NEW ORLEANS (AP) – One. Two. Three. Four.
one. Two. Ready. To breathe.
There is a brief moment of silence as a room full of elementary school students catch their breath and wait for a signal.
With a wave of their hands, director Lawrence Rawlins places them in line, and they play their instruments in unison, playing the notes to Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire.”
The band, known as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, are rehearsing for their upcoming performance at this weekend’s annual Satchmo Summerfest, a two-day festival dedicated to legendary New Orleans jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The festival takes place on Saturday and Sunday. The Roots of Music plays Saturday at 11:30 am outside the New Orleans Jazz Museum on Esplanade Avenue.
Established in 2007, Roots of Music is a non-profit, after-school and summer music education program for children ages 9-14 from low-income households.
Roots co-founder and executive director Derrick Tabb said he was inspired to create the program after his junior high band director took a special interest in him.
“He saved my life,” said Tabb, who then began using music as a positive outlet.
He has expanded the concept of the music program by introducing transportation, food and tutoring.
Roots of Music operates three buses that pick up students from more than 50 schools across the city, Tabb said. After training, the buses bring the children back home. As for food, students receive a hot meal each day donated to the program by organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank.
The tutoring program is run by students from Tulane and other local universities. Tabb said he hopes the tutors can serve as role models for his students and inspire them to pursue higher education.
“Those three things are the tools that these kids really needed to be successful,” Tabb said. “Their implementation made this an unapologetic program.”
The program runs year-round, with students coming four to five times a week for music history and theory classes, instrument lessons, and performance preparation, which includes honing the marching and drilling skills that make them regulars at the Mardi Gras parade. Since starting in 2007, the program has grown from a group of 42 student musicians to around 150.
Throughout the year they perform in addition to parades at New Orleans conventions and festivals. The band also travels the world to find gig opportunities, having previously played in London, Canada, France, Amsterdam and most recently Switzerland.
“It’s a good time for (the) kids,” Tabb said. “It makes them see a different part of the world, experience a different culture, and meet new people that they probably wouldn’t have.”
With kids from all over the city, Tabb said the program is about a lot more than just music.
“It’s also like a crime-fighting program,” he said, explaining that the band helps the kids build friendships and learn about teamwork. “It brings them together in a neutral place around a common goal. Now they have a good reason to be together instead of being outside doing anything.”
Tabb said the added benefit of bringing the kids together is that it also brings whole communities closer.
“If you bring the kids together, bring mums, dads and everyone else. It builds friendships with the whole family,” he said.
For ninth grader Imand Peterson, 15, who plays French horn, performing at the Satchmo SummerFest will mark his conclusion to the roots of the music as it is time for him to wrap up the program.
“I’m sad because I’ve been here since I was little,” he said. “I know it’s going to hit me hard.”
Before Roots, Peterson said he had never touched an instrument. He remembers hearing the band for the first time while randomly searching for bands on YouTube.
“I just knew I wanted to join them,” he said.
After a brief application, he learned the basics of music and played drums before eventually progressing to horns.
Though he wished he could stay longer, he said he was grateful for all he was able to accomplish with the group.
“Playing a horn isn’t just for the moment,” he said. “I can now get scholarships to schools and travel all over the world to make music.”
Like Tabb, Peterson said music changed his life. When he is older he would like to play in a brass band before working as a band director.
“There’s no desire to come here and see kids happy and prosperous,” Tabb said
Roots of Music graduates, such as Jazz Henry, have gone on to pursue professional careers in music. Others are on the way.
Every high school band in the city has students from the Roots of Music, most of whom serve as section leaders, Tabb said. The program also has a partnership with Berklee City Music Boston, an after-school, student-centered music and performing arts education organization.
Tabb has big goals for the program, which has returned to normal operations after a period of distance learning due to the pandemic and a hiatus following Hurricane Ida.
“I want this to be the best place for kids,” Tabb said. “I want them to want to come here every day.”
Students interested in joining the band or those wishing to donate to the organization can learn more at therootsofmusic.org.
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