Support “Outsider” Student Arts

Feb 25, 2010 by

I once heard it said on a local radio show that it is still against the rules of the New Orleans public schools to teach jazz music to its students.

I doubt that this is still true – if it were, then what of NOCCA‘s courses? – but the fact is, there has always been some sort of precedent in American education in general to let the arts fall by the wayside, despite the evidence, time and again, that these modes of expression do matter in the lives of students. It is the reason why there are art teachers, band directors, vocal music instructors, dance and theater productions, and creative writing publications around – to get students exercising their hearts, minds, and bodies outside of their proscribed spheres of reading, writing, and arithmetic in school and in their homes. And yet, when schools must be more economical and trim their excess fat, they say adios to the arts.

It is in that vacuum that programs such as The Roots of Music step in…

…but, as Alex Woodward’s article in this week’s Gambit shows, Roots of Music is running out of money and time. It needs our help:

In its first year, the program received aid from Sweet Home New Orleans, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and the Tipitina’s Foundation and was awarded more than $100,000 in grants, but the weak economy has also affected grant providers who were generous in the program’s infancy. “A lot of the bigger grants require you to be operational for three to five years, so that’s a little setback,” (Allison) Reinhardt (the band’s director) says. “We’re close. Just one more year.”

They need more money by next month to keep going, however. And reading about what they do – especially in the crime prevention function of it that was emphasized in the article and continues to be emphasized – made me think of another turn-of-the-last-century place that did its best to do what Roots of Music does, though it did so after a child was involved in a crime:

The Colored Waif’s Home for Boys was as Victorian an institution as could possibly have been devised in a place like New Orleans. Located just beyond what were then the city limits, it was founded in 1906 under the auspices of the Colored branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children by an ex-cavalryman named Joseph Jones (known as Captain Jones). He was a hardheaded idealist who believed that children who got into trouble belonged not in jail, where they would be at the mercy of older criminals, but in the hands of reformers determined to give them a chance to change their lives. Captain Jones ran the Waif’s Home like a military school, tolerating none of the vicious excesses of latter-day “reform schools”. Though the routine was rigid and the food plain – white beans, bread, and molasses were the invariable bill of fare – the young inmates knew that no harm would come to them, from each other or anyone else, so long as they followed the rules to the letter.*

Compare the above with Woodward’s account of the origins, the discipline and the atmosphere of Roots of Music:

Tabb suggested starting a marching band, and the first class began in June 2008. Tabb developed the curriculum and Reinhardt put it to paper. Tabb also wanted the students to be fed — he didn’t want them going hungry like he did as a band student making the long walk home.

The first 40 students practiced at Tipitina’s, and the class sizes grew. Children called Tabb and Reinhardt asking for “the band man,” hoping to get into the program. Some snuck out of classes and onto the Roots of Music buses. “We took them in,” Reinhardt says. “If you’re that determined … that’s a child who needs help, who’s desperate to get off the streets.”…

…The students are not only different age groups — young teens and younger middle-schoolers sit side by side — but the schools and neighborhoods they represent span the entire city. At Roots of Music, there is no turf. Students work together as members of the same horn section or as drummers on the same drumline and are held liable for each other’s actions. Discipline is swift; Tabb punishes one talkative trombone player by making all the trombonists stand for the remainder of the rehearsal. Sometimes he’ll make them do pushups.

“We represent every single terrible street in New Orleans, and our kids know it,” Reinhardt says. “They’re scared to death outside their front doors. But when they come in, they leave their schoolbags, their belongings, everywhere — unattended. They’re safe. And they feel safe. And they feel safe with each other.”

The Colored Waif’s Home produced one inmate who demonstrated his passion for music so strongly and consistently that he joined its brass band and considered himself “married at the home”* to music from then on – a certain trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. The 1930’s incarnation of the home itself has suffered a lot of damage from the Federal Flood, but it is still there.

On the one hand, it is sad that there is still a dire need for these programs that feed the kids’ bellies as well as their brains and their talents, and, in too many cases, the kids’ schools, homes, and the neighborhoods cannot help in these areas. On the other hand, that need keeps getting ignored, and those who try to fill it don’t get enough credit or assistance in doing their good work.

Until more people in positions of power over the schools can act decisively for the arts…until the situations for the lower and, increasingly, the middle classes improve and become more family-friendly…until a larger number of neighborhoods in this city aren’t cowering before the lawlessness in the streets, the destructive actions of a police department that is supposed to be of help, and the broken justice system that exacerbates the problems…we must support programs like Derrick Tabb’s and Allison Reinhardt’s.

Donate today. And I do mean TODAY.


*from Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

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