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.
For more about music education in New Orleans, click here.
For more about the Treme neighborhood, click here.
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.