Shamarr Allen
Trumpeter Shamarr Allen doesn't wish to be pigeonholed

Shamarr Allen
Shamarr Allen, a former member of the Rebirth Brass Band, recently spent time on the road as a member of the Willie Nelson's band.

Trumpeter Shamarr Allen apprenticed with the Rebirth Brass Band, traditional jazz drummer Bob French and, improbably enough, Willie Nelson.

Now he's ready to step out on his own.

He devoted his first CD to traditional jazz. But as the title of his new "Box Who In?" implies, he won't be pigeonholed. Rock, modern jazz, funk -- "Box Who In?" runs the gamut.

So will Allen's May 3 set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, even though he's booked in the WWOZ Jazz Tent.

"The new stuff is more Congo Square, Gentilly Stage, Acura Stage kind of music, " Allen said. "It's going to be a whole different thing going on in the Jazz Tent. We're going in there, and we're going to rock it."

Allen, 27, grew up in the Lower 9th Ward. By age 5, he had chosen to play trumpet like Louis Armstrong instead of saxophone like his father. In high school, he fell in with a group of musicians called Wolfpack. A gig with the Hot 8 Brass Band led to a job with that band.

Around the time he graduated from Sarah T. Reed High School and the New Orleans High School for Science and Mathematics, the Hot 8 marched in a second-line with Rebirth, the city's reigning brass band. Leading the parade, the Hot 8 finished first; Allen circled back to jam with Rebirth. Weeks after that unofficial audition, Rebirth invited him aboard.

"This was my dream, " Allen said. "As a kid playing trumpet in New Orleans, you want to be part of Rebirth, you want to be part of the Dirty Dozen. It was pretty cool. I was enjoying the ride, traveling the world, making money doing what I love to do."

He also earned a full scholarship to Xavier University. But after two years of studying to be a music teacher, he quit. "If I was teaching, I'd be making $30,000 tops, " he said. "By that time, I was doing better than that with Rebirth.

"And I'd rather play than teach. School will always be there, but the opportunities won't."

In the summer of 2005, Allen and his sister lived in a house their parents owned on North Prieur Street, around the corner from his mother and father's home on Jourdan Avenue. The houses faced the section of Industrial Canal levee that ruptured during Hurricane Katrina.

He and his family evacuated before the storm, but the destruction of their homes made for an especially compelling story. Allen appeared in documentaries and articles. That attention, he believes, did not sit well with some bandmates. In 2006, he and Rebirth parted company.

With money saved from his Rebirth tenure, he enrolled at Delgado Community College and recorded his first CD, "Meet Me on Frenchmen Street." He landed a job in Bob French's band, overcoming the leader's doubts about a Rebirth alumnus' ability to play traditional jazz.

Around the 2008 French Quarter Festival, Allen left French's employ. He was on his own, with a mortgage on a new house in the Musicians' Village and a young son to support.

And so he worked harder.

"Before the storm, everybody was content with their situation musically," he said. "After that, I saw that anything could be gone in a day. I had to figure out a way to set myself up to where, if it happened again, I'd be able to take care of my family."

To that end, he and his band, the Underdawgs, released "Box Who In?" on Threadhead Records. His trumpet, run through an effects pedal, often mimics a guitar on 10 original songs and covers of "A Night in Tunisia, " Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and War's "The World Is a Ghetto."

Branching out, he also toured with nouveau funk band Galactic and joined singer-songwriter Paul Sanchez's Rolling Roadshow.

"Shamarr is one of the most exciting and charismatic musicians to emerge from the New Orleans music scene since the flood, or at any time in recent history, " Sanchez said. "When he plays his horn, heads turn. He has a natural and engaging stage presence.

"I also like to hire him because he is young and sexy, and I get to be old and sagelike and leave the young and sexy to him."

In February, Willie Nelson launched a monthlong tour in support of "Willie and the Wheel," a collection of Western swing songs. He wanted a New Orleans trumpeter for his 12-piece backing band. When someone from Nelson's office called around, Allen's name came up.

As a bonus, he already knew the Nelson canon.

"That dude writes great music," Allen said. "You can tell he has a lot of fun and puts his heart, and stuff he goes through, into his music. I try to take that same approach."

With Nelson, Allen graduated overnight to tour busses, nice hotels and sold-out theaters.

"It was more like a dream than a gig to me," he said. "If Willie called and said he wanted me to play for free, I'd go. That's how much respect I have for what he does."

Nelson encouraged Allen to solo during concerts, engaged him in lengthy conversations on the bus, and even offered to share a smoke with him. The trumpeter declined. "The only thing he said," Allen recalled, "was, 'That's more for me.' "

Their collaboration continues. Nelson invited Allen to a recording session in Austin, Texas, that was to start today. The trumpeter was willing to cancel his Jazz Fest gig to make it, but Nelson wouldn't hear of it.

"He's like, 'Don't miss the festival. That's your band. That's your stuff. That comes before anything' "

So on Monday, Allen travels to the Texas capital to make music with Nelson.

But today at Jazz Fest, he'll make it for himself.


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