Life is good when 'Trombone Shorty' gives horns and hope to the next generation of New Orleans musicians
At first, you might wonder why John Jacobs and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews would form a partnership. Jacobs, 47, is co-founder of the Life Is Good Company, best known for its T-shirts with positive messages. And Andrews, 29, is one of New Orleans best loved and most famous young jazz musicians. He has played all over the world, including the White House.
"We've been teaming up with other like-minded nonprofits," Jacobs said, Monday (Oct. 5) afternoon, shortly before he talked to students at Warren Easton Charter High School. "Troy played at one of our Life Is Good festivals a while back, and he gets our message."
[ Trombone Shorty gives Warren Easton students something to dance about ]
The message Jacobs and his brother, Bert, 50, want to share is this: We have a choice when we wake up in the morning, a way to see the world. We can focus on what's right or on what's wrong. And it's a whole lot better to focus on what's right.
"It's really a philosophy for living a happy, fulfilled life," Jacobs said, when we sat down to talk.
He and Bert are in the middle of a nationwide Grow the Good "giveback" tour, traveling 3,000 miles to visit more than 40 communities and to raise and distribute more than $1 million for kids in need.
"We're in an Airstream trailer, which is a little better than a used minivan," Jacobs said, referring to the burgundy Dodge Voyager that started them on their adventure — a journey that has lasted a quarter of a century.
He gave me the nutshell version of how they got to where they are now. (A longer one is in "Life Is Good: The Book — How to live with purpose and enjoy the ride," published by National Geographic in September.)
Jacobs and his brother grew up outside Boston, the youngest of six children in a loving, rough-and-tumble Irish family. Their lives changed after their parents were in a life-threatening automobile accident that left their dad with a useless right hand. He managed to go back to work and provide for his family, but he turned into an angry man, prone to outbursts that made the kids feel like they were living in a pressure-cooker.
"Our mom was the glue that held us together," Jacobs said. "She was the first powerful optimist in our life."
She taught her children to use their imaginations and encouraged them to try new things. And every night at dinner she would make the same request of each one. She'd say "Tell me something good that happened today."
"She was the No. 1 inspiration for Life Is Good," Jacobs said.
When Jacobs, an English and art major, was about to finish college, he and Bert, a communications major, decided to go into business together.
"We were trying to combine art with business," he said.
They came up with the idea of designing T-shirts and selling them on college campuses. Eventually, they bought the used minivan they named "The Enterprise," and took out the back seats. And in 1989 they set off "to boldly go where no T-shirt guys had gone before."
They traveled to colleges along the East Coast, knocking on dorm-room doors and hoping for sales. They lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and slept in the back of the van on top of the T-shirts.
"We were wildly unsuccessful for five years," Jacobs said.
Of course, I had to ask how their parents felt about the brothers' endeavor.
"We were lucky. They didn't say, 'When are you going to get a real job?'" Jacobs said. "They always encouraged us and wanted to know how we were doing."
They were enjoying themselves, but by 1994 they realized their business model was lacking, and they rented a cheap apartment in Brooklyn to use as a design space, office and place to sleep. Everything changed when they dreamed up a T-shirt with three simple words on it: "Life is good."
"We took 48 shirts to a street fair and sold them all in less than an hour," Jacobs said. "We'd never seen anything like that."
By 1995, they had a new name for their company and a new mission: To spread the power of optimism.
"The message is so strong and so needed, it kind of carried us forward," he said.
'The message is so strong and so needed, it kind of carried us forward.' — John Jacobs on Life is Good
And 20 years later, he was in the auditorium at Warren Easton, wearing a blue T-shirt that said "Spread good vibes" and delivering that message to 200 students and faculty members.
As he paced back and forth, he told them that life isn't easy, life isn't perfect, but life is good. He spoke about the people who wrote emails and letters to him and his brother saying that having an optimistic view of the world helped get them through the hardest times of their lives.
"People seem to have a heightened sense of gratitude when they're going through great adversity," he said.
He told the students, "Do what you love, and love what you do," and threw Frisbees into the audience printed with those words.
Then he went up on the stage with one of Warren Easton's most famous graduates, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, to talk about the power of music to transform lives.
Andrews spoke about growing up in Treme, where music was everywhere, and about having the chance to play with great New Orleans musicians.
"I had older musicians pushing me every day. I was not being treated like a kid," he said. "My older brother James took me to Europe when I was 7 years old."
He explained that he started the Trombone Shorty Foundation to pass the music along to the next generation. The Trombone Shorty Academy provides music education and mentoring for musically gifted high school students, and the Fredman Music Business Institute teaches them about the business side of music.
"The music business is very hard," he told the students on Monday.
But Andrews had mainly come to share the power of music by blowing his horn and joining Jacobs in making a presentation of six gorgeous new instruments — three trombones and three trumpets — to some lucky students in the school's music program.
'Trombone Shorty', Life is Good An auditorium full of high school students at Warren Easton was treated to a presentation by John Jacobs of Life is Good, and Trombone Shorty. At the end of the presentation, the school was given musical instruments. The Life is Good Company is a $100 million lifestyle brand dedicated to spreading the power of optimism. The company donates 10 percent of its net profits to help kids in need. To date, the company has donated over $11 million, principally through Life is Good products, events and community fundraising efforts. Monday October 5, 2015.
As soon as they made the presentation "to keep the music alive and well," the New Breed Brass Band joined Andrews on stage, and then the students raised their horns and played with Andrews and the band.
In no time, audience members were up on their feet dancing, and Jacobs joined them enthusiastically, doing his best to get his funk on. It was a lovely way to start the school week.
Afterward, when Alton Harris sat holding his new trombone with Trombone Shorty's autograph on it, he seemed stunned.
"I'm crying on the inside," he said. "I've never played with people like that before. It was so, just, up there."
He said it felt like a dream come true. "I never thought I'd have my hands on one of his horns. It's like Christmas," he said.
When the auditorium was clearing out, I stopped to talk to Andrews. I told him I was in the audience when he was the guest on the NPR radio show "Wait Wait. . . Don't Tell Me" at the Saenger Theater in March, and that he was hilarious.
My favorite story was about the time his band had been arrested for making too much noise at Jackson Square when he was 10, and he told the audience, "No Lucky Dog that day."
I asked if he really used his foot to operate the slide on his trombone when he was too small for his arm to reach all the way.
"I did," he said, laughing. "It was hard to get it back, though. I caught a couple of charley horses doing it."
He told me why he's so passionate about passing on the music.
"Music is a way of life here," he said. "It's the heartbeat of the city."
When he was growing up in Treme, he would ride his bike to McDonogh 15 School in the French Quarter, and his world was filled with music.
"One day I heard a jazz funeral in the morning, and then Rebirth celebrating someone's birthday when I rode home in the afternoon," he said.
His family lived across the street from the late Wilbert "Junkyard Dog" Arnold, longtime drummer for Walter "Wolfman" Washington's Roadrunners.
"I remember him pulling out his drum set in front of his house," Andrews said. "He would play on one side, and James and I would play on the other, with traffic in between."
I told him that the late Clyde Kerr Jr. had said the same thing about his Treme neighborhood many years earlier. Andrews' eyes lit up when I mentioned the renowned jazz trumpeter.
"Clyde Kerr Jr. was my teacher," he said, with reverence in his voice. "He made me believe I would be a musician."
So Andrews passes along the music to honor his teacher and all the others who have helped him along the way, like his brother, members of the Rebirth Brass Band, and Kermit Ruffins.
"Since the storm, we don't have that whole neighborhood thing going on," he said. "So I want to teach these young musicians what came before them and also help them move the music forward."
The Jacobs brothers' message of giving back and celebrating optimism resonates with him.
"Each day is a moment to appreciate," he said. "I take life as it's given to me every day."
That philosophy is working well for the award-winning horn player, I thought, and for the Jacobs brothers, too.
They went from living in the back of a Dodge Voyager to owning a $100 million company that gives 10 percent of its profits to improve the lives of children in need. So far their Life Is Good Kids Foundation has doled out more than $11 million.
Their mom had the right idea when she asked them to find something good in every day. It's something we all should try to do.
Contact Sheila Stroup at email@example.com.