Shamarr Allen has done a lot for his age. The trumpet player began performing music professionally when he was just twelve years old. He worked his way through the ranks of the city’s best-known brass bands—Rebirth, Hot 8, Treme—and beyond to work with the likes of Willie Nelson, R.E.M., and Eric Burdon. In 2009, he performed the national anthem for then-President Obama. Between 2011 and 2015, Allen, joined by his backing band the Underdawgs, toured various parts of Africa and Central Asia as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Recently, he joined Galactic on the road as a touring member. Now in his mid-30s, Allen, with a grin, hollers, “By me starting young, it feels like I’m 80 years old. But I’ve got a lot more to go!”
Allen and the Underdawgs’ latest album True Orleans is a celebration of local culture and it has generated an electrifying response. Earlier this year, a video for the track “Hit the Sean Payton” received over two million views on Facebook. As with previous releases, Allen refuses to be boxed in, incorporating hip-hop, funk, jazz, and rock into something distinctly his own. In our discussion, Allen was very forthcoming about growing up in rough circumstances. If not for the mentorship of other musicians, he could’ve easily become involved in drugs or violent crime. Now, Allen stays busy teaching music clinics for children with his True Orleans Foundation. On a sunny day in his favorite city, Allen met up with me to talk about his new album, touring the world, and encouraging young people to pursue their passions.
Your last album came out in 2011. Why did it take so long to put out True Orleans?
Several reasons. I had to figure out what it was that I wanted to do. In between 2011 and now, I was doing some serious recording… and a big part of it was my dad being sick. My dad has Parkinson’s now. Anybody that knows me knows that family and music don’t compete. Anything else comes second to the people that I love. [I was] just making sure that everything was situated and my family wrapped our heads around the fact that we have to figure out a way to live with this now. That’s basically what took me so long. In the midst of it, I was still recording. I was releasing mixtapes. I released #NoFilter and then I released Bandhead volumes one, two, and three. It wasn’t like I wasn’t doing anything; it’s just that I was releasing a bunch of free music and trumpet players don’t do that. [laughs]
How did making your mixtapes influence what ended up being True Orleans?
The mixtapes were a test drive of the reaction to introducing a lead horn player into popular music. What I did with the mixtapes was recorded songs that are popular now just to see the reaction of people to a horn player doing it. When I look at Louis Armstrong, I look at Louis Armstrong as not a traditional jazz trumpet player, [or even] a jazz trumpet player. I look at him as the international pop star of his time. His songs were the Top 40 of that time. To me, if Louis Armstrong was born in my era of music, what would he be doing? He would not be doing traditional jazz. He would be doing what’s going on now, which is hip-hop and electronic sounds with live instrumentation. Then he would put the horn on it. So boom! Here I am! If I want to follow greatness, he already laid the blueprint and the blueprint is not to re-do what he has done. It’s to push what’s being done to a different place.
With the recent success of “Hit the Sean Payton,” are you worried about it overshadowing the rest of the work you’ve done?
When you have children, you love all your children the same. If one of them is doing better than the other one in school, and the other one is failing, that does not matter. You still love them the same. That’s just the baby that excelled faster than the rest of them! It’s cool to watch, and it’s sending people to the album… When you look to stream it and it comes up with the rest of these songs, nine times out of ten, you’re going to listen to the rest of that. For me, it’s one child inviting everybody else to come over to go hang out with the rest of my children. [laughs]
About a year ago, you started touring with Galactic for the first time in about nine years. How does it feel to be back on the road with them?
They cool. They’re like my brothers. I learn a lot from those guys. A lot of people don’t know this but I’m on every album that they’ve released from 2008 until now. They’re the people I can go to and say, “Hey man. How do I do this?” It’s just hanging out with some big brothers that give me a lot of knowledge about what’s going on.
Recently, you toured with Galactic as part of Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown tour, alongside Preservation Hall, New Breed Brass Band, and others. How was that?
It was cool. It was like summer camp. [laughs] It’s like when you go on a Louis Armstrong jazz camp. It was like that all over again because everybody that all of us went to school with and camp with the whole tour was basically a mash-up of New Orleans artists of different ages, different styles of music. It was like a mini Jazz Fest where you get to hang out with everybody and see everybody. It was a pretty cool experience.
You’ve toured Kazakhstan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a U.S. State Department cultural ambassador. How did those tours happen?
Each time was a different scenario. One of my friends from Kazakhstan came down to one of the shows at Tipitina’s. She pulled me to the side and was like, “Shamarr, I love your music. I’m going to get you to my country.” You hear stuff like that all the time. For me, it was like, [sarcastically] “Yeah, OK.” A year and a half later, she called and said, “We figured it out. The government wants to make you one of the cultural ambassadors. How do you feel about coming over for a month?” I’m like, “A month? OK! Let’s do this!” [For] the Congo situation, they just went to my website and thought that my music was a new style of New Orleans music that was different. They invited young people to get into it… We did Congo, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan (which was a whole separate trip), Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and there’s a few more of those ‘stans. [laughs] It was a really great experience. It makes you appreciate being here. You could go over there and those people don’t have much. In the Congo, they may have electricity some days; and some days, they don’t. You could be in the middle of taking a shower (which happened to me) and the water power just stops and it’s dark. That’s actually how they live. They’re used to it and they don’t care. When that happens here, we complain. The things that we care about and the things that mean so much to us, they laugh at. It was a humbling experience to go over there and realize none of the things that we care about actually mean anything. They have very little and are the happiest people I’ve ever seen in my life.
You’re playing the Tremé Creole Gumbo Fest, which is dedicated to Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill [who died in 2015]. You were both very active in trying to get children away from guns, and instead pointing them towards playing music. How does it feel to be involved in a tribute to someone who was your contemporary in that respect?
What a lot of people don’t know is, all of us came from out of the Quarter playing music together as kids. The hardship that he witnessed, we all witnessed… at an early age. Some of us had people around us to point us in the right direction. Travis was like a little brother or cousin because he was a little younger than me. When we’d go into the Quarter, I’d be 13 and he was ten… Because we went through what we saw early on, it makes it to where it’s almost a responsibility to go back and say: “Hey, I’m from where you’re from. I’ve been through the same shit you’ve been through. Let me show you something. Whatever you like to do, there’s a way for you to be able to do that… Look at us! We’re making money. We’re traveling the world. People see us on the TV. We’re on the radio. Everybody knows us. Everybody loves us. You can do this legally!” …It doesn’t necessarily have to be music. You don’t have to wrap yourself up in the streets. You don’t have to wrap yourself up in drugs. You don’t have to steal and rob because there’s ten million other ways to make the money. It’s just they don’t tell us that in our communities because they want us to be trapped.
In addition to making music, I feel like your biggest legacy might actually be as a teacher because you’ve done so much to teach kids.
I always think about that but I still, to this day, don’t look at myself as a teacher because I never got a check for teaching.
Yeah. I’ve only done it for the reason that I’m telling you. [On] a Tuesday, [instead of] me sitting at home and playing video games, why not sit down with some kids and teach them something that could change their lives? At the least, [it’ll] get them through college. I had a class of about 20 kids and, out of that class, 15 of them auditioned for NOCCA. 14 got in. Out of those 14 that got in, so far six of them have gotten scholarships to college. I’m still waiting on the other ones to get out and they’re all going to get money. Music is the easiest thing to get money to college for. If you can read and you can improvise a little and you know all your scales and you have some ear training, then the money is there for you… I never ever looked at myself as a teacher because it doesn’t feel like work to me. I do it because I feel like it’s part of my responsibility as a New Orleans musician to pass down the tradition the way that it was passed to me by Tuba Fats, Kermit Ruffins, Bob French… there’s a long list of them… I could go to their house and say, “Hey, whatcha doing today? Nothing? OK. I’m coming over. I want to learn some music.” [They’d say,] “Alright. Stop at a store and get me a beer.” It’s not even about the money. They wanted me to come hang out and they wanted to give me the music. For me, it’s the same concept. It’s part of being a True Orleans musician.
Do you feel like that is disappearing? Being able to just go to somebody’s house or go to a neighborhood and find somebody that can teach you?
That’s dead, yeah. But it’s in a different form now. I feel that gentrification has done it… Let’s take the Treme area for instance. I grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, so I would walk from my mom’s house, get on the St. Claude bus. And then once I got on the St. Claude bus, I’d get off in front of Armstrong Park, walk through the park, go by Trombone Shorty’s house, and his brothers might be out there. Tuba Fats might be down the street. Joe Lastie might be over there. Shannon Powell, the whole Rebirth hanging there, New Birth, [Frederick] Shep [Sheppard]… I’m not talking about one or two musicians. I’m talking about ten, 15, 20 on any given day. You could knock on one of these doors and somebody played something around there that you could learn something from. Treme was the hub for that to me. I feel like gentrification and the prices of the houses is running people out of there. They own these houses but can’t afford the taxes no more. It totally killed the culture. That was one of the oldest Black-owned neighborhoods in the world. That culture, the way that most of us learned from that time and from those guys, is gone. It was so quick. It wasn’t that long ago. To watch it go was hard for me to see, because I know how much I learned from that neighborhood and I know that it’ll never be like that again.
How do you feel that the disappearance of that teaching process is going to affect New Orleans?
It kind of already has. The way that kids are learning the music—they are getting it from us individually. I may work with 20 or 30 of them. Somebody [else] over here might work with 30 of them… But it’s impossible for us to work with all of them like the Treme was. Whoever was outside, you could learn something from them. They were all teaching you different things and none of this stuff is in any books. You’ve got to go and sit down and play with them and sit-in and learn. They can tell you, “This is where you’re messing up.” They don’t have that anymore. That neighborhood had ten clubs with bands working. I’m not just talking about once a week. I’m talking about every night this music [was] in these clubs in this neighborhood. It was somewhere where you could go play. Musicians were always around there… We were the last class of that neighborhood: me, Glen Andrews, Trumpet Black, Shorty. It was like the last class of that whole school of Treme, and I was from the Ninth Ward! …I feel like that was the most valuable school of music for New Orleans music ever. And it’s one of those places where if you played in a brass band, you pulled up in a car and was like, “Hey! I need a snare drummer! Right now!” Oh! So-and-so is around the corner! “I need a trumpet player at two o’clock!” Go knock on the door right there! Whatchacallit playing video games. That’s gone. The clubs are gone. Each club had five bands a night. Each band might have five band members, so that’s 25 people plus the bartender. That’s jobs gone. A lot of people don’t look at it like that, but I do.
“I never ever looked at myself as a teacher because it doesn’t feel like work to me. I do it because I feel like it’s part of my responsibility as a New Orleans musician to pass down the tradition the way that it was passed to me”
How did the True Orleans Foundation start?
I used to do music clinics at the Sound Cafe… Jazz Fest called for the kids to perform at the festival. I wanted the kids to have the money for themselves. Jazz Fest was paying decent money for little kids. We had 20 or 30 kids. Each one of them could get two free tickets to get them and they mom in and $50 a piece. I was saying, “Let me show them that they can make some money off this.” I’m going to take this money that Jazz Fest is paying and pay all of them, because I’m not in this for the money. I make money already, so I’m doing this as a way to show them that there is a way for them to make money. The foundation [I did the clinics with] wanted to keep the money. I understand it, but that’s where the difference came in…. I told them “After this Jazz Fest show, I’m leaving. I’m not coming back, but if any one of y’all want to learn from me… I will work with you on Tuesdays at my mom’s house.” That following Tuesday, the whole class was at my mom’s house. That’s how the True Orleans Foundation started.
How did you make the decision to start reaching out into branding True Orleans?
I didn’t do anything! [laughs] When something is genuine, you don’t have to do much to make it do what it do. For me, I carry myself a certain way. I try to treat everybody right, speak to everybody and hang out. That’s really all I’m about and that’s what True Orleans is… Word of mouth is the best press. Give them something to latch onto and to feel good about, which is: You don’t have to be from New Orleans to be True Orleans. Once you understand what that feeling is and you like that feeling, you’re True Orleans. If you understand that there’s a second line that may pass in front of your house today and you’re cool with it, you’re True Orleans. If you have an old horn in your house and you see a kid and you give him that horn knowing you’re not going to do nothing with it, you’re True Orleans. If you cook a bunch of food and there’s no such thing as leftovers, you’re gonna stick your head out the window and say, “You want some of this?” True Orleans is everything that creates that feeling.
What’s next for you?
I have a bunch of stuff going on. I’m actually going to shoot a video for every song on the album. I’m producing Treme Brass Band’s new record, which is called Hello, Good Evening. My hands are in everything.
Shamarr Allen will perform at the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival in Louis Armstrong Park on November 17th, and every Thursday at Bullet’s Sports Bar. For more info, check out facebook.com/shamarrallenmusic.
photo ADRIENNE BATTISTELLA