By JABEZ BERNIARD, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — One. Two. Three. Four.
A. Of them. Ready. To breathe.
For a brief moment, it’s quiet as a roomful of elementary school students breathe and wait for a signal.
With a wave of his hand, their manager, Lawrence Rawlins, lines them up and they clang their instruments in unison, playing the notes of Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire.”
The band, known as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, are rehearsing for their next performance at this weekend’s annual Satchmo Summerfest, a two-day festival dedicated to legendary New Orleans jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. . The festival will take place on Saturday and Sunday. The Roots of Music plays Saturday at 11:30 a.m. outside the doors of the New Orleans Jazz Museum on Esplanade Avenue.
Established in 2007, Roots of Music is a non-profit, after-school, summer music education program for children ages 9-14 from low-income households.
Derrick Tabb, co-founder and executive director of Roots, said he was inspired to create the program after the director of his undergraduate group took a particular interest in him.
“He saved my life,” said Tabb, who then began using music as a positive outlet.
He expanded the concept of a music program by introducing transportation, food, and tutoring.
Roots of Music operates three buses that pick up students from more than 50 schools in the city, Tabb said. After practice, the buses take the kids home. As for food, each day students receive a hot meal, donated to the program by organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank.
The tutoring program is led by students from Tulane and other local universities. Tabb said he hopes the tutors can serve as role models for his students and inspire them to pursue higher education.
“Those three things are the tools these kids really needed to be successful,” Tabb said. “Implementing them has made it a program with no excuses.”
The program runs year-round, with students coming four to five times a week for lessons in music history and theory, instrumental lessons, and performance preparation, which includes honing marching skills and exercise that make them regulars in the carnival parade. Since its inception in 2007, the program has grown from a group of 42 student musicians to approximately 150.
Throughout the year, they perform at conventions and festivals in New Orleans, in addition to parades. The band also travels the world for performance opportunities, having previously played in London, Canada, France, Amsterdam and most recently Switzerland.
“It’s a good time for (the) kids,” Tabb said. “It allows them to see a different part of the world, experience a different culture and meet new people that they probably wouldn’t have.”
With children coming from all over the city, Tabb said the program was about more than music.
“It’s also like an anti-crime program,” he said, explaining that the group helps kids build friendships and learn teamwork. “It brings them together around a common goal in a neutral place. Now they have a positive reason to be together instead of messing around.
Tabb said the added benefit of bringing children together is that it also brings whole communities together.
“When you bring the kids together, you bring the moms, dads and everyone together. It creates friendships with the whole family,” he said.
For ninth grader Imand Peterson, 15, who plays the French horn, the performance at Satchmo SummerFest will be his final with the Roots of Music as it’s time for him to finish the program.
“I’m sad because I’ve been here since I was little,” he said. “I know this is going to hit me hard.”
Prior to Roots, Peterson said he had never touched an instrument. He remembers hearing the band for the first time while looking up random bands on YouTube.
“I just knew I wanted to join them,” he said.
After a quick application, he learned the basics of music and played the drums, before finally moving on to horns.
Although he wishes he could stay longer, he said he was grateful for all he was able to accomplish with the group.
“Playing the horn is not right at the moment,” he said. “I can now get scholarships to schools and travel all over the world playing music.”
Like Tabb, Peterson said music changed his life. When he grows up, he wants to play in a marching band before branching out to work as a band manager.
“There’s no desire to come here and see kids who are happy and want to succeed,” Tabb said.
Roots of Music graduates, like Jazz Henry, have gone on to professional careers in music. Others are on the way.
Every high school band in town has students from the roots of music, with most serving as section leaders, Tabb said. The program also has a partnership with Berklee City Music Boston, an after-school, student-centered music and performing arts educational organization.
Tabb has big goals for the program, which has resumed normal operations after a period of remote learning due to the pandemic and a hiatus after Hurricane Ida.
“I want to make this the best place kids come to,” Tabb said. “I want them to want to come here every day.”
Students interested in joining the group or those wishing to donate to the organization can learn more at therootsofmusic.org.
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