Teaching

New Orleans School Bands Strutting Once More

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 10, 2007 2 min read
Drummers from the St. Augustine High School Marching 100, known locally as "Saint Aug", play as students from the Xavier University Preparatory School all-girls band watch following their own performance outside Tipitina's music club in New Orleans.

The St. Augustine High School Marching 100 wrapped up its propulsive set along Napoleon Avenue and made way for the band from O. Perry Walker High School.

It was a sweltering August evening—exactly two years after Hurricane Katrina—in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. A crowd had gathered outside Tipitina’s, a storied music club, to witness a promising sign that New Orleans’ long tradition of marching bands and music education would survive the tumult that the storm brought to the city’s schools.

Flag carriers from St. Augustine's band wait for their cue in front of Tipitina's, whose foundation has donated funds to support music education in the city.

Katrina’s floodwaters left nearly every school’s band room and contents in ruins. In most of the public schools, repairing buildings and hiring teachers have been the overwhelming priority, so individual donors and outside organizations have stepped in to help.

Tipitina’s Foundation, already a patron of music education in the schools, has raised close to $1 million since the storm to outfit hundreds of school musicians with new instruments. The St. Augustine and O. Perry Walker bands had to come to play outside Tipitina’s in a special event arranged to show off their new instruments.

St. Augustine trumpet players stand quietly in a straight line as they wait their turn to perform in an event at Tipitina's to showcase school bands.

“We would have had nothing to play without their help,” said Wilbert J. Rawlins, the band director for O. Perry Walker, a former district-run public school that reopened as a charter after the storm. “Without music in our schools here, it wouldn’t be New Orleans, and the city wouldn’t have its next generation of musicians.”

Pleasing the Crowd

O. Perry Walker High School students twirl batons during a classic “battle of the bands” with the St. Augustine High School Marching 100 outside Tipitina's in New Orleans.

Putting back together the St. Augustine Marching 100—one of the most celebrated high school bands in New Orleans—has heartened people across the city, said Rev. Joseph M. Doyle, the president of the school.

The historically African-American, all-boys Roman Catholic school has had many of its prestorm students come back. Last year, the band reunited its musicians with donated instruments and its signature purple and gold uniforms in time to march in more than 10 Mardi Gras parades.

As the O. Perry Walker musicians tuned up, Mr. Rawlins explained that they were still getting used to playing together.

Brandon Washington, a junior at St. Augustine High School, raises cymbals in the air as part of a choreographed routine while playing with the school band.

Like everything else Hurricane Katrina changed, most of the Walker musicians had gone to other high schools before the storm, and had played in other bands. Some of the freshmen were playing an instrument for the first time, and the full band had only been rehearsing together for about three weeks.

If Walker’s playing wasn’t quite as polished as St. Augustine’s, their medley of pop songs and high-stepping routine brought cheers and whistles from the crowd.

Chelsea Gary, right, a 9th grader, plays the trumpet with the Xavier University Preparatory School's marching band.

The Marching 100 stood in formation nearby, listening respectfully—that is, until Walker ended its set, and “St. Aug,” as locals refer to the school, issued a brassy challenge. Walker’s musicians answered noisily, and with that, a “battle of the bands” erupted at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street. Traffic stopped. The crowd spilled into the space between the two bands.

And in this still-wounded city, where playing in the high school marching band brings more acclaim than playing on the football team, it didn’t matter which band won the battle.

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Coverage of public education in New Orleans is underwritten by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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