New Orleans Musicians Start Young and Learn Fast
Jack Stewart recalls the beginning of his music education in Orleans Parish Public Schools: He was handed a “Tonette” in fourth grade. “It was a hard, plastic recorder. They would give them out at the beginning of the year – they had been boiled and sterilized but they still had teeth marks on them.” Ken Kolb had the same experience at De La Salle School: “I still remember: you had to put your fingers on the right place to play a tune – one, two, three, two, one, one, one …”
Stewart traded in his Tonette for a clarinet at McMain Junior High School. He had a memorable band instructor. “Matthew Lewis Longuefosse had long black hair. When he was conducting he’d bend forward and his hair would come in front of his face, and then he’d toss his head and it would fly back.”
McMain also had an orchestra, taught by Carl Kirst, who played regularly in city nightspots, as did his brothers Gordon and Albert. “Sometimes they combined the band and orchestra. It was like a symphony, a huge number of wind instruments and strings, too,” says Stewart.
New Orleans music educators were often professional performers. Society band leader René Louapre spent more than 30 years as a music educator in New Orleans public schools, including service as Supervisor of Instrumental Music – all while he was building an orchestra with a schedule of 40 Carnival balls a season.
In his 2006 book, Keeping the Beat on the Street: The New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance, the late Mick Burns interviewed several working local musicians who traced their musical skills to their school days. Philip Frazier III (known as “Tuba Phil” on “Treme”) took up the trombone in grammar school, but at Joseph S. Clark High School switched to tuba under band director David Harris. With his brother Keith and his classmates, including Kermit Ruffins, he began the Rebirth Brass Band.
Historian Al Kennedy carefully researched music instructors and charted their students and their influence. Clyde Kerr Sr., was at Booker T. Washington High School, Xavier Prep and Priestley Junior High School in a 30-year career that produced both working musicians and other music educators. Kerr also fielded an orchestra himself, and his son, Clyde Kerr Jr., was a music teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he taught Irvin Mayfield, Nicholas Payton and Jason Marsalis as pupils. Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., were NOCCA students who trained under Dr. Bert Breaud.
Even in days when schools were racially segregated, music could cross boundaries. Legendary Jesuit High School music director Michael Cupero, who wrote Jesuit’s alma mater in 1931, privately taught black musician Lionel Ferbos. Ferbos is still playing at age 101.
Arthur Hardy, best known today for his Mardi Gras Guide, marched in his first parade for the Krewe of Thoth as a 12-year-old student at Beauregard Junior High School (now Thurgood Marshall School). He had more marching ahead at Warren Easton High School, where he parlayed his trombone skill into the front row (“right behind those Easton Eagles girls with their big purple letters on their white sweaters”) and became captain.
With only his public school music training, Hardy would go on to get a music degree from Loyola University and launch a career in school music, beginning at Beauregard where he started and including 16 years as music director at Brother Martin High School.
In his years in school music, Hardy and his students took part in contests and judging set up by the Louisiana Music Educators Association. “Our bands consistently got superior ratings in junior high and in high school,” he says. Hardy served for two years as state president of the group, which still rates young musicians and hosts competitions for places in All-State ensembles: Women’s Chorale, Mixed Choir, Jazz Ensemble, Orchestra, Concert Band and Symphonic Band.
The earliest newspaper mention of a New Orleans school band parading was the St. Joseph’s School Band, playing for the Phoenix Fire Company in the March 4, 1872, annual Volunteer Fireman’s parade. “Every brass band in the city was engaged weeks in advance” according to the next day’s Daily Picayune. Now, that early brass band has some new young followers.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation has instituted an annual contest, “Class Got Brass?” Foundation Director of Programs Scott Aiges explains that the “cultural Olympiad” was designed to “keep the focus on the school system” and “focus on the most iconic part of New Orleans culture, the second-line parades and brass bands.”
“All of us in the nonprofit world who are creating these new music programs are still just trying to replace what’s been lost at the school level,” Aiges says, noting the foundation’s use of school stages at festivals and their Heritage School of Music, plus youth programs from the National Park Service, Irvin Mayfield and Delfeayo Marsalis.
“Class Got Brass?” had 17 entrants last year. KIPP McDonogh 15 took the top prize of $10,000. O. Perry Walker High School won second place and $6,000. McDonogh 35 High School took third place, winning $4,000. All schools received at least $750.
And the beat goes on.
Check It Out
A lot of information on music in local schools is in the Orleans Parish School Board Records, housed since 1983 in Louisiana and Special Collections at the Earl K. Long Library of the University of New Orleans. Material includes board minutes back to 1841, photographs, curriculum guides, budgets and building details, all in 1,600 linear feet of material. Al Kennedy, who has done extensive research in the collection for his book Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans, currently teaches a University of New Orleans course entitled “Public Education in New Orleans: 1841 to Post Katrina.”