Family of New Orleans Musician Seeks Horn Stolen From Funeral

Travis 'Trumpet Black' Hill
Travis 'Trumpet Black' HillJames Demaria

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By Tim Stelloh

The last time Leroy Hill saw his brother's trumpet, it was a Saturday afternoon in May at the Carver Theater in New Orleans. His brother, the rising jazz star Travis Hill — better known as Trumpet Black — was lying in a casket a few feet away, killed at 28 by a tooth infection that triggered a heart attack while he was on tour in Japan.

It was the next day before anyone realized that Travis' most prized possession, his horn, had been stolen.

Travis 'Trumpet Black' HillJames Demaria

Now, nearly four months later, the musician's family is offering a $3,500 reward to get it back.

"We have his clothing. We have his shoes," Leroy told NBC News. "The one thing we don't have is his trumpet."

Under any circumstances, the theft of a dead musician's instrument would seem especially cruel. But for Travis, it was even worse. Hill had been a prodigy as a young musician, someone whose lineage include the great R&B singer Jesse Hill. He was touring with his cousin Trombone Shorty by the time he was 12. But by 18, he'd developed a fearsome street reputation and was in prison for kidnapping and carjacking, said James Demaria, a filmmaker who was making "You Gonna Fall," a documentary about Travis, at the time of the musician's death.

"He used to walk Orleans Avenue with a machine gun," Demaria said. "He called it 'Chopper.'"

In prison, however, Travis converted to Islam and left his old ways behind. When he was released four years ago, Demaria said, "he took the world by storm."

He formed Trumpet Black and the Heart Attacks and worked with a local nonprofit, Trumpets NOT Guns, to get instruments to inner-city kids. "I could see the fire in this dude," Demaria said. "He really wanted to turn things around."

When Travis died in May, Leroy said, he was on his way to Australia for a monthlong tour by way of Japan.

Leroy isn't sure what happened that day at Carver Theater. That last time he remembers seeing the trumpet, a cousin had placed it on a chair just steps from the casket, in an area reserved for relatives and funeral home officials.

The theater's director, Shelley Everett, told NBC News that surveillance video showed nothing more than "a sea of people" — she estimated that more than 1,500 attended the funeral — and that when she tried to have a technician show the family the video, "he waited for several hours. No one came in."

Then, Everett said, the video was recorded over.

Since the reward was offered last week, Leroy said, he's heard nothing.

"The only thing I've gotten are responses on Facebook — people saying, 'I hope you get it back,'" he said.