William Houston Sr. played piano all over New Orleans in the mid-1900s, from classical recitals to church services to dance halls. His greatest legacy, though, may be as an educator and organizer. His own training included degrees from Xavier University and a master’s in music education from Northwestern University in Illinois, a rare attainment for a black man who grew up in Depression-era Louisiana.
Back home in New Orleans, Houston filled his 16-piece big band with players who taught music in local schools—he knew they could use the extra work. Opening Houston’s School of Music here in 1954 gave them opportunities to give private lessons on the side as well.
Two members of the William Houston Orchestra who taught here, Alvin Batiste and Yvonne Busch, became two of the most influential music instructors in South Louisiana. Batiste developed a teaching method—the root progression system—that gave students a foundation for branching out in any direction they wanted. Mr. Bat, as he was known, went on to found a trailblazing jazz program at Southern University in Baton Rouge and helped introduce jazz education in New Orleans public schools.
Busch taught at Houston’s while serving as the band director at nearby Joseph S. Clark High School. As Author Al Kennedy chronicled, over the next three decades in the school system, Busch trained all-star line-ups of musicians (Sugar Boy Crawford, Smokey Johnson, Herlin Riley) and music teachers (Ellis Marsalis, Clyde Kerr, Jr., Donald Richardson).
Houston’s School of Music included lessons on theory and emphasized reading and writing music to help students qualify for a range of gigs. Alumni included Roger Lewis, baritone saxophone player in Fats Domino’s band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; Rockie Charles, the guitar player and singer known as The President of Soul; R&B singer Wallace Johnson; and Ernie Vincent, the guitar man known for his deep funk classic “Dap Walk.” Houston taught renowned trumpeter Wendell Brunious himself.
For decades, Houston also taught at L.B. Landry High School on the West Bank, where he brought professional artists to perform to encourage students to take up music. Author Rick Coleman reported that in 1952 Houston put a student named Clarence Henry in a band of Landry students called the Toppers led by Bobby Mitchell, who would soon record for Imperial Records. Henry got laughs at school by croaking like a frog—a bit he’d make famous as “Frogman” Henry in the 1956 song “Ain’t Got No Home.”
Houston’s advocacy carried over to professional musicians as well as students: for years he served as president of the American Federation Musicians local 496, the black musicians’ union, which was headquartered just across North Claiborne from his school (it moved in 1969 when it merged with the local 174, which had been exclusively white).
When Houston, Sr. died in 1974 William Houston, Jr. was well established as a musician and educator in his own right—he played his first gig at age nine, and taught music at Booker T. Washington and Clark High Schools. He was also the proprietor of Houston’s for Music, the instrument and equipment store that shared space with the music school (Houston, Jr. was the first black dealer of Hammond organs in the country). He kept the William Houston Orchestra active into the 2000s, playing mostly Carnival balls and other society functions.
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 like Houston’s. 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.
"Miss Yvonne Busch: Tricentennial Music Moments" from WWOZ, a brief look at the influential educator.
Rockie Charles, Houston's School of Music alumnus and the "President of Soul," performs at the Louisiana Music Factory in 2007.
Ernie Vincent, whose only formal guitar lessons were at Houston's School of Music, performs and discusses his work, including his signature song "Dap Walk."