Financed with WPA funds and completed in 1942, the Booker T. Washington campus was the first new high school built specifically for Black students in New Orleans. The adjoining auditorium, built in Art Deco style and capable of seating 2,000 people, quickly became a de facto civic center for the city’s African Americans, hosting concerts by legendary Black artists as well as meetings for unions, civil rights groups, and professional organizations. The facility also hosted recording sessions, New Orleans Symphony rehearsals, graduation ceremonies, recitals, film screenings, and other activities. “All of the black major events took place in that auditorium,” school librarian and 1962 alumna Emily Braneon recalled in 2001.
The auditorium’s first major performer was powerhouse opera singer Paul Robeson, whose appearance drew Black fans “en masse” in addition to “a fair sprinkling of whites,” according to Louisiana Weekly, which reported that the audience was “almost shaking the roof with thunderous applause” over the course of seven encores. Other giants of the Black entertainment world appeared later, including New Orleans natives Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Dizzy Gillespie (Gillespie’s performance in 1949 proved to be influential on a young Ellis Marsalis, the eventual jazz patriarch).
The R&B stars of the day—such as Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, and Charles Brown—also performed at the auditorium, while a who’s who of New Orleans’ top musicians attended the school itself, including Alvin Batiste, Harold Battiste, Eddie Bo, Alton “Big Al” Carson, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Edward Frank, Barbara George, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Melvin Lastie, Percy “Master P” Miller, Edgar “Big Boy” Myles, Robert Parker, James Rivers, Allen Toussaint, Earl Turbinton, and Ernest “Doc” Watson, to name a few. In the early 50s, revered band director Yvonne Busch taught many future stars here, including the members of Crawford’s Cha-Paka-Shawees.
The school closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and all its original buildings except the auditorium—in a nod to its historical significance—were demolished. The discovery that the campus had been built on the site of a closed toxic dump complicated rebuilding plans, but a new school opened on this site in 2019.
About Music Education in New Orleans
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.”
The face of music education in New Orleans changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, after more than a decade of resistance, the city’s school system desegregated in earnest. The ensuing departure of white students meant public school bands became predominantly Black cultural institutions. Marching bands in particular gained city-wide prominence through their performances in Mardi Gras parades. Though the schools were chronically under-funded, devoted band directors and boosters helped make these programs points of pride. They also produced musicians who would power the brass band revival of the 1980s and 90s (several after-school programs and summer camps contributed on that front, too).
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. 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 sought to fill in some of the gaps. Since 2008, one of the most successful has been the Roots of Music, an after-school marching band for middle-schoolers, the brainchild of Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer Derrick Tabb. Growing up in Treme in the 80s, Tabb learned to play by following the second lines that went by his house, practicing with his neighbors, and being drilled by career band directors at his nearby middle and high schools. With opportunities like these limited for students today, the pressure is on to cultivate the next generation of New Orleans musicians.