Joe Torregano was a toddler living around the corner from John McDonogh High School in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional. John Mac (as the school is commonly known) was exclusively white, and resisted desegregation until Torregano was old enough to enroll in 1966, and be among the first Black members of the school band. In the book Talk That Music Talk by Bruce Sunpie Barnes and Rachel Breunlin, Torregano recalls how quickly white people abandoned the school once Black students were allowed in: “By my senior year, we had only two white kids left in the band. Our band director had left as well.”
It was a dramatic shift. This facility on Esplanade Avenue opened in 1912 as a high school for girls. In the 1920s a student chorus sang classical pieces on the radio, and an orchestra performed in the auditorium. When John Mac went co-ed the orchestra expanded and a marching band—the Trojans—starting parading for Carnival. In the 1970s a new band director, Edward Sanders, built the program into one of the most dynamic in the city. By the early 80s John Mac was a high-stepping show band with 175 pieces playing drum cadences with a New Orleans accent.
At the same time, in no small part due to school desegregation, the neighborhood around John Mac was becoming nearly all Black. It was at the center of a brass band revival instigated by a cohort of young musicians from the Fairview Baptist Church Band, including Torregano on clarinet. John Mac’s marching band produced drummers and horn players that filled the ranks of young brass bands. Alumni included Rickey and Dwayne Paulin, sons of traditional jazz patriarch Ernest “Doc” Paulin, and trumpeter James Andrews, who was already fronting his own band as a teenager—he’d become a leader in the brass band community in the 90s (and mentor to his brother Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty.)
Torregano, while continuing to gig in brass bands, returned to John Mac as band director in 1987, modeling himself after his former teacher at Bell Junior High School, Donald Richardson. Torregano groomed a new generation of brass band musicians here, including trombonists Tyrus Chapman and Gregory Veals, and Derrick Tabb, who’d win a Grammy as the snare drummer in the Rebirth Brass Band. Jeffrey Herbert, who played trombone in the Pin Stripe Brass Band, took over as band director in the mid-90s.
Some notable hip hop artists emerged from John Mac, too. In the 1980s a group of students used to rap in the boys’ bathroom at lunchtime, where they could beat on a hollow spot in the wall to get a deep bass sound. One day Rick Bickham jumped in the circle with a freestyle that started him on path to rapping as Ricky B. In 1994 he recorded two New Orleans classics, “Shake It Fo Ya Hood” and “Yall Holla.” His style fused brass band elements with bounce, the city’s signature hip hop sound—in 1995 he cut “Let’s Go Gitt’em” with members of the John Mac marching band.
In the late 90s Adam Pigott played trumpet in the marching band, but after school he’d go home and make beats on hand-me-down DJ equipment and a computer he bought. As BlaqNmilD, he’d become a producer and behind-the-scenes force in New Orleans hip hop, working with seemingly every rapper in town, from Master P to Lil Wayne to Big Freedia. His reputation for bounce beats landed him a gig to produce superstar Drake’s Number One hit “In My Feelings” in 2018.
After Hurricane Katrina John Mac was one of many Orleans Parish public schools taken over by the state and reopened as a charter school. Dwayne Paulin, who, like Torregano, went from playing in John Mac’s band to directing it, found the transplant charter operators out of touch with its culture (a common refrain from educators citywide). With the building deteriorating and enrollment and test scores lagging, John Mac closed in 2014. By this time, the neighborhood around the school was gentrifying. After a $35 million renovation, the facility reopened in 2018 as an elementary/middle school, with a student body split roughly down the middle between Black and white students.
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.”
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 former Trojan Derrick Tabb. Growing up in Treme in the 80s, Tabb learned to play by following the second lines that went by his house and practicing with his neighbors as well as drills in school band rooms. With opportunities like those limited for students today, the pressure is on to cultivate the next generation of New Orleans musicians.
This video opens with a behind-the-scenes look at the John Mcdonogh band getting hyped before a football game in 1995.
The Mac Attack on the street in 1996.
Ricky B performs his version of "Let's Go Gitt’em” at 3:25. He originally recorded it with members of the John McDonogh High School band.