April 19, 2010

The Roots of Music

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BY ALEX WOODWARD

The sun sets on Decatur Street, and the day’s last bit of sunshine bounces off the brass section of Derrick Tabb’s band, seated inside the Old U.S. Mint’s third-floor auditorium. Tabb, snare drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band, is a commanding presence — literally, as the maestro with arms raised at the ready, and as the tallest person in the room. The orchestra lifts its instruments — woodwinds, trumpets and brass, with tubas on Tabb’s right and the drumline at the back of the room — and begins a concert scale warm up accompanied by the pitter-pat of the drumline.

  ”Good evening,” Tabb, wearing his ever-present crisp baseball cap, says to the room.

  ”Good evening, Mr. Tabb,” the band responds in a sing-songy cadence.

  ”Y’all glad to be out of school?”

  ”Yes!”

  Tabb’s band isn’t comprised of professional players, but students — kids ages 9 to 14 — and they’re practicing for the last time before the class of 2010 debuts its marching band at the Krewe of Oshun parade, the band’s first parade of the year.

  The class is Roots of Music, a program founded by Tabb and program director Allison Reinhardt in 2007. It offers free after-school music education for 122 children from low-income families from more than 40 schools in Orleans Parish — 86 percent of which are public. From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day and during the summer, Roots of Music provides students with instruments, academic tutoring, meals, uniforms, a safe place to rehearse, and transportation — all at no cost.

  Students from Tulane, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth and Stanford universities work one on one with the students before rehearsals. All of its graduates have continued to high school, and 400 children are currently on the Roots of Music waiting list.

The Roots of Music

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

  By all accounts except one, Roots of Music is a shining success story. The one exception: it’s running out of money. The program has only enough funds to last through March.

  When asked what Roots of Music’s future could look like if funding doesn’t come through, Reinhardt stares down the question.

  ”We’re not going to let those kids go,” she says. “No way.”

Roots of Music’s annual budget is $421,000, with a monthly budget at just above $35,000. The program spends $3,500 per child each year, or $13 a day.

  ”Thirty-five thousand dollars a month is not easy to come by,” Reinhardt says. “We’ve been told our budget is too high. Are you kidding me? I didn’t count the paper supplies. Teachers pay for Xeroxes out of their own pocket [and] mail postage. I didn’t expect all the thank-you letters I had to write. The kids go through pencils — that’s a whole other budget. Paper plates, plastic cups, forks. It’s almost $1,300 a month. We get food donations every now and then, so we can cut corners. But that’s $1,000 a month. That’s $12,000 a year.”

  The program has received donations through the Wisner Fund, the Murphy Foundation, the Maggie George Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, and CNN Heroes, which selected Tabb as one of its “heroes” last year and awarded the program $25,000.

  The lieutenant governor’s office provides the program use of the Louisiana State Museum, valued at $7,000 a day. With Mitch Landrieu’s move from that office to his new post as mayor of New Orleans, Reinhardt says the incoming lieutenant governor could put the program on the streets. “But I don’t think they will,” she says. “Can you imagine, the only person in the world, ‘I just put the only free music education program out the door, kicked them on the street’?”

  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,” Reinhardt says. “We’re close. Just one more year.”

The Roots of Music

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

  The program faced a similar funding crisis last year. “We couldn’t pay our staff for two months,” Reinhardt says. “Nobody paid their rent, everybody’s phones got cut off, and they still came every single day. All the teachers. They did overtime.”

After rehearsal, Tabb tells the students to line up for dinner. One student walks over to Tabb to show his report card. He jumped two letter grades in mathematics — from a C to an A. “Mr. Tabb says I always do a good job,” he says.

  Tabb awarded his last honor roll students with G-shock watches. Reinhardt will slip students who earn straight A’s a $20 bill. But those students who don’t maintain a 2.5 grade point average are not allowed to march — except one. One trumpeter suffering from learning disabilities not addressed by the public school system is being raised by his grand-uncle after being left on the street for child protective services. He didn’t learn to speak until he was almost 5 years old and was in diapers until he was 4. “This child works his tail feather off,” Reinhardt says. “No child gets put out because of their academic issues. If you receive a 2.0 it just means we’re going to get you on your books.”

  Tutoring is required in Roots of Music. If a student shows up to rehearsal without homework, instructors will give them something to do. Once students are finished, they can go to rehearsal. Faculty includes Allen Dejan Jr., the curriculum director and woodwinds instructor; Edward Lee of the Soul Rebels Brass Band, who leads the tuba section (even on weekends, when he takes them out for cheeseburgers); and Shoan Ruffin, percussion director. Lawrence Rawlins serves as band director; Reinhardt describes him as “everybody’s dad.”

  After rehearsal, three buses, which cost the program $108,000 a year, drop off each student at home by 8:30 p.m.

The Roots of Music

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

  Before song rehearsals begin, the instructors take command of each section with military-inspired chants.

  ”Band, are we ready?” Dejan asks.

  ”Yes!”

  ”Band, are we ready?” he asks.

  ”Yes!” They say it louder.

  ”To do what?”

  ”Play!”

  A trumpeter at the end of his row puts his mouthpiece to his lips and squints, the drums roll in, and the band launches into “Remember the Time.”

Tabb’s cousin T-Bell, bass drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, had the only house with Internet access. “We called it the Internet Café,” Reinhart says. After Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood, Reinhardt and Tabb met in Terrence Andrews’ Marigny Street house to book gigs for Rebirth, which spent much of the following year performing at funerals.

  ”Teenagers. Murders,” Reinhardt says. “They’d do the second-line. (Tabb’s) like, ‘I’m not doing that anymore. I can’t take it.’”

  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.”

Ronaldo Trepagnier is a father of four. Fifth-grader Renard, sixth-grader Renalda and seventh-grader Renell are students at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. They enrolled in Roots of Music six months ago after seeing the band perform at last year’s parades.

  ”The influence this program had on the kids … they were talking about what colleges they’re going to already,” he says. “Talking how this band will get them a scholarship. That’s big.”

  Trepagnier works 14-to-15-hour days driving concrete trucks for Lafarge Concrete but visits the program at least once or twice a week. “I was blown to see how all these kids from different walks of life got along,” he says. “They’re disciplined, they were listening.”

  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.”

  At the heart of the program is crime prevention. Ninety percent of the students are from single-parent homes, and for a majority, the father is the absent parent. “Either he’s dead or missing in action — on the streets, or he’s locked up in jail,” Reinhardt says. “Our kids are going through hard times. They’ve been dealt a rough hand. One hundred percent of our children are Katrina survivors. Here in the water, stuck, until someone came and rescued them. And the way they tell the stories — so nonchalant, almost in a desensitized way. Everybody has that story, for them.”

  Trepagnier’s family lives in the Calliope housing project, where he’s seen young victims of violent crime. “It’s getting to people. This city is crazy with crime,” he says. “If you see somebody have 100-something kids from all these areas, where all that’s going on … it’s working.”

  With a waiting list approaching more than 400 at-risk youths, Reinhardt says the program can’t spend any less time waiting to enroll them. “The longer they wait, the older they get,” she says.

  Trepagnier says what brings the students together is their shared goal: “Be good in a band. You don’t need to be knowing anyone all your life to gel with them. When you go to work or college, or a different school, they’re going to be new to you, [but] they act like they’ve been knowing each other their whole life.”

  Reinhardt sent letters from the students as part of a grant application. “They had me in tears,” she says. “‘What I like about Roots of Music and what I dislike about Roots of Music. I dislike how long it takes to get me to the advanced class. I really want to start playing with Mr. Rawlins’ group.’ Or, ‘Sometimes the food is cold.’ That I can deal with. Those are easy. One child wrote, ‘Everybody likes the same thing as me. Everyone here loves music.’

  ”I used to ask the kids, write in a paragraph what you want to be when you grow up. The children’s reactions were like, ‘Um … ‘ as if they were confused. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Do you want to be a fireman, a rock ‘n’ roll star, another Louis Armstrong?’ They’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ … They’re thinking how they’re going to survive today. … I talk about this now and they have all kinds of dreams.

  ”One child tells me he wants to be an anesthesiologist. Derrick came up to me and was like, ‘Allison, what the hell is that?’ I’m like, ‘That’s the one that gives you the gas. Puts you out.’ He’s like, ‘Lord, I hope that child doesn’t become one because I might be his patient and I just put him down and made him do a hundred.’”

“We’re leaving probably around 4:30,” Tabb says. “Maybe 4:45.”

  At this rate, it’s looking more like 5 p.m. It’s 4:30 p.m., one hour before the band must check-in for the Oshun parade, which kicks off Carnival 2010, and it’ll be another 30 minutes before the students make the buses. Tabb is waiting for the students to finish their sandwiches so he can get them in the bathrooms. It’s chaos, but Tabb can handle it.

  ”I don’t care if you don’t have to go use the bathroom, go use the bathroom,” he tells them.

  The students are dressed in units — Dejan handles spats, parents are fitting suspenders, and Lee is opening boxes with brand new helmets, the band uniform’s finishing touch. The Mint’s auditorium has only one room to coordinate the 122 performers and the accompanying drill and flag teams. At the Cabildo, students have rooms for each section of the band, as well as space for tutoring and homework. But what Roots of Music really needs is its own facility, Reinhardt says.

  Tabb and Reinhardt want to convert a warehouse into a fully operational music studio with rehearsal space to rent to other artists. The studio would house the Roots of Music Production for students ages 15 to 18 to learn music production and engineering. The recording studios would provide income for the program.

  ”I really believe if we can get our hands on a building we won’t have to do so much begging,” Reinhardt says. “A building will help us sustain and expand the program and reach a larger group of children. We need our engineers, we need our producers, we need our musicians.”

Days later, the second floor of the U.S. Mint is as cold as it is outside — near-freezing. It’s the day of the anticipated Saints parade. Tabb is rehearsing the band’s favorite, a marching band arrangement of Ying Yang Twins’ “Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk).” The tuba’s bass sound bounces into the hall, down the stairwell and into a small conference room.

  On this night Trepagnier, wearing a black T-shirt with the Roots of Music logo on the chest, will march alongside his children in the parade. He needs this program.

  ”When you look at it from the inside, you’re like, ‘Wow, I wonder who’s watching this. Is anyone paying attention to this?’” he says. “Hopefully, when we get out of here today, we might open up a few eyes, ’cause we’ll have a lot of millionaires in the back. And once you get out there, you got to do your thing, you have to perform, and give them your card.

  ”I just hope the program can stay alive.”

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