New Orleans Mardi Gras marching bands are incubators for more than music

marching-bands-walker.JPGThe O. Perry Walker Charger Band marches in the Krewe of Alla preview parade Saturday.

With two days left before the band's first Mardi Gras parade, band leader Wilbert Rawlins wasn’t about to let his troupe of young musicians relax.

Pacing before dozens of rapt and silent teenagers sitting with their instruments in hand, he instructed: “At this point, we should be working on the relentless pursuit of perfection. Just showing up to practice does not make us perfect.”

Rawlins waved his hand dismissively at the array of trophies won by O. Perry Walker’s band through the decades, reminding the students never to rest on past laurels.

“If you’re in here you’ve got to be willing to work,” he said. “One slip of the tongue, that’s one less person. One slip of the hand, that’s one less person. We need everybody.”

In the cramped band room of the West Bank charter school, that “everybody” is more than 100 students strong. It includes novices who only recently picked up an instrument and students with so much musical experience their horns feel like extensions of their hands.

marching-bands-rawlins.JPGO. Perry Walker band director Wilbert Rawlins yellls instructions and encouragement as a portion of the more than 100-member marching band practices Thursday. Under the direction of Rawlins, the band is thriving post-Katrina while many schools are struggling to maintain or reopen their programs.

Such large, ambitious marching bands have become a relative anomaly in a city famous for its second-lines, brass bands and musical luminaries, however. More than four years after Hurricane Katrina, band leaders say they are fighting to ensure the tradition thrives in a dramatically altered public school landscape.

The decline of that tradition, they fear, would mark the loss of an activity — a passion — that, over the decades, has kept scores of the city’s teenagers connected to school. The best band directors realize that strong marching bands can bolster strong academic programs in the long run, particularly if the music and academic classes are well integrated. And in some cases, “if you keep an instrument in a kid’s hand, it will keep a kid from picking up a gun,” said Elijah Brimmer, a longtime band director in the city.

Several forces have depleted the ranks of the city’s marching bands. First, fewer students now live in the city, as the overall population has dropped since Katrina. And several high schools with vibrant marching bands, including Kennedy High School near the lakefront, did not reopen after the storm.

Moreover, the city’s public high schools tend to be much smaller than before the storm. And many remain in a state of flux as some of the low-performing schools phase out grade by grade, with new programs taking their place.

With a few notable exceptions, including Sophie B. Wright and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. charter schools, the city’s middle schools no longer have marching bands, depriving the high school programs of their usual pipeline.

And at some of the new high schools, creating marching bands has — for good reason — taken a back seat as administrators work to build strong academic programs.

A handful of private and public schools still have powerhouse bands, including Walker and St. Augustine High School. Still, some Carnival krewes were desperate for local bands this year, Rawlins said.

“We got so many calls from krewes asking us to march,” he said. “They were like, ‘We need someone to fill this spot and this spot. Can you suggest someone, please?’”

Carnival parades are required by law to feature at least seven marching bands, a tradition that has helped foster a vibrant band culture at many of the city’s schools for decades.

“Hopefully, in the very, very near future we can get more students from the middle schools and junior highs to come in and help bring our programs alive,” said Keith Thomas, the new band director at John McDonogh High School.

John McDonogh’s band will not march this year, giving Thomas time to recruit new members and better prepare the current musicians.

“They are just not ready to be on the street yet,” he said.

Thomas noted that many students lost sight of the tradition after so much personal turmoil, including the post-storm scattering of relatives, mentors and band leaders who inspired many children to pick up an instrument in the first place.

“We have kids who really don’t know what they want to do,” he said. “One day they want to march and the next day they don’t. You’ve got to sell it. You’ve got to make them believe in the program.”

Like a family

Band helped Dalisha Hebert believe in herself again after the quadruple blows of Katrina, the deaths of both her grandmothers and her father's murder.

Hebert, a junior at Walker, recalled: “I felt so much anger and grief that I didn’t care what anyone said. If my Dad wasn’t telling me something, then I didn’t listen.”

That changed when Hebert met Rawlins and joined the band.

marching-bands-cymbals.JPGAt O. Perry Walker in Algiers, band students participate in mandatory tutoring and can also participate in a mentorship program.

Hebert started off playing the trumpet, persevering even though she couldn’t read music at first. “Sometimes I used to take the horn home and play anything just to hear noise come out of it,” she said. “I used to call and be like, ‘Mr. Rawlins, how does this part go?’ It could be like 9 at night and he’d answer.”

After her freshman year, Hebert followed her gut and her fascination with the French horn section. “I was so stuck on them that I couldn’t look anywhere else,” she said.

She excelled at the new instrument and, at the same time, her grades in school improved as she grew more motivated.

Hebert and LeAura Landix, a senior who plays the trombone, said the marching band feels more like a family than an extracurricular activity.

“Your decisions that you make right now are going to affect your children,” Rawlins told the students one recent afternoon. He reminded them a minute later that, like a family, the band’s ties are unbreakable.

“Have you ever seen me put somebody out, I mean really put somebody out? When I put someone out what I’m saying is, ‘You need this. You love this. This is your life.’”

‘Declining interest’

With the exception of John McDonogh, most of the state-run Recovery School District’s high schools will march this Carnival season, as will historically strong bands under the auspices of the local School Board, such as Warren Easton.

But Brimmer, the band director at Cohen High School, said some of the RSD’s programs are hanging on by a thread.

“I can see a declining interest,” he said.

Brimmer, who came out of retirement to revive Cohen’s program, plans to retire for good at the end of this school year. He worries about what will happen to Cohen’s band and music program after his departure.

“It’s competing against other programs like football and track. Everybody is fighting to get the kids who want to stay after school and work with some type of program,” he said. “Unless they stress music, the program will go down.”

Still, there’s some reason for optimism.

A group of local musicians started The Roots of Music program for middle school-age students in 2008, offering after-school musical and academic instruction and a marching band. And some leaders at relatively young charter middle and high schools, including Green charter in Uptown, say they plan to add marching band programs that could debut as early as next year. That should ease the difficulties faced by high school band leaders, who say the vast majority of their students come with no musical training.

A few parade krewes, including the popular Muses, say they can still find enough local marching bands for their parades. But others have had to rely more on out-of-town bands in recent years, said Warren Serignet, who coordinates several New Orleans parades.

“Quite a few of the krewes are not using local bands because they cost too much,” he said, noting that the $2,300 price tag for many New Orleans high school bands is nearly double what it costs to bring in a band from out of the region.

“The only local (public school) band that I have is George Washington Carver with Tucks,” Serignet said. “I can go out of town and get them for less with just as many (players).”

Recovery Sschool District officials said the price did not rise this year and that most of the money covers expenses such as transportation and insurance; extra funds go to support ongoing costs such as uniforms and instrument repair. O. Perry Walker, for instance, spends nearly $1,000 on buses for each parade and another $800 to have the band uniforms cleaned, not to mention the cost of feeding the students before each event. Moreover, many local bands have no money to support their programs apart from what they earn from the parades.

Band directors like Brimmer believe the marching tradition will survive in the city’s public schools, but on a much smaller scale. At least a few schools will retain powerhouse bands. But gone will be the days when a premier New Orleans band — with well over 80 students and a style and sound unparalleled in any other city — follows almost every float.

On the streets

Three hours before their first parade of the season, the Walker marching band members prepared ­— ­­­some frantic, others poised and relaxed.

The musicians changed out of their khaki pants and into navy pants with orange stripes down the side. Students fueled up on cold cuts and water for the five-mile walk. Tuba players shined their instruments to a gleaming silver. By hand, a parent glued orange sparkles on each majorette’s white boots.

Rawlins looked every student up and down, telling one: “You need to get your shoes clean. That’s unacceptable, unacceptable.”

He singled out another young man whose uniform was unpressed and unfastened. “It looks like it’s from the Mission, not a finely tailored tuxedo.”

Despite the last-minute glitches, the students made it on the bus and to the Uptown start of Oshun well before the parade rolled.

“Tighten it up, tighten it up,” Rawlins said as the group disembarked from the buses. “You’re all on public display now.”

The students lined up on the broad Napoleon Avenue neutral ground, the drum majors and the rows of trombones, trumpets, clarinets, tubas and more. Classmates from Walker and members of the Cohen marching band stopped by to admire the sight.

When the parade got under way, the Walker band marched down Napoleon past the TV crews, rounding the corner into the admiring throngs on St. Charles.

In this parade, at least, no other band compares.

“There used to be a bunch of schools with big old bands,” said Troy Lynn, a Walker band parent. “Now it sometimes feels like we’re about the only ones left.”

Sarah Carr can be reached at or 504.826.3497.