Trumpet Not Guns
The jazz funeral of a New Orleans rising star.
New Orleans is known for a lot of things. Her unique culture and her love for party. Her Mardi Gras parades and her ubiquitous street musicians. Her renowned beignets and her frozen daiquiris drive-ins. Her high crime and obesity rates. The damage she sustained in the wake of hurricane Katrina, ten years ago.
She appeals to the senses like no other place, asking to be consumed fully but slowly, a whore of a city spreading her legs for anyone brave enough to try her, but also a sweetheart of a city, humble and honest, true to its Southern roots, true to everything that made her what she is today — a city wanting to be experienced rather than visited, a city wanting to be touched and felt rather than just watched from afar.
Time goes slower here. The sun beats down the shadeless streets, the browned palm trees and the bougainvillea that stand still in the muggy air, everything lingering, no breeze, no relief but the one of a cold beer drank on a front porch while waiting for the night to come.
But there is one thing New Orleans is most famous for, and it is her relentless attachment to traditions and heritage.
And this is why hundreds of people are gathered today outside of the Carver Theater on Orleans Avenue, enduring the heat and the humidity to pay their respects to Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, a rising 28 year-old trumpeter who died suddenly on May 4 while touring in Japan.
This is why, after two full weeks of concerts and second lines celebrating his life, after a lengthy administrative wait for his body to be repatriated from Tokyo, after May 11 was proclaimed to be Trumpet Black Day by the city’s mayor Mitch Landrieu, this is why the streets of Treme are today bursting with throngs of admirers, friends and relatives, all joined together in honor of Travis Hill.
And they march and they play and they dance in unison, chanting and sweating in a shared trance, flashes of purple and green and yellow and blue, twirling umbrellas, because this is New Orleans, and in New Orleans, mourning a fellow musician means playing for him until the ache and the sorrow are gone.
In no other city could you see a casket being hoisted up on a hearse to the notes of Just a Closer Walk with Thee with people chanting along, some jumping and weaving, music exploding everywhere, the parade growing at every corner of every block as tens of dozens of new folks keep joining the march.
Tears are shed at the lead of the parade but everyone makes a point to keep singing, celebrating the life of Hill and honoring him through the cathartic sounds of brass. There are signs with pictures of him, reading “Sunrise 8–7–86, Sunset 5–4–15.” Brightly colored parasols and handkerchiefs go up and down over the swarms of people. A kid is straddling the black casket, a black, shiny casket with a silver trumpet engraved on it, lifted high up to the sky. Family members sometimes hug in solemn embraces.
The crowd is staggering.
“What is going on?” asks a tourist from New York coming out of Cajun Will’s Food Store, a small, red-painted grocery on Orleans Avenue. “Trumpet Black, man. This is Trumpet Black,” replies a kid about fifteen, blowing into a rare Firebird trumpet, the same model Hill had been playing lately. The bystander nods hesitantly.
If he doesn’t know who Hill was, it’s because New Orleans musicians, and particularly second line musicians, rarely get notorious outside of the city. “Second-lining ain’t going to get you famous, yo,” says the kid. “Except getting famous ain’t the point, know what I’m saying? We play because we like to play.”
As a true Sixth Ward child, playing because he liked to play was exactly what Travis Hill did, regardless of image or popularity.
But he also played because he was a stunningly talented entertainer acknowledged by the greatest, a genius musician who had turned his life around and had become a rising star in the Crescent City’s new generation of brass performers.
The dental surgery was routine, nothing more than a tooth to cap. Hill had complained of pain the following day but hadn’t given it much thought afterwards. His mind was on the tour he was about to go on with his band, Trumpet Black and the Heart Attacks, set to begin in Japan and end in Australia.
“I love Japan, it’s my home outside of New Orleans,” he wrote on his Facebook page on May 3, commenting on a picture of himself onstage in Tokyo, two days after his arrival there. Then, the toothache worsened and a rising fever led him to be rushed to the hospital where he was treated for an abscess that had spread to his jaw and neck.
Hill died of septic shock late in the night of May 4 when the infection reached his heart, the doctors unable to resuscitate him.
“Music is in my blood,” he had explained back in February in a casual conversation at his family bar, the illustrious Ooh Poo Pah Doo, named after his grandfather Jessie Hill’s 1960’s classic hit.
“It’s always been part of who I am. It runs in the family,” he had said, referring to his now-famous cousins, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Glen David Andrews, with whom he started to play when he was only four years old.
After drumming in various ensembles, Hill discovered trumpet at seven, tap-dancing for tips in the French Quarter when money was tight. “Troy and I were the same age. He was a spark to me.” Hill later began to perform for tourists with his mentor Tuba Fats in Jackson Square, carrying on by gigging regularly with the Lil Rascals, the New Birth and the Hot 8 brass bands.
Everything went down after he turned seventeen. “I made some bad choices and got caught up in a bullshit drug dealing case. It was a lose-lose situation. We managed to reduce the prison term on an armed robbery plea but I still got sent behind the bars for eight and a half years. I was picking cotton and beans, cutting weeds and all. Being black, it was like going back four hundred years. But I survived it. I survived it.”
After Katrina, Hill saw his cousin Troy become a local star. “I was happy for him. He was doing what we had always wanted to do. I was reading the Quran a lot at the time, especially the story of Josef the Abyssinian who had been put in slavery and had freed himself to become a king. And I knew that when I’d get out of prison, I’d become a king too. I’d make our music shine in New Orleans.”
When he was released in 2011, he immediately threw himself back into music, focused on making up for lost time and playing with his own band every Mondays at Ooh Poo Pah Doo, and with Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet every Thursdays at Vaughan’s, filling in for Kermit Ruffins’ spot. “His energy was amazing,” declared Cindy Wood, the owner of Vaughan’s, to The Advocate, a few days after Hill’s death was announced. “He would get everyone moving. […] His shows were unbelievable. The fans worshipped him.”
At the same time, Hill had started working on a seven-track album with producer Eric Heigle. “It’s a really great record,” Heigle recently said in a Times-Picayune interview. “Everyone knows how great he was on the trumpet, but he was a really great singer as well.” The album, to be released posthumously, will include six originals, featuring among others Trombone Shorty, James Andrews and June Yamagishi.
The main title of the album, Trumpets not Guns, is incidentally the name of the nonprofit organization Hill was volunteering for, working with at-risk children and playing benefit concerts all year round. “He was a voice of reason for the kids,” described Lisa Grillot, the co-founder of Trumpets Not Guns. “He was speaking about things he had experienced firsthand, and that resonated through the people. He was the one who made it through and who got back to tell his story to the world.”
Jazz funerals are commonplace in the Crescent City. Traditionally reserved to the family of the deceased, they’re led by a band marching along the hearse to the cemetery, playing somber dirges at first, and more upbeat music after the members of the procession have said their final goodbyes to the dead.
But today is different.
Today feels like every musician in New Orleans is here, giving everything they have up to the last drop of sweat, blowing and drumming in the scorching heat, in an air so thick it’s almost solid, with low thunderstorm clouds enduring over Treme’s decayed homes — nothing else but music, raucous and blaring music coming from all over Back of Town.
Today, Corey Henry is there, and with him Trumpet Black’s cousins Troy, James and Glen David Andrews, as well as Kermit Ruffins and Gregg Stafford, and also the Pinettes Brass Band, the New Breed Brass Band, members of the Rebirth Brass Band and of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, members of the Hot 8 Brass Band too, Rockin’ Dopsie, Guitar Slim Jr., Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Glen Hall, Karen Andrews, and The Trumpet Mafia, and Steve Walker, and Golden Mardi Gras Indians, and —
“Ooh-na-ney!” Big Chief Alfred Doucette hollers at the top of his lungs, someone roaring “Jockomo-fee-na-ney” in response. Chief Doucette, considered a living legend among the Mardi Gras Indian crowd, was known to be particularly fond of Hill and often talked about the magic of the young musician, never missing to mention how incredible it was hearing him blow his horn.
Corey Henry and the Treme Funktet start playing the familiar song Trumpets not Guns Hill had been performing at the Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 24. Henry looks straight up the sky and lets out a long, long note out of his instrument, a long, low-pitched note, his signature locomotive blasting trombone surging into the streets, soon joined by dozens of trumpets, saxophones and horns, and making music pour across the city like liquid gold.
The crowd gets even denser further down Villere Street and towards Claiborne Avenue, under the I10 overpass. It’s a sad day, the conclusion of two weeks of celebrations across the city, yet it’s a day full of joy and hope, with life going on almost as usual. “How you doing, baby?” asks a grandma to a thirty-something man carrying a horn. “I heard you on the radio the other day, you was good! You come tonight? I cooked some dirty rice with andouille and black and green pepper, but your uncle don’t care for it.”
People are talking. People are drinking and cheering. People are living. Complete strangers sometimes, somehow united, if only for one day.
“What are you guys celebrating?” asks a woman on a sidewalk near the Ursulines Street corner. “The death of a friend,” a man replies, clapping in his hands like there’s no tomorrow as Corey Henry begins an impossible solo, making impossible sounds flow and flow and flow until he’s at the verge of passing out. The face of the woman drops to the ground but no one notices because this is New Orleans, and in New Orleans, music is stronger than death.
“My heart is bleeding, man. I’m crushed. We all are. But we got to play for him” a relative of Hill sums up. “We’re going to second-line to the moon for him, and then we’ll keep playing, and then we’ll play some more,” he adds, suddenly shouting “It goes a little something like this!” and repeating the lyrics of Trumpets not Guns’ chorus, “No violence, no! I say no violence, no! No violence, no! No violence no!” as the blare of the trombones become a call to heavens.
“It’s an honor for me to be here for Travis,” says an older gentleman in a black suit. “He was one of the best I had seen in a while.” Behind him, musicians from a junior brass band are hailing and blowing their instruments with serious looks on their faces. “Trumpet Black was an inspiration. Playing as good as we can is our way to pay our respects,” explains a boy of about twelve years old, his mother nodding approvingly.
The highway traffic noise is overwhelmed by music, ears buzzing, chests pounding, the rhythm melting into the concrete, sweat rolling, thunder rolling, drums rolling —
“Ain’t no city like New Orleans!” yells a big man in a Trumpet Black and The Heart Attacks t-shirt when I leave the corner of Claiborne and Governor Nicholls where muralist Brandan Odums has painted a gigantic portrait of Hill, representing him in blue and purple shades, as if under a spotlight, smiling, trumpet in hand.
The Verti Marte deli on Royal is packed with visitors waiting in line to order platters of beef brisket and sides of jambalaya. I wave hi at the cashier and get back on the street to go to Gene’s instead.
Drunken partygoers are already stumbling down Frenchmen, slurring their words in front of The Spotted Cat where couples are sipping on take-out drinks, the twang of blues guitar filling up the damp night. Rundown houses have stuck nearby, paint flaking and walls crumbling next to $900,000 colonial mansions renovated by well-off out-of-towners. I remember what Travis Hill said a few months before his death. “Soon there ain’t going to be any space left for people like us here. Gentrification is killing everything. The city’s changing too fast, and not in a good way.”
And as I walk on Elysian Fields, I’m again struck by how New Orleans is so much more than just traditions and heritage. More than the sum of its parts, more than Bourbon Street clichés or Katrina stories, more than Creole and Cajun cultures, more than WWOZ playing late at night in a shotgun house of the Marigny.
Traditions and heritage are part of the mask New Orleans puts on when she’s hit by misfortune, I think to myself while waiting for my po-boy inside Gene’s Pepto-Bismol pink building, a scrawny-looking woman leaning on the window near me and tapping her feet on the sticky floor. Music and food in the Crescent City are more than saxophone notes at the Blue Nile on a Saturday night, more than Leidenheimer bread stuffed with hot sausage.
Here, music and food are a shield against the outside world. An unbreakable levee against everything fast and usual and tidy, a border between the unfamiliar craziness of the rest of the country and the familiar, ever-changing craziness of home. And if those shields live on in New Orleans, if musicians who died too young keep being celebrated by the people who loved them, with the music that they loved, in the streets that they loved, it’s probably because this city isn’t ready to give way yet.
New Orleans is known for a lot of things.
Maybe one the most overlooked is how she copes with loss and pain, celebrating life at all costs and above anything else. “We didn’t lose a trumpet player,” Glen David Andrews said after learning about the death of his cousin Travis. “Heaven gained a trumpet player. This is a celebration, y’all. This is his last gig!”
Cynics may call her out for her overly optimistic attitude in the face of adversity or for her carelessness toward the world, but New Orleans endures nonetheless, strong and frail at the same time, a place where value is put in enjoying our short time on earth and where little else really matters.
A city ready to collapse out of pure faith.
A place where tragedies are seen as what they are — twists on a path winding to the unknown and for which there is no map.
So why not just enjoy the ride?