Fisk School

401 Loyola
New Orleans LA 70112
Location Status: Different structure at this site
Curated by
The Ponderosa Stomp Foundation

Music at the Abijah Fisk School helped open the ears of two of the most influential figures in traditional jazz, Charles “Buddy” Bolden and Louis Armstrong.

Though Bolden isn’t a household name, his cornet playing earned him posthumous recognition as the progenitor of jazz. He probably began kindergarten at Fisk in 1883 or 1884, when it was for “colored” students only (it had been desegregated during Reconstruction, and re-segregated shortly thereafter). The desks were wooden, engraved with the initials of white children who attended before the Civil War.

Bolden would have been lucky to get a seat—when he went to Fisk it was overcrowded with 1,000 boys and girls. The schoolhouse, a square building surrounded by a yard, was subdivided inside with wooden partitions that could move on ropes and pulleys to accommodate the crowd. Fisk principal Arthur P. Williams was known for maintaining a dignified order despite the conditions. (Sylvanie Williams, his wife, oversaw the girls at Fisk before serving as principal elsewhere and becoming a prominent civic activist.)

A.P. Williams came from an elite family of color in Connecticut, and made a name for himself in New Orleans as a singer and pianist as well as an educator and school administrator. At Fisk he staged operettas and singing programs with students, including a well-reviewed production of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “HMS Pinafore” in 1881. While Bolden’s role in shows like these is unknown, they would have joined the music at churches, dance halls, and parades in the soundscape of his childhood.

In the late 1890s A.P. Williams’ nephews James W. McNeal and Wendell P. McNeal joined the faculty at Fisk. They were musicians in the John Robichaux Orchestra, one of New Orleans’ most popular dance bands at the time (and a rival of the group Bolden had started to lead). James McNeal also played cornet in one the city’s best-loved brass bands, the Onward. After serving as Chief Musician in a military band during the Spanish-American War he became Vice Principal at Fisk.

Louis Armstrong started kindergarten here in 1907. He lived right across the street and attended class barefoot. The school had subdivided rooms and an annex by then, and accommodated 550 students. At the time the surrounding neighborhood was a vice district known for honky tonks and prostitution, and Armstrong recalled Fisk being stigmatized by association. Still, he remembered the school as integral to the community:

Old Mrs. Martin was the caretaker of the Fisk School, and along with her husband she did a good job. They were loved by everybody in the neighborhood. Their family was a large one and two of the boys turned out to be good and real popular musicians. Henry Martin was the drummer in the famous Kid Ory’s band…

Armstrong had to leave in the fifth grade to take odd jobs to support his family.

When A.P. Williams died in 1920 white newspapers called him “one of the best known negro educators in the South,” and Fisk was renamed for him the following year. Shortly after that the long-neglected building suffered a collapse, and was replaced by two shoddy double cottages. The traditional brass band drummer Lawrence Batiste attended the school when it was called Williams in the 1940s. He was one of the last: the facility was demolished in 1950 to make way for a new city hall.

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.”

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. 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 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.

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Buddy Bolden and the birth of jazz: an interview with Dr. Michael White.

Trumpeter Ashlin Parker discusses Buddy Bolden, from Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz Academy.

Author Al Kennedy discusses the history of music education in New Orleans, including the Fisk School.