At age 21 Donald Richardson created a band program at Andrew J. Bell Junior High School that would help fuel New Orleans’ brass band revival in the late 1900s. Joseph Torregano, a clarinetist and eventually a teacher-in-training under Richardson, recalled the early days:
For the 1963-64 school year, he started with 28 drummers and 15 trumpet players, and formed a bugle corps. Two years later, he had a full concert band. Despite seeing so many brass bands growing up, black schools couldn’t have marching band. We weren’t allowed to march in Carnival parades because of the color of our skin.
As desegregation allowed, Richardson built the Marching Crusaders into a powerhouse. Practices were before school at 7:15 a.m., after school, and on Sunday afternoons. Richardson sometimes directed the band from the second floor of the fire escape overlooking the Bell courtyard. To practice turns they marched through the neighborhood, and their blue and white uniforms became a welcome sight around Treme. At parades they often outshined high school bands.
The program’s visibility attracted top musical talent. Kirk Joseph, son of the trombonist Waldren “Frog” Joseph, went to Bell to be part of it. Richardson put him on tuba in observance of a universal law of marching bands: have big kids schlep the bass horns. Joseph became a sousaphone virtuoso, and with his brother Charles, a fellow Bell alumnus, joined the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in the late 1970s.
Under the leadership of Gregory Davis, another Richardson acolyte, the Dirty Dozen blew the door open for a new style of brass band music that inspired waves of young artists in the 1980s and 90s. All the while Richardson’s program cultivated new bandleaders, including Dimitri Smith of Smitty D’s Brass Band; Anthony Bennett of the Original Royal Players Brass Band; Brice Miller of the Mahogany Brass Band; Daryl Fields of the High Steppers Brass Band; and Desmond Venable of the Red Wolf Brass Band.
Smith, who also played in the venerable Olympia Brass Band, tapped Bell students to form the Olympia Kids Brass Band in 1989, recruiting Miller and future Rebirth Brass Band players Tyrus Chapman and Derrick Tabb to the professional ranks.
Richardson’s influence extended beyond bandstands and into schools across metro New Orleans. Torregano, Smith, Miller, Venable, and others like Edwin Harrison became band directors in Richardson’s image. With the city’s school system in shambles after Hurricane Katrina, Tabb created an after school band program called the Roots of Music modeled on Bell. In Roll With It (along with Talk That Music Talk an essential post-Katrina volume on New Orleans’ brass band community) Musicologist Matt Sakakeeny records some of the teaching methods that impressed Tabb:
Richardson taught teamwork, pairing up known enemies so they would be forced to work out their differences together. He instilled determination, marching the band around the schoolyard for hours and then sending them home exhausted. Students who failed to maintain a minimum grade point average were suspended from band until they brought their grades up.
Tabb credits Richardson for “saving my life,” and not metaphorically. Growing up around the drug trade, the rigor of Bell’s band program kept him on the straight and narrow.
Sadly, in 1995, Richardson died of a heart attack at age 53. “Watching Donald Richardson, and other educators,” Torregano would reflect, “I realized teaching was like becoming a priest. You had to prepare for a life of service. In junior high, I decided to dedicate myself to a life of music—in and out of the classroom.”
Bell Junior High never reopened after Hurricane Katrina. In 2018, the distinctive Gothic building was converted into housing for artists.
About Music Education in New Orleans
Jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis’ famous observation that New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets” is sometimes invoked to suggest he city’s music is naturally occurring, like an underground spring just waiting to be tapped. In fact, Marsalis was differentiating New Orleans from places where culture is imposed “from on high.” He knew better than anyone that music doesn’t just happen—he raised a family of musicians, trained generations of performers and teachers, and established jazz studies programs at multiple schools and universities. His career as an educator is a testament to the work required to keep the culture bubbling.
Historically, institutional support for this effort has been hard to come by. Jazz was prohibited in New Orleans schools for most of a century after its birth, on racist and classist grounds. A few early jazz musicians taught themselves, but often they learned from elders, sometimes relatives or neighbors, or in private lessons with professionals. Promising students graduated to on-the-job training: New Orleans bandleaders have a long history of recruiting apprentices to perform with them. Once they joined the professional ranks, the density of bandstands in the city made it easy for musicians to listen to and learn from their peers.
Some jazz pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton studied music formally, while others learned by ear. A typical early jazz artist grew up surrounded by music: at home, in church, in parks, in barrooms, and, sure enough, from the streets, in parades and funeral processions, from buskers and bands advertising themselves on flatbeds of passing trucks. Music performed various functions in everyday life in New Orleans, and musicians often trained to be versatile enough to find employment in different settings.
As for classroom instruction, the city maintained two segregated school systems well into the 1960s, with Black students often crowded into run-down facilities. Some of their music teachers, like the venerable Yvonne Busch, let a little jazz into their lessons, official policy notwithstanding (she also encouraged students interested in playing rhythm and blues outside of school). Generally, though, school music programs for both Black and white students were taught conventional curricula, of the kind found across the country.
Some Black musicians found opportunities for education through the military—rhythm and blues architect Dave Bartholomew honed his music writing and arranging skills in the 196th Army Ground Forces Band during World War II. Others, including members of the legendary house band at J&M Studio, used the G.I. bill to enroll in private music schools in New Orleans. A Korean War veteran, the producer and arranger Wardell Quezergue, tapped his formal training to compose elegant songs in popular genres like R&B and funk, leading Allen Toussaint to dub him the “Creole Beethoven.”
Marsalis helped inaugurate the first formal jazz program in New Orleans’ public schools at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 1973. It cultivated students’ awareness of music history and business savvy along with their instrumental chops, and launched a slew of nationally influential artists, including Donald Harrison, Jr., Harry Connick, Jr., Nicholas Payton, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Jon Batiste (as well as Marsalis’ sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason).
Marsalis also founded the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1988, tapping the great Harold Battiste, an old bandmate, as a professor. Other world-class teaching artists anchored university programs in the area, including Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Edward “Kidd” Jordan at Southern University in New Orleans, Dr. Michael White at Xavier University, Maynard Chatters at Dillard University, and Terence Blanchard (another NOCCA alumnus) at the University of New Orleans and the Monk Institute at Loyola University.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city laid off public school teachers en masse and thousands, including veteran band directors, were never rehired. Most schools reopened as charters, often run by cultural outsiders, with instruments destroyed in the flood and scant budgets for rebuilding music programs. The post-Katrina displacement of roughly 100,000 Black residents from New Orleans also did heavy damage to community-based music instruction in churches and homes, where many students lost contact with elder artists.
In the absence of systemic public support, privately funded non-profits like Tabb’s Roots of Music sought to fill in some of the gaps. Growing up in Treme in the 80s, Tabb learned to play the snare drum by following second lines around his house and practicing with his neighbors in addition to drills in school band rooms. With opportunities like those limited for students today, the pressure is on to cultivate the next generation of New Orleans musicians.
In 1985 the Bell Marching Crusaders became the first junior high school band to march in the Rex parade on Mardi Gras Day. This footage is from Rex in 1987, after they'd solidified their status.
The Andrew J. Bell Junior High School Marching Crusaders march in Endymion in 1989.