New Orleans’ culture is deeply connected to its music. The city is the birthplace of jazz, and the hometown of many great musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Irma Thomas. Many got their start in public schools. But those training grounds are under threat as schools change and become more focused on test scores in reading and math. Now, a group of veteran New Orleans musicians are trying to do something about it.
In the band room at ReNEW Dolores T. Aaron Academy, an elementary and middle school in New Orleans East, the brass band is doing some last-minute rehearsing before their holiday talent show. They’re working on “Go to New Orleans,” a local standard. It’s sounding good, but suddenly the song falls apart when some students skip a verse. Their instructor, Kevin Louis cuts them off.
"No, no! Y’all keep doing that! Y'all are going to the bridge too soon," Louis says. Then he explains this song has a traditional A-A-B-A form typical of New Orleans music. If you mess it up, Louis says, you create a "musical trainwreck."
"If you get on a gig, old musicians are going to get so mad at you for that," he says. "Drummers will start throwing sticks at you," he laughs.
Louis knows what he’s talking about. He’s a trumpet player with the world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He’s working with these students as part of the Preservation Hall Foundation’s teaching artist program, which sends its musicians into public schools to beef up their music programs and teach New Orleans-style music.
Louis is helping out Dolores T. Aaron Band director Andy Bower. Bower is from out of state - Pennsylvania - and is glad to have Louis’ expertise and background.
"The kids need to learn from New Orleans natives," Bower says. "That's the way the music has always been taught."
Bower says since he started the band program a few years ago, he’s constantly had to fight for funding and time - a common plight for music teachers city wide.
"One of the big things that we saw as we evolved into the charter school movement was the de-evolution of what music classes were," Ashley Shabankareh says, director of programs for the Preservation Hall Foundation.
Shabankareh says after Hurricane Katrina, music education took a back seat as schools focused on boosting math and reading scores. Many schools have only recently added back music programs. But generally, school administrators aren’t making them a priority, often pulling kids out of band class for testing, or extra help in reading or math. The result is that the level of musical skill among New Orleans students has taken a nose dive in the last decade, according to a number of veteran music educators.
"I'm fortunate here that my administration is pretty receptive," Bower says. "But there's been a lot of fighting to get to that point."
Music programs across the district are stretched thin. According to data collected by the Artist Corps New Orleans, many schools don’t have a dedicated band room or a fulltime music teacher. Most schools don’t have enough instruments, and the ones they do have are in rough shape. Some of the instruments Bower and Louis’ students are using are literally duct-taped together.
Student band member Arnold Jackson, 14, played his solo during the holiday talent show on a sousaphone with a missing button.
"That’s alright," he says, staying positive and running his hand lovingly around the bell of his sousaphone. "As long as it keeps it like that, it’s all good."
Arnold has been playing three years, and he already knows he wants to be a professional musician. For him band isn’t just a hobby - it’s training for a real career. It’s the whole reason he comes to school.
Groups like the Preservation Hall Foundation, VH1 Save The Music Foundation, the Artist Corps New Orleans and others are worried that because of the poor quality and quantity of music education in public schools, students are missing out on opportunities to explore their musical potential. They're working to make music education a priority at the district level.
In the gym at Dolores T. Aaron, Arnold moves into position with the rest of the brass band. The drummer rolls it off, and as the band begins to play, they bring a crowd of parents and students to their feet, despite the duct-taped mouthpieces and a few missing buttons.
Trumpet player and instructor Kevin Louis says struggle has always been a part of New Orleans’ musical tradition.
"It's not like all the great musicians that came out of New Orleans had all the best instruments, or came from a bunch of money and had everything just laid out for them," Louis explains. "That’s the story of the culture. You know? It’s a survival people."
Louis has faith that with help from culture bearers like him, New Orleans' music will survive too.
Education reporting on WWNO is supported by Entergy Corporation.