to ask if there was a doctor in the house?
[Laughs] I didn't want to put him on spot like that. I grew up listening to Dr. Dre, and for him to actually be there? I couldn't believe it. I got to talk to him for a while before the show, and it was a real dream come true.
Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, 8 p.m. Nov. 8-9 at Vic Theatre. $26.
Q&A: Trombone Shorty
"Fire and Brimstone" by Trombone Shorty