Anyone who has been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans knows how important music is to that annual celebration. School bands march in the same 50 or so Carnival parades as professional jazz and brass bands, along with all manner of bawdy floats and other participants.
“The Whole Gritty City,” a 90-minute documentary about three school or youth bands in the Big Easy preparing for Mardi Gras, will air Saturday night in a two-hour time slot as part of “48 Hours Presents” on CBS (9 p.m. ET/PT).
Of course, like a good band, the film is much more than the sum of its parts. It’s not really about the struggle to maintain music programs in a struggling urban school system. (Two of the featured bands are high school based, while the third is a community youth band.) As best we can tell, these bands are reasonably well-funded, with sharp uniforms and shiny instruments.
The challenge is being in New Orleans, a city still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its even longer legacy of crime and poor schools.
The great jazz artist and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, who appears several times to introduce portions of the otherwise unnarrated film, puts it bluntly at the beginning.
“New Orleans buries too many of its young,” he says. “I’m a jazz man and a teacher. I’ve seen many times what happens when a child picks up an instrument and learns to play.”
In the Roots of Music Crusaders marching band (the community program aimed at middle school students), a young trumpet player, 11-year-old Jaron “Bear” Williams, is a natural music talent and a leader. But his own neighborhood is daunting to him. “This is the street I don’t like ‘cause it has guns,” he says. His 19-year-old brother was killed nearby. (Williams and another Crusader in the documentary appeared as music students in the HBO series “Treme,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.)
At L.E. Rabouin High School, we learn that the teacher who founded the marching band was killed in 2006 in a violent street incident.
The band’s drum major, nicknamed “Skully,” says, “Trouble is everywhere. I hope I don’t run across trouble.” He also gives the film its name when he is taking video of his neighborhood and refers to the “whole gritty city.”
At the school’s homecoming football game, the band is playing when trouble erupts on a nearby street in the form of gunfire. Everyone flees the football stadium but the band is unscathed.
Meanwhile, at O. Perry Walker High School, the marching band is led by Wilbert Rawlins Jr., a gold-toothed inspiration who lost seven childhood friends to drugs or murder, and hopes to steer his charges away from trouble. Sadly, there is a tragedy involving a recent graduate of the school, leading to the film’s poignant climax.
The bands do make it to various Mardi Gras parades, where they bring smiles to the parade crowds and to their own faces. Like New Orleans itself, the film is alternately tragic and joyful.
“The Whole Gritty City” was directed by Richard Barber, a producer for CBS’ “48 Hours” and other shows, and was co-directed by Andre Lambertson.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.