New Orleans' Marching Bands Short on Funds

The 38th Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans ended Sunday night. It featured 23 marching bands among a hundred or so performers. Since Hurricane Katrina, many bands have struggled, especially high-school bands.

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Well, the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival ended last night in New Orleans, and among the many performers were no fewer than 23 marching bands.

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INSKEEP: The sound you're hearing matters because it's been endangered. Marching bands are a big part of New Orleans' culture, but since Hurricane Katrina, many are struggling, especially high school bands.

Ashley Kahn reports from New Orleans on efforts to prevent a part of musical history from becoming history.

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ASHLEY KAHN: The marching bands of New Orleans are one of the oldest musical traditions in America. They're heard all during Mardi Gras season and its social events throughout the year. And where else but New Orleans does a funeral traditionally end with dancing in the street?

Unidentified Man #1: Once the body is in the ground, cut the body loose, time for the spirit of joy, time to dance.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Rebirth brass band. Take it home.

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KAHN: In New Orleans, the appeal of marching band starts early. Playing a trumpet or a sousaphone in high school is often cooler than being a jock.

Mr. GREGORY DAVIS (Founder, Dirty Dozen Brass Band): I've known (unintelligible) used to, you know, have this little saying, this little joke: If you're not band material, you know, try out for the football game.

KAHN: Trumpeter Gregory Davis is a graduate of St. Augustine High School, home of the Purple Knights, one of New Orleans' leading marching bands. He also founded the Dirty Dozen brass band, and apparently books jazz and marching bands for the Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, listen up. You all got to get in front of the band, all right?

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Mr. DAVIS: The marching band really, really was a source of pride for the school and the community. I don't think that there is another place that exists like New Orleans where the young kids have an opportunity to go out and play, to go out into the French Quarter and go out to these funerals and (unintelligible).

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KAHN: The history of marching bands in New Orleans started long before John Philip Sousa, and it sounds very different from halftime at college football games. Trumpeter Gregory Davis.

Mr. DAVIS: The marching bands that exist here grew out of the French military style of funerals. The difference being in a New Orleans marching band, you have a little freedom to add a little bit. You can put more of yourself into the part.

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KAHN: One can easily hear how the sound of marching bands has influenced almost every style of New Orleans music. It's in the bouncing melodies and the whirling rhythms of many of the city's soul and funky.

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Unidentified Man #3: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

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KAHN: And especially its modern day brass bands which found a way of mixing the marching band formula with rhythm and blues and jazz.

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KAHN: It's no surprise that the resumes of a significant number of New Orleans' best-known musicians include some marching band experience. Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and almost every brass band member once wore a high school uniform.

Unidentified Man #4: Hey.

Unidentified Man #5: One, two, three, play.

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KAHN: Before Katrina, school budget cuts were already making things difficult for marching band programs in New Orleans. After the hurricane, things were brought to a halt.

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Mr. VIRGIL TILLER (Musician): All of our uniforms were destroyed. Our percussion instruments, all our sousaphones destroyed.

KAHN: Virgil Tiller is a musician who graduated from St. Augustine and is now one of the school's band directors. St. Augustine was one of the high schools hit hardest by Katrina.

Mr. TILLER: This was a $200,000 state-of-the-art band room. We have six or seven feet of water in here. We lost about 60 to 70 percent of our music library.

KAHN: Before Katrina, St. Augustine had as many as 150 students in the band. Now only 90 are available, as students who have been scattered by the storm slowly find their way back to New Orleans. Some are living with relatives and some even on their own. Again, Virgil Tiller.

Mr. TILLER: In a way, the storm helped to introduce programs in New Orleans, because now they say that without music in the schools that the heritage and the culture is gone. So now there is like inundation of support for music in the schools that people across the country has poured out.

KAHN: Money, instruments…

Mr. TILLER: Money, instruments - Coca-Cola and McDonald's gave us instruments, uniforms, money, and it helps enormously.

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KAHN: The sound of brass instruments is only now returning to New Orleans high schools, which might be a sign that an important source of the city's music is coming back. But when a marching band is heard, the effect is always the same, whether it's a Mardi Gras parade of St. Charles Avenue or a performance at the Jazz and Heritage Festival: Hearts grow lighter, hands start waving handkerchiefs, and life, despite hardships or hurricanes, becomes a celebration.

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INSKEEP: Ashley Kahn is author of "The House That Trane Built: The Story Of Impulse Records," and he's also a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

I'm Steve Inskeep.

Rebecca Roberts, host:

And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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