Marching Band Represents New Orleans in Parades

MAX Band Director Lester Wilson and senior drum major Faith Johnson. Credit: Audie Cornish, NPR. i

MAX Band Director Lester Wilson and senior drum major Faith Johnson at one of the city's most popular parades, Endymion. Audie Cornish, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Audie Cornish, NPR
MAX Band Director Lester Wilson and senior drum major Faith Johnson. Credit: Audie Cornish, NPR.

MAX Band Director Lester Wilson and senior drum major Faith Johnson at one of the city's most popular parades, Endymion.

Audie Cornish, NPR

High school marching bands have always played their part in New Orleans Mardi Gras parades. But with most city high schools closed, there are few local students marching this carnival season. One exception is the the MAX School's band.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

High school marching bands are normally among the most prominent features of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, but with most city high schools closed, there are few local students marching this carnival season, expect MAX Band.

The MAX School is a blend of three black Catholic high schools joined together to remain intact after Katrina. NPR's Audie Cornish dropped in on the group's rehearsal, and has this report.

(Soundbite of band practicing)

Unidentified Man: Look, look, don't worry about being heard. Keep the tempo.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Practice is long and hard for the MAX School marching band. They've been in nearly every Mardi Gras parade this carnival season, and that's no small feat, considering their combined school opened only a little more than eight weeks ago.

When the students here evacuated from New Orleans in August, they were gearing up for the fall marching season at their respective Catholic high schools: the girls at rivals St. Mary's and Xavier Prep, the boys at St. Augustine's.

Briton Nelson's(ph) family left their doomed Gentilly home, and evacuated to Houston two days before Hurricane Katrina touched down. But Nelson was supposed to be first trumpet this year, and after weeks in a hotel, he wanted badly to come back to school and New Orleans, but the family wasn't ready.

Mr. BRITON NELSON (MAX Band member): So, I had to convince my aunt to move back, so I could have somewhere to stay. Because at first, they was like, you can't go because you don't have nowhere to stay. So, I didn't want to graduate from another school, you know, it's my senior year.

CORNISH: Nelson left his family behind in Houston. According to MAX Band Director Lester Wilson, most of the students are living in similar situations.

Mr. LESTER WILSON (Director, MAX School Band): Well, you have some kids that are traveling to and fro, each day maybe 60-plus miles. Some are in trailers, some are living on ships that are docked. So, it varies. Even for myself, I'm staying with the nuns in the convent.

CORNISH: Wilson used to head the all-girl Xavier Prep, but when the schools merged, he found himself head of 112 member mixed-gender ensemble just weeks before the carnival season. The dancers learned to share routines. The drum majors take turns at the front of the pack. And the young musicians had to learn a new repertoire very quickly.

(Soundbite of drums)

CORNISH: Faith Johnson is a senior drum major. She evacuated to Houston, and she and her family returned to a heavily looted home on New Orleans' west bank.

Ms. FAITH JOHNSON (MAX Band member): When you're dedicated to something, and you have a passion for something, you have no choice but to go back to it and keep coming back to it. And that's how I feel about the band. I'm crying, I'm like Lord Jesus, my this is my last year. Yeah, I'm like, oh, I've got to get back. I've got to call Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson, what's up with the band? We're going to have a band?

CORNISH: But even Lester Wilson had doubts about getting things together for Mardi Gras this year.

Mr. WILSON: I wasn't worried about no Mardi Gras after losing everything, trying to just survive, but as I started thinking about it and being in the situation, working and preparing to do it because it's part of my job, it's a positive thing that we are doing it.

CORNISH: Of course, this year feels different. The students say there are few local bands to compete with. The crowds aren't as big, and they miss the alums and people from their neighborhoods. As much as they try to lose themselves in the music, Johnson says it's impossible to forget what has happened.

Ms. JOHNSON: It's fun sometimes, but you're reminded each and every day we step out there, because there's like something I'm missing, a word down from Walgreens. Where's the “A?” Just words written on buildings, one cat, one dog, you're reminded every day.

CORNISH: Demand has been so high for the MAX Band, that they've marched nearly every day this past week; twice on Sunday. They'll make their final appearance at the carnival's apex, Fat Tuesday.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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