Shorty Fest 2020: A Conversation with Bill Taylor

By Aaron Avidon

To put it simply, Bill Taylor is a survivor. A veteran of the music industry, he has worked within the New Orleans scene for the better part of the 2000’s. Even with his vast experience, where does a global pandemic leave a city of starving artists, when their main source of income is no longer a viable option? I had the pleasure of sitting down with Taylor, hoping to find an answer.

Taylor is the director and co-founder of the Trombone Shorty Foundation, and while working with youths in New Orleans is the main focus, the annual Shorty Fest is more often than not the major link between the foundation to the public. Following Jazz Fest every year, Tipitina’s hosts Shorty Fest, an event helmed by Taylor and Shorty themselves, usually involving a performance from Shorty and his band, as well as several local bands, more often than not Shorty’s close friends. 

“One of the things that’s powerful about Shorty is that New Orleans takes a lot of pride in him”, says Taylor.“We’ve watched him grow up before our eyes, and he’s gone on to develop this amazing career. He represents the spirit of the city. And he’s a great role model, too.”

What started off as a thrilling entry into the decade for Shorty, with a trip to Cuba and collaborating with Cuba Educational Travel, digressed to a slow trickle, as concerts and festivals were progressively rescheduled and eventually cancelled. Ever enduring, Taylor and Shorty have worked tirelessly to make sense of it all, remaining relatively silent as the world erupted in flames around them.

A major challenge facing Taylor this time around is the planning and staging of this year’s Shorty Fest. In the wake of COVID-19, and with the rapid cancellations of live music events across New Orleans, many artists and their teams are left scratching their heads wondering what next steps need to be taken. For Taylor and Shorty, that pivotal next step has presented itself: a virtual Shorty Fest, recorded live and streamed online for not just New Orleans, but for the world to see.

“Everybody’s struggling,” says Taylor. “These are touring bands, great bands with great followings. It’s a grim situation right now, and we’re all just trying to work together and collaborate, show that we’re all in this together. Carrying the New Orleans sound is a pretty profound statement.” 

For many of the bands on the lineup, this will be the first time they’ve streamed a live performance. Beyond that, this will be the first time the bands will be seeing each other since the COVID pandemic began. For Taylor, as well as the New Orleans music scene in general, the money-making model has been to tour consistently in order to make profits. However, the question is now posed if this model needs to change. How can touring be the main source of income when so many technological avenues are now open and available?

Ever the mellow man, Taylor smiles. “You can’t fight progress,” he says. “Things evolve, and you can’t always control what that looks like, so you just gotta roll with it.”

New Orleans is a city so rooted in musical tradition and built upon the basis of live music, and it’s an unsure time for many musicians in the city scene. However, it’s clear that now is as good a time as any for adaptation. Anders Osborne has been getting major buzz from his live streams from home, and Alex Rawls for My Spilt Milk has even written recently about Tipitina’s.TV, which is an attempt at adapting live music to the Austin City Limits formula. 

With these futuristic changes, though, who knows where the local scene will be in a post-pandemic world? Will live music be what it used to be, hold the same weight as it did just a year ago?

“I think there will be more passion for live music once it kicks back in,” said Taylor. “We experienced New Orleans after Katrina, and once you lose something you took for granted, in this case live music, you develop a new appreciation for it. I think an emergence of live shows and streams will be prevalent, a greater use of technology. But there’s nothing like going to see a live show.”

Taylor, itching for live shows like the rest of us, isn’t pessimistic about this hybrid near-future.

“I hope there are more opportunities for artists to generate revenues through technology,” he says. “Touring became the model when streaming became prevalent, and I know so many artists that were getting tired being on the road all the time.”

When live music is so deeply ingrained in the culture, the stakes are way higher in the face of a changing zeitgeist. 

“Whoever’s more creative and figures out how to navigate it is gonna come out of this in a stronger place.” Taylor grimaces. “If you’re sitting around waiting for things to go back to normal…then I don’t know.”

We ended our conversation on a brief, yet hopeful note: “Whenever there’s challenges, there’s always opportunity.” The smile slowly returned to his face. “And that’s life.”

Virtual Shorty Fest will be held on September 26th at 8 PM. Trombone Shorty and his band will be joined in the stream by Tank & the Bangas, Galactic, Anders Osborne & The Soul Rebels. You can catch it digitally, or broadcast it live locally on WNOL-TV.


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