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Music Education Continues Long Tradition Outside The Classroom

Neighborhood Story Project
Neighborhood Story Project's new book by Bruce Sunpie Barnes and Rachel Breunlin chronicles passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans the traditional Way

There’s learning to play music in the school band, and then there’s learning to play music on the street — or the bandstand — from working musicians. In New Orleans, music education has its roots as much outside the classroom as in it.

But just like every part of life, Hurricane Katrina shook up this tradition. Eve Abrams traces how young people and elders still come together with their horns, ears and fingers to continue a long chain of musical knowledge.

When Will Hightower was in the 5th grade, the kids in his school were really into athletics: who was the fastest runner, who had the best shot. He hated it.

“I really just wanted to get out of that,” says Hightower. “I didn’t like the locker room environment, and stuff like that. So I decided to join band.”

Hightower thought, I’ll get out of PE, and learn how to play an instrument. He pictured something cool, like a saxophone, but his teacher handed him a clarinet. At first, he thought it was tortuous.

“It’s really hard instrument,” he explains. “And when you first start playing it, it doesn’t sound good. And for a long time it really doesn’t ever start to sound good. And it wasn’t until I started going to the Park Service and like hearing real clarinet players like Rickey Paulin, Joe Torregano, Evan Christopher play it in such a beautiful way. Hearing all them play it, it really changed my perspective on the instrument and made me want to be a clarinet player.”

Hightower no longer lives in New Orleans, at least not full time. He just finished his first year at Berklee College of Music in Boston, studying clarinet.

But it was through the program he mentioned at the National Park Service, called Music for All Ages, where Hightower first learned from professional musicians. They taught him: keep doing it, develop your voice. Not only that: Use music to help people through everyday life — and death – in that unique New Orleans way.

“School is teaching you the techniques and the classical and the educated way of learning something,” explains Hightower. “Whereas in New Orleans, it’s the cultural way, the handed-down story way of telling something. Like, you need to be able to tell a story musically, and I don’t think that school can really teach you that.”

“You know, I like to say it’s a part of the spirit transfer,” says Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, who started Music for All Ages as a National Park Ranger and musician. It’s one of many programs bringing older, professional musicians together with young people.

Hurricane Katrina disrupted and dislocated neighborhood life, and these programs became stand-ins for the more natural relationships — between neighbors, uncles, grandmothers – which have produced thousands of musicians in New Orleans, for generations. In a city where music education has always been about connection, Barnes says no musician would ever want their gifts and knowledge to die on the vine.

“You want to give it up,” explains Barnes. “You want to find young people who are excited to pick up the torch, so to speak, and carry on the tradition. It doesn’t mean they need to sound exactly like the last person that played it. It means they need to deeply understand and respect the spirit of those people who have transferred it along.”

Barnes and Rachel Breunlin of the Neighborhood Story Project trace stories of teaching music in a new book, Talk That Music Talk. It pays homage to sacred musical spaces, like barrooms and street corners. It also documents the lines of teachers, traditions, and organizations that keep music alive and functioning as part of New Orleans life.

Take the story of John Michael Bradford, an 18-year-old who just graduated from NOCCA and who’s also bound for Berklee College of Music, on a full scholarship.

Bradford’s family evacuated for Katrina: nine people and two dogs in San Antonio, for months. Sam Williams, trombone player in the funk band Big Sam’s Funky Nation, was in that group. John Michael was 9 years old and he became infatuated — first with Sam, and then with music. He was ravenous for instruction. Back in New Orleans, his mother, Angie Bradford, found Music for All Ages. Bradford says it was simple: the older guys would play and the kids would imitate them.

“And it wasn’t like a classroom,” says Angie Bradford. “Because people would come into the park – they would sit there, like they were there for a concert. They would watch the kids learn, by ear, the music.”

At ages 9 and 10, kids also learned how to read a crowd and move the energy. They learned older, traditional styles and how to develop a voice — to solo. John Michael was in heaven.

One of the musicians he met, tuba player Mark Smith, invited John Michael to busk in Jackson Square, a traditional spot for street music. John Michael would play all day Saturdays until the Square closed.

It’s there he started learning from trumpeter Kenneth Terry. Terry says it’s been an honor being part of John Michael’s life — an honor for both of them.

Credit Eve Abrams
Kenny Terry plays in Jackson Square.

“Oh man, I love the kid,” says Terry. “John Michael used to actually be at my house almost 7 days a week, man. His mom used to bring him over, used to hang out with and everything, showed him the music like I learned it.” 

Terry learned from Milton Batiste, who backed up blues musicians like Professor Longhair before joining Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, and creating the Junior Olympians to get youngsters interested in parading.

“The same steps that Milton Batiste took me through to learn the music, I took John Michael through also,” explains Terry. “I just pass it on, you know.”

It’s late on a Monday night after a class sponsored by the Tipitina’s Foundation, and John Michael has stayed behind after all the other kids have left, like he does every week, to ask his teacher, saxophonist Donald Harrison – who’s sitting at the organ — how to play something.

Credit Eve Abrams
John Michael Bradford goes over a piece of music with his teacher Donald Harrison.

John Michael’s mom, Angie Bradford, says she can’t even name all the musicians who’ve helped John Michael. Harrison has been doing it since John Michael was in the 6th grade.

“I just want to see them do what they want to do,” says Harrison. “This business is such a tough business and so many people helped me. So many people came along and tried to ensure that I had a good understanding of the music.”

Donald Harrison says he wants to be like those guys, all the elders who shared their knowledge with him. That way, even after he’s died, he’ll still be connected to the music — because John Michael will teach the next generation.

Harrison can see it so clearly, this thread of connection. He’s not worried about it breaking. John Michael’s got it sewn up.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.