Operating at South Carrollton Avenue and Banks Street in Mid-City since 1926, this all-boys high school operated by the Society of Jesus is well-known for producing droves of the city’s politicians, doctors, lawyers, academics, Catholic priests, and other professionals. Some of New Orleans’ most famous musicians also have passed through the hallways — although not all left with diplomas.
The charismatic bandleader Louis Prima got some early training at Jesuit in the 1920s, when he was chosen to lead his class band in part because he owned his violin. He switched to trumpet – the instrument that would make him famous – when his older brother Leon, a musician, went on tour and left one behind. Louis then transferred to Warren Easton High School, where he led another group. He would lead band after band across the country for the next fifty years.
Another Jesuit High nongraduate, Malcolm Rebennack, would achieve worldwide fame with his hoodoo-man persona Dr. John, created in 1967. But as a teenage bandleader performing at a 1950s Christmas talent show, Rebennack angered the Jesuit priests with alleged “lewd gyrations,” resulting in his dropping out from the school. He would go on to be a talent scout, A&R man, composer, producer, arranger, and session musician for Specialty, Ace, and numerous other labels, working out of Cosimo Matassa’s famous studio. Although initially a guitarist, Rebennack mastered the piano and organ and has become a torchbearer of the New Orleans keyboard tradition. Rebennack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Jesuit’s most famous musical alumnus in recent years is pianist and singer Harry Connick Jr., a 1985 graduate who once entertained fellow students with lunchtime concerts. The son of the city’s longtime district attorney, Connick was tutored by Crescent City piano legend James Booker and also studied music at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). Connick has sold millions of records in a variety of genres, from jazz and swing to funk, big band, and pop music. An actor in film, TV, and musicals, Connick also served as an “American Idol” judge and helped found New Orleans’ Carnival parade krewe Orpheus with his Jesuit High theater mentor Sonny Borey.
Jesuit’s 900-seat auditorium has played host to numerous concerts, musicals, ballet performances, and talent shows throughout the decades. Local musicians such as Frankie Ford and the Dixie Cups have appeared on its stage. Even Elvis Presley performed here, playing two shows on February 4, 1955, backed by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. The set list included “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “That’s All Right.” Just a day earlier, the trio had cut “Baby, Let’s Play House” at Sun Studio in Memphis.
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 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 beyond Harry Connick, Jr., including Donald Harrison, 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.
Jesuit alumnus Dr. John performs his hit "Right Place, Wrong Time" in full regalia.
From 1959, former Jesuit Blue Jay Louis Prima with Keely Smith and Sam Butera perform "Just A Gigolo - I Ain't Got Nobody."