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Journalist Katy Reckdahl

Music is built into every part of life in New Orleans

To see how music ranks in New Orleans, look on the high-school football fields. Crowds on the sidelines usually dwindle during the actual game. Often, the audience is at its biggest during halftime - when the marching bands perform.

In New Orleans high schools, the guy wearing the tall fuzzy hat almost always overshadows the guy throwing the pigskin. After all, a group of teenage girls told me, the quarterback needs the drum major to rev up the crowd. Parents of newly chosen drum majors have had to install a second phone line to keep up with the volume of calls.

That was surprising to me when I moved here in 1999. I grew up in Minnesota, in a town where band members --- especially drum majors - were considered geeks. (Trust me on this -- I played the baritone saxophone during those days.) As is the case in many schools across America, our high-school quarterbacks were eminently popular.

My hometown, Grove City, Minnesota, is a farm town of about 600 people. All year, it pulsed with the rhythms of agricultural life. Traffic was often slowed by a tractor chugging along the highway. When a farmer cleaned his pig barn, we smelled it in town. When it was time to plant or harvest, almost everyone in the area worked long hours, in the fields, on trucks, in stores and silos. I remember being in school when a local bull got loose and ran into the boys' locker room.


Katy Reckdahlís son, Hector, plays by the instruments of a brass band as he waits for a second-line parade to begin.

New Orleans revolves around music in a similar way. But unlike Nashville or Los Angeles, this isn't a town known for the business of music. Musicians don't travel here looking for a record deal. They travel here because, if they're good, they can sit in with unbelievable musicians every night of the week. They move here to live somewhere where music figures into nearly every aspect of daily life.

Here, in New Orleans, music provides musicians with world travel, jobs, and college scholarships. In this low-wage town, music provides relaxation after a hard day's work. Music elevates the people of New Orleans and, in return, we elevate it. This relationship is even more precious after Hurricane Katrina, in a city where the majority of residents struggle against frayed nerves and short money.

Sometimes it seems as if the city's traditional culture could disappear, with so many musicians and Mardi Gras Indians still displaced and others struggling here with fewer gigs. But I have confidence that it will survive. It always has, despite enormous hurdles. Jazz musicians and Indians have always struggled for their craft. They've worked as postmen, house painters, teachers, laborers, and barbers. Then they come home and pursue their true calling.

These pursuits, while driven by love, can also be a route out of poverty. One longtime Mardi Gras Indian big chief told me that he sold one of his Indian suits to a museum whenever he needed a new car. Hats of traditional brass-band musicians are also testaments to success: they're covered with little pins, mementos of their travels: small metal Eiffel Towers, Australian kangaroos, flags from Germany and Norway and Japan. So when a boy from the poorest part of town sits on his stoop, practicing his trombone, he can imagine his horn as a ticket to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. If he has talent, he has a good chance of traveling the world with New Orleans bands, just like his uncle or brother or neighbor did before him.

I use a boy as an example because that's who, in all likelihood, will grow up to make those travels. In this city's schools, girls play instruments alongside boys. Then they disappear from the music scene. One young, all-female brass band, the Pinettes, made up mostly of women who graduated from the all-girl St. Mary's Academy -- is now playing around town. So maybe times are changing a bit. But the New Orleans professional jazz world is mostly one of men, dotted with a few women on piano or vocals and a couple on horn. Similarly, behind nearly every Indian suit is a woman helping to sew it. But, on Mardi Gras Day, most Indians in suits are men.

Still, music elevates the many young women who excel in school bands. A good number attend college on full band scholarships and choose non-music professions. Wilbert Rawlins, a popular local band director, constantly reminds his students of this. "I tell my kids, 'If you can play your instrument, you can continue your education free of charge,'" he says. Rawlins should know - his own education at Southern University came courtesy of a band scholarship.

In New Orleans, pre-Katrina, nearly one-third of people lived in poverty. That number was higher for children: three-quarters of public school students were poor enough to be eligible for federal free and reduced school lunches. Most of Rawlins' students come from families who can't afford college tuition. College wasn't even a possibility without music.

For months now, my toddler Hector has been blowing on his fist, pretending it is a tuba mouthpiece. I'm pretty sure that toddlers don't do this in other cities.


Brass band trumpeter performs in a second line at Jazzfest 2007. - photo by Kate Ellis

But here in New Orleans he sees tubas all the time. Dented, hard-used tubas maintain a hopping bass line in the parades that pass below our window. After school, kids in plaid uniforms hold shiny, school-owned tubas and compete, loudly, back and forth while they wait on the corner for the city buses, which often transport school-age children here.

It may sound like Hector has a charmed childhood. But he's not alone. Small children in New Orleans who show interest in music are encouraged, prodded, and applauded by all their neighbors. I've heard stories about current jazz prodigy Troy Andrews (also known as "Trombone Shorty"), who two decades ago sometimes came onstage in Mutant Ninja Turtle pajamas, to play the trombone in a neighborhood club run by his family.

Just this past week, I saw five of Troy's youngest cousins. They've formed a little band that practices in a newly redone house in one of the hardest-hit parts of town. On Sunday, they jumped into a second-line parade behind the older musicians. They are continuing a century-long family tradition.

Culture is what makes everyone in New Orleans feel rich. But New Orleans' high-poverty neighborhoods and its families contribute disproportionately to our city's culture. As Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of the famous jazz family, has said: "In other places, culture comes down from on high. In New Orleans it bubbles up from the street."

In other cities, it seems, jazz mostly exists in clubs and as background music at exclusive dinner parties. But, generally, in the city where it was born, jazz is not music for the elite. Weekly second-line parades, held nearly every Sunday between September and June, attract hundreds and even thousands of working-class people. For these four-hour parades, people dance through African American neighborhoods, behind a brass band and a few dozen members of "social aid and pleasure clubs." Dressed in extravagant suits, these folks normally host the events.

These get-togethers are a high point. All week long, neighbors talk about the upcoming parade. "You going to the second line Sunday?" people routinely say, as they run into each other on the sidewalk.

I've heard some locals say that music is built into every part of life here - it's in the soil, the water, the air we breathe. In neighborhoods where many musicians live, it's not unusual to see a brass band leading a parade for a child's grade-school graduation or for a neighbor's arrival home from prison. When a musician dies, his bandmates often host a week of parades for him, starting the night he dies and ending the day he's buried.

Post-Katrina, half of the services at some local funeral homes have required "ship-ins" - bodies in caskets from other cities. "Send my body home," sickly people tell their families. Some have burial plots or families here. But often, they can't imagine being carried to the cemetery without the music of their home, New Orleans.

Just as music was inseparable from their lives, so it is in death.

As Corey Henry, one of our finest trombone players, told me, "We need to grieve through the celebration of music. It's all we know."


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