Musician Glen David Andrews’s Road to Recovery

Musician Glen David Andrews’s Road to Recovery
Trombonist Glen David Andrews in his element.
(Photo by James Demaria)

I first met trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews in his native New Orleans, in the context of recovery. I was a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, embarking on what would become dozens of articles and essays stretching out over several years. These started as explorations into the cultural consequences of the flood that resulted from the levee failures and turned into a continuing chronicle of the fight for culture that long predates the 2005 disaster and is ongoing.

Andrews is one of a storied family of musicians (so many players with his surname and various cousins dot the New Orleans scene that brass bands would be nearly unthinkable without them). In the wake of the flood, Glen David was among the city’s most outspoken players — a warrior for culture at a time when indigenous traditions were especially threatened. He has also often been his own worst enemy, fighting ongoing battles with drugs and alcohol, and his own uneven temper.

On the phone yesterday, Andrews and I talked about recovery of a different sort — the personal and spiritual kind that defines escape from addiction. It’s been a year since Andrews spent three months in a Massachusetts rehab center before returning to his native New Orleans. I’ll get to hear him tonight at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall (more upcoming performance dates can be found here).

Andrews sent me a single he recently recorded, “NY to NOLA,” produced by Robert Mercurio and Ben Ellman, old friends of his who are best known as members of the New Orleans-based band Galactic. (You can find the single here.) It’s mostly a chant, with beats sampled from the 1965 Dixie Cups’ version of “Iko, Iko,” which draws upon New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition and featured rhythms tapped out by drumsticks on bottles and ashtrays.

“What I like best about this new track is that it’s stripped down to its bare essentials,” he said. “You have to start from the ground up, make something from nothing.” He might as well have been talking about his life this past year.

At one point in the song, Andrews sings: “Walked through the river/ Swam though the flood/ Took a feather from an eagle, then I/ Drank panther blood”

“Sometimes life is hard and you have to be like a bold and brave Indian, and just do what is needed,” he said. He could have been talking about life in the Tremé neighborhood, back in the day, when he was a boy soaking up life and musical lessons from the likes of Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen. Or about the often disorienting and confusing transition that’s occurred in his city since 2005. Or just about picking up the pieces of personal wreckage.

Through more than eight years of reporting from and about New Orleans — a city full of naturally gifted musicians steeped in jazz tradition and complex personalities that defy easy description — Andrews immediately stood out for being so deeply both. I first encountered him at the Music Shed Studio in 2006. Director Spike Lee and trumpeter Terence Blanchard were working on the final scene of the HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke” — it depicted a mock jazz funeral, with musicians leading an empty casket on wheels marked “Katrina.” Andrews was in the foreground, trombone in hand at his side, singing a familiar hymn, “I’ll Fly Away”: “When I die... Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.” But on the final verse, he altered the lyric: “New Orleans will never go away.”

Blanchard winced. He thought that the last line was buried in the recording mix. He sent Andrews back into the studio for a voiceover.

“I want everyone to hear that,” Lee said.

“Like a declaration?” asked Andrews.

“Yeah,” Blanchard snapped back. “A declaration.”

Andrews nailed it.

That was the first of many declarations by Andrews in the years since. After the flood Andrews had evacuated to Houston, but the pull of New Orleans kept him restless. In January 2006, he packed up his two trombones and took a Greyhound bus to New Orleans. “I bought myself a ticket back, as a Christmas present,” he would later explain. He spent six months sharing a FEMA trailer with four cousins. He lived in hotels for a while, then a cramped room in his aunt’s house. “Essentially, I spent more than two years without a real home,” he said. (He now lives in the Garden District.)

When I first met him, Andrews could scarcely look up as he described his months “in exile” in Houston and the trailer he was sharing with cousins. “I feel ground down,” he told me then. By the following January, he looked out with confident fury at the crowd assembled at City Hall during a massive rally that followed a string of murders, including that of Dinerral Shavers, the snare drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band. “We are young black men preaching culture,” he shouted, to which those assembled began an unlikely chant: “Music in the schools!”

The hymn that ended Lee’s documentary, “I’ll Fly Away” — a song that makes its way into any jazz funeral — figured prominently in Andrews’s story. There was Andrews in a pivotal scene in “Shake the Devil Off,” filmmaker Peter Entell’s 2007 chronicle of the fight to keep the beloved St. Augustine Church open in the Tremé neighborhood, a standoff that defined the awful politics of that moment. After footage of Jesse Jackson speaking to the assembled crowd, the camera closed in on Andrews. He raised his trombone to play “I’ll Fly Away,” serving there as an urgent call-to-arms.

In October 2007, Andrews was among the two-dozen of New Orleans’ top brass-band players and roughly 100 followers that began a series of nightly processions for Kerwin James, a tuba player with the New Birth Brass Band who had passed away. The musicians were “bringing him down,” as it’s called, until James’s Saturday burial. But that bittersweet tradition ended more bitterly than anything else — with Andrews and his brother, drummer Derrick Tabb, led away in handcuffs after some 20 police cars had arrived near the corner of North Robertson and St. Philip Streets in Tremé. In the end, it looked more like the scene of a murder than misdemeanors. (My account of that episode, for Salon, can be found here.)

“We were singing ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ lifting our voices to God,” Andrews told me then. “You gonna tell me that’s wrong?” The charges against Andrews and Tabb — parading without a permit and “disturbing the peace by tumultuous manner” — were dropped. But the ante had been upped up in the fight over the city’s culture, and over ownership of the streets.

By the following May, at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, not long after Andrews drifted in and out of the lyrics to Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” he dedicated the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” to Kerwin James. He wasn’t just honoring a dear departed friend and tuba player. He was commenting on that October evening while completing that cut-short ritual — free, onstage, employed, and empowered. Andrews led his own band at Jazz & Heritage for the first time that year. In the middle of his set, he bounded from the stage, gazed up and gleefully announced, “It’s my time.”

His 2009 CD, “Walking Through Heaven’s Gate” (Threadhead Records), supported such a claim. The songs, mostly hymns (including “I’ll Fly Away”), revealed the fire Andrews routinely brought to both street parades and bandstands throughout New Orleans, and they opened a window into an influence that defines he and his close clan of powerhouse musicians. The album was recorded in concert at Zion Hill Baptist Church, where Andrews was baptized, and filled with a repertoire Andrews “learned while sitting in the third pew back,” he said. As such, it testifies that much of what we celebrate as jazz culture grew out of churches, in places like Tremé, which many consider the oldest black neighborhood in this country. Long before he began trying to save himself in earnest, his music projected the promise of redemption. Guitarist Paul Sanchez, who collaborated with Andrews on that CD, told me, “I heard Glen David’s voice before I saw his face. It grabbed me by the throat and made me listen. He’s got a massive presence and a massive sweetness that comes through despite his troubles.”

That presence and sweetness have long endeared Andrews to audiences. In addition to his regular gigs at New Orleans clubs such as DBA on Frenchmen Street, he began making waves as a headliner at the Jazz & Heritage Festival. In successive years, he tore it up wherever he was booked — the gospel tent, the blues tent, the jazz tent.

Yet his troubles couldn’t be kept at bay. By 2012, his struggles with addiction and serious criminal charges threatened his career, his freedom, and his life. His three-month stay at a Massachusetts rehab center wasn’t his first such effort. But this one, he thinks, will stick.

Andrews’s return to New Orleans last year was well documented in articles by John Swenson in the Offbeat magazine and Keith Spera in the Times-Picayune. There’s also a nice interview from around that time at Alex Rawls’s website, My Spilt Milk.

As Swenson noted in his piece:

The climax of the revamped show is a new song called “Surrender,” a gospel-influenced number about 12-step program principles that Andrews delivers with such sincerity that it manages to avoid sounding like preaching or cant. That’s a good thing given the irony implicit in a person singing about accepting the things he can’t change and surrendering to a higher power in front of an audience of dancing, inebriated revelers.

“That song is about as personal as it gets,” Andrews said yesterday. “I wrote it while I was in rehab. I woke up from a nightmare one night, and I just sat down and reflected on sucking it up and discovering how to forgive myself and move forward with humility.”

In so many contexts — at music clubs and festivals, in street processions and civic rallies — Andrews’s remarkable singing voice and commanding trombone sound (both powerful, direct, resonant, and with just enough rasp) as well as his disarmingly honest manner have provided whatever the situation called for — beauty, truth, compassion, anger, joy, or all of the above. In his worst moments, his performances (which these days are as much rooted in rock and soul as New Orleans jazz tradition) have seemed frantic and scattered. At his best, much like his younger cousin, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, but with his own unmistakable stamp, he has seemed as if chasing something new and beyond genre. Like so many of his friends and fans, I’ve continued to root for Glen David Andrews, and partly for selfish reasons: I wonder what will come of his talent, intelligence, and drive if unleashed without roadblocks. He plans to head into the studio in New Orleans in mid-September to record a new album with his regular working band and some special guests.

Andrews knows that the Tremé neighborhood of his youth, and even the New Orleans of his young adulthood, may never be the same. “The things I fought for after 2005 may have been losing battles,” he said. “But Tremé taught me how to entertain. It taught me how to be happy, and to have reverence for each moment. And that’s what I’m learning all over again by focusing on my own sobriety and my music. I can’t worry anymore about Tremé or about the city of New Orleans right now, but I know I can bring my New Orleans, my Tremé, my true self, to the rest of the world.”