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High school marching bands learn classic New Orleans songs

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Students at St. Mary's Academy practice local songs to perform in - 2010 Mardi Gras parades - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Students at St. Mary's Academy practice local songs to perform in 2010 Mardi Gras parades

During Mardi Gras it's hard to escape the funky piano melodies of Professor Longhair or the traditional Carnival anthem "Mardi Gras Mambo." Unless you're watching a parade while a marching band is passing.

  Ironically, local high school marching bands have chosen radio hits to play while parading. Earlier this year, St. Mary's Academy paraded the streets to a string of rhythm and blues hits: Michael Jackson's "Liberian Girl," The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers," The Jacksons' "Can You Feel It" and Janet Jackson's "Velvet Rope." Similarly, the nationally acclaimed St. Augustine Marching 100 does not have a single traditional Mardi Gras song in its repertoire. Until now.

  To preserve the legacy of celebrated Carnival classics, four Orleans Parish high school marching bands — from Brother Martin, St. Augustine High School, Edna Karr High School and St. Mary's Academy — will perform popular local Carnival and brass band songs during the 2010 parade season.

  Local high school bands developed a preference for popular songs for two main reasons: retaining band members and marching style. St. Mary's band director Erica James has selected songs most likely to keep her students interested.

  "I pick a lot of things mainly that [students] hear on the radio because I noticed that plays a big part in keeping kids in the band," says James, whose marching band numbers just more than 50 members. "If you're not playing something popular, they don't want to be a part of it."

  In years past, St. Aug's band has marched to the likes of "Big Chief" and "Do Whatcha Wanna," though band director Virgil Tiller says the group performed the songs because they were trendy at the time. Nowadays, however, he says the band plays popular hits conducive to its style of marching.

  "It can't be too slow, and it can' t be too fast," says the former drum major and St. Aug alum. "It has to have something where we can have a march tempo that complements our style of march. Sometimes, some bands have leeway in what they can do because they might do the heel-toe drill, but we actually have a precision drill that requires a certain tempo."

  Other area high school bands, such as Brother Martin's 72-piece marching unit, have classic Carnival tunes in their repertoire, including "Big Chief" and "Bourbon Street Parade." Longtime band director and percussionist Martin Hurley stresses the importance of covering a wide range of music.

A St. Mary's student takes a break from band practice. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  "Music's music to me," he says. "If you let yourself like one type of music, you're limiting yourself. We'll try anything. We do things like that — for the fans, the kids."

  Incorporating the songs was made possible by a joint project between the Foundation for Entertainment Development and Education (which sponsors the Big Easy Awards and is affiliated with Gambit) and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Heritage School of Music. The project, officially known as New Orleans Music for New Orleans Marching Bands, is designed to raise students' awareness of local music and its history.

  Heritage School of Music director Edward Anderson, assisted by one of its instructors, musician Brent Rose, wrote the scores of four songs (Professor Longhair's version of "Big Chief," the Meters' "Hey Pocky Way," Rebirth Brass Band's "Do Whatcha Wanna" and the Hawketts' "Mardi Gras Mambo") for full bands. He says converting the classic Carnival songs for a marching band was fairly simple since most of them already featured horn and bass lines.

  "The most time-consuming (element) was actually creating the individual parts from the scores and checking them and double checking them," says Anderson, who's also the founder and trumpeter of new-age jazz group Bleu Orleans. "Just filling out the parts. You have a first trumpet, a second trumpet and a third. Every instrument has multiple parts. It was pretty labor-intensive and time-intensive."

  With the sheet music completed and rehearsals underway at Brother Martin, St. Mary's and Edna Karr, the band directors are pleased with the arrangements and enthusiastic about honoring the musical heritage of Mardi Gras.

  Hurley's sentiments echo those of his fellow band directors: "The city needs it. Let's face it. Let's get true Mardi Gras music back into the scene. It's history, our history."

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