Three years ago, filmmaker Spike Lee and CNN reporter Soledad OBrien gave video cameras to several New Orleans teens to document their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Brandon Franklin, saxophonist for To Be Continued Brass Band, was one of those children. (2:38 mark) He survived the floodwaters and went on to become a young father and a beloved and widely respected musician and teacher. He was gunned down on Mothers Day this year at the age of 22.
Although TBC has been one of my favorite brass bands for years, I didnt know Brandon very well and had only hung out with him a few times in the weeks just prior to his death. Yet writing an article about the loss of this young man has been one of the most difficult assignments Ive ever faced, harder in some ways even than reporting from Ground Zero after Hurricane Katrina. Before the levee breaches, folks in New Orleans joked after every storm, somewhat morbidly, about how we dodged a bullet, The Big One that would surely one day hit and fill our bowl-shaped city with water. Five years after surviving a near fatal wound we, the resilient' ones, have finally turned a corner in the recovery of our city. But were also still dodging bullets that threaten to take out what weve fought so vigilantly these last five years to save - a future for New Orleans. We all must commit ourselves to addressing this threat if were truly going to redeem this city. Brandons story serves as a testimony to whats worth saving in New Orleans and a portending of darker days should we fail to heed its warning.
This Wasnt Supposed To Happen
The circumstances surrounding the young saxophonists life eerily mirrors the death of another young New Orleans musician back in 2007. Both killings took out beloved band teachers in their early 20s and both events happened immediately after two of the worst disasters in the nations history hit the New Orleans area - Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. And as was the case with 25 year-old Dinerral Shavers, band director at Rabouin High School and snare drummer for The Hot 8 Brass Band, an early violent death was not the ending those who knew Brandon Franklin would have assigned to his life.
A charmer by nature with a face-sized smile and warm-hearted personality, Brandon endured hard scrabble early years, overcoming numerous adversities to become a young man many in his community admired and depended on. Stories about his generosity and supportiveness gushed like a geyser for weeks following his death: how he would chase down students who were failing in school and move mountains to help them graduate; How hed send his over-worked band teacher home to rest, returning to pick him up with a hot lunch waiting for him in the passenger seat; how hed take time out to show young musicians how to read music when others wouldnt make time for them. For many who knew Brandon, he was their saving grace, the one who helped them overcome lifes hardships and challenges.
News of Brandons murder rocked the city still reeling from multiple disasters and a seemingly unrelenting wave of violence perpetuated predominately by its young people. But because New Orleans culture is so deeply steeped in ritual, family and friends of the departed began almost immediately the process of celebrating his life. As is the tradition for fallen brass band members, musicians from around the city held nightly tributes for the saxophonist in the weeks prior to his burial: second line parades that wound through his childhood neighborhood of the Ninth Ward, all-star band practices in preparation for his funeral, and tribute performances in nightclubs around the city.
It was while filming one of the second lines that I met his father, an NOPD officer named Herman Franklin, who approached me with his wife Delores to ask if Id make copies of the tribute videos for them. I took a chance in asking if they were willing to be interviewed about Brandon. They said they were more than willing to discuss their sons life and death.
The afternoon of the interview, I ran through a torrential downpour into the Franklin apartment and found to my surprise a house-full of family members ready to be interviewed about Brandon: his mother, stepmother, father, siblings, aunt, mentor, childhood friends, his babys mother, their son... Admittedly, I was shaken by the prospect of interviewing all of Brandons loved ones at once, a mere few days after his murder. It felt like all the sorrow that existed in New Orleans was concentrated around the Franklin family dining room in this tight-knit but heavy-hearted group, all of whom were emotionally raw yet resolutely determined that Brandons legacy live on the record. Its been three months since that three hour long interview and I can honestly say I still have not fully recovered from being in the company of such profound grief and humanity.
Brandon's family shared story after story about the way he impacted the people around him. In one peculiarly synchronicitous moment, his father recalled: We live in a building with mostly White people. And by me being a police officer, people here dont speak much to us. Brandon would come by sometime before wed make it home. Id call on his cell looking for him and hed be sitting over a neighbors apartment talking and eating and laughing....People who had never said a word to us and we didnt say a word to them but Brandons over their house. Thats just who he was."
No less than five minutes later, as if on cue, a White neighbor from a few doors down heard about Brandons death from his band teacher Wilbert Rawlins whod stepped outside the apartment to get some air. She rushed in the Franklin apartment with bouquets of colorful flowers, crying and passing them out to Brandons mother Teresa Lucky Franklin, his stepmother Delores, and the mother of his child Ivorionne. She hugged Lucky familiarly and said, Thank you for giving us your son for the amount of time we had him. Hes with God now. No more pain now....Anything you need for his service, flowers or whatever, just let me know.
When she left the apartment, Herman Franklin remarked, Before she met Brandon, we never exchanged words with that lady. Thats the kind of effect he had on people.
Overcoming The Odds
Brandon was born along with his fraternal twin brother Brent on August 20, 1987 to Herman and Lucky, high school sweethearts who met while playing in bands from different schools and later married. The six children-deep Franklin household was a musical one and Brandon gravitated early on to his fathers instrument of choice: the saxophone. Upon entering the seventh grade at Carver Middle School however, he became enthralled with the idea of becoming a drum major. But his small size gave Carvers band teacher Wilbert Rawlins reason to pause. "You are a little too young for that," Rawlins recalls telling Brandon. But he had heart and determination. He said, 'Teach me how to become a leader. Ultimately, his determination took him to the top of his league. Not only did Brandon become the schools drum major, he was appointed Drum Major of the Louisiana Leadership Institute All-Star Marching Band in 2007 where he led the division at the nationally televised Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. Ever since he was a kid, he was a go-getter, said Rawlins. He was willing to learn any and everything in order for him to be the leader.
Although he was beloved by many, the road wasnt always bright for the talented musician. Spotty issues with his family in his early high school days spurred his foray into low-level crimes and run-ins with the law. According to band mates, Brandons father didnt approve of him playing on the streets of the French Quarter. Bs daddy was strict, strict, strict, says trombonist Joe Maize who refers to his band mate by his nickname. He didnt like him playing with the band in the Quarter. Hed disobey his daddy, come play with us and his daddy would put him out. Then he started doing whatever he could do for money, stealing, anything he had to... As time went on, B got himself together and their relationship got better but he was on his own a lot.
I wanted him to pursue his dream of being a band teacher, explained Herman Franklin. I saw him being rebellious and I knew he was headed to trouble. I told him The way youre going isnt the way to go... Once he got into it with the police on Bourbon, drunk because (his childs mother) wouldnt let him have his son cause she didnt trust where he was taking him. He stayed in (Orleans Parish Prison) lock up and I sat there with him. I told him, I know youre upset but when you disrespect you, you disrespect me. Thats not the place for Little B to be, on Bourbon and Canal. I convinced him to not bring his son out there. So he didnt see him as much and he was drinking after that and getting into more altercations.
It ceased last September. He called me one night and said Daddy, I need to get with you. I wanna know about God. He knew I was in church and we would sit down and talk about God for hours. He told me I finally see what you were talking about. Im happy now. I see my life on another path. He was about to join my church before he died.
To Be Continued
Back in 2002, Rawlins put together a second line band in an attempt to get some of his at-risk students off the streets and into a sustainable money-making profession. For several years since then, the young band's performances on the corner of Bourbon and Canal have drawn large nightly crowds of both locals and visitors, captivated by their unique four-part harmony which trombonist Edward Juicy Jackson refers to as Carverizing. Its like taking a normal and shooting it up with steroids. We have three trombones and B on the sax was like the icing on the cake. Carverizing harmonies give us our identity. Thats why the only person youll probably ever see in our band is someone from Kennedy or Carver.
The link that connects Kennedy High to Carver High is the Rawlins brothers: Wilbert who now leads the O. Perry Walker after Hurricane Katrina permanently shuttered Carver and Lawrence who led the band at Kennedy High before becoming the band director for the nationally acclaimed Roots of Music after-school program. Both brothers are renowned throughout New Orleans for their ability to mold at-risk children into stellar musicians.
Joe Maize recalled how he and his band mates began performing in the French Quarter. We started playing on Royal Street in front of the courthouse. Anyone in the Carver band could come and wed divide the money evenly. Later, some musicians from Kennedy joined the band. One day, the yet-to-be-named band paraded down Bourbon Street, playing for tips and catching the eye of another staple on the French Quarter music scene. Big Al Carson invited the young musicians inside to play for his crowd at The Funky Pirate and afterward asked the band their name. When they told him that they hadnt decided on one yet, Big Al quipped to the audience, Well, thats to be continued. Upon leaving the club, the band looked at each other and realized they had just been christened."
All the tears I seen coulda made a flood itself
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Brandon and his parents lost contact with each other and he ended up riding out the storm in his cousins home in the Treme neighborhood. As water began to fill up the city, he journeyed with a friend to the Superdome to look for his father amidst the NOPD officers but was never able to locate him. From the Superdome, Brandon was transferred to the Reliance Center in Houston where he was finally reunited with his mother Lucky who found him amidst thousands of evacuees by carrying a handmade sign with his name written in green and orange - the colors of Carver High. Brandon would later tell his mother that he was thankful he didnt see any dead bodies while trudging through the flood waters to the Superdome. Lucky recalls, He said I think God shielded me from seeing that, He also told us about the sadness he saw in city at the time. He said, All the tears I seen coulda made a flood itself.
A week after being reunited with his mother and brother, Brandon found a job as a forklift driver. Unfortunately, he would not enjoy that same immediate success in the Houston school system. Although he had already started his senior year in New Orleans, he was told that hed have to enroll back in the 11th grade again. Lucky says, He told me (his teachers) were acting bad. He overheard them whispering, Oh, we got another one from New Orleans. So he decided to sit out that year rather than go back through the 11th grade.
Every member of TBC lost their homes in the flood. Yet Brandon and his young band mates decided nonetheless to return to New Orleans in the summer of 06, renting hotel rooms on Tulane Ave. with money made from playing on Bourbon Street. We did that for about three months, says Joe Maize. Then we hooked up with Common Ground, we did gigs for them and they got housing for us in Algiers. Thats when Brandon got back in school. He met (Ivorionne) Bubbles around that time, made her get back in school too.
He didnt have any family members around but every morning he went to school, recalls Joe. B just wanted to be a good person, thats really all it was. A person that could contribute something, establish himself as a person, not be a freeloader.
After returning to New Orleans and finding many of the schools including Carver shuttered, Brandon sought out his mentor Wilbert Rawlins who had begun teaching at O. Perry Walker High School and enrolled there to finish out his senior year. Rawlins remembers that most of his students were still evacuated in far-flung places around the country. Brandon told me, I can help you rebuild the band. You get them in school, well put a band together. It was magical. We were at Walker putting together a Carver band. He found every section leaders from Carver, one was in California, one in Texas... Id make a list of things needed and say Brandon, we need this, this, and that. and hed say, Oh I already did that yesterday. He just understood what needed to be done. A lot of folks can teach music but to run things right, you need insight. He had that insight."
In an interview given before Brandons death, Rawlins reflected on grooming Brandon to take over his legacy. He has stuck with me for so long, he knows 90% of what I know about band. Anyone who knows something about anything, you want someone to carry it on. Speaking later about the untimely passing of his heir, This really changes my perception about where Im going in my life. I thought I was moving on to teach in college. This happened and it just confirms its not time to move on cause I was preparing Brandon to take over. Ive never gotten the feeling its time to go and that has troubled me. I guess maybe Im not supposed to go to college. Maybe my job is to be a high school band director cause I understand them and they understand me."
He Left Here Saving Someone Else's Life
On the first day of the all-star band rehearsal for Brandons funeral, Rawlins tells the 200-plus musicians crammed into O. Perry Walkers band room, many of them friends and students of the slain musician, Brandon took a bullet to save his sons life. How many of yall can say youd take a bullet for someone?...Bad as it makes me feel to say this, it makes me feel good that he was leaving here saving someone else's life.
By all accounts, Brandon was a doting father to his namesake who shares his daddys wide smile and effusive personality. Brandons band mates say he was actively working to reconcile with the mother of his child Ivorionne Fortenberry who had recently ended a relationship with 22 year old Ronald Sims. Sources say that after Fortenberry broke up with Sims, he threatened to kill her and her two children and that she subsequently asked Brandon to come by her home and change the locks. On Mothers Day, Brandon was at Fortenberrys Hollygrove apartment when Sims showed up and encountered Brandon who, according to Joe Maize, had gotten into it with the guy before. Sims exchanged words with Franklin before shooting him multiple times and then fleeing. Brandon died at the scene. Sims called the police shortly after the shooting and turned himself in along with the murder weapon. He has since been indicted on second degree murder charges.
In the New Orleans music community, Brandons killing ripped the skin off a wound that had only just recently begun to heal - the murder of Hot 8 Brass Band drummer Dinerral Shavers. For one musician in particular, the paralleling tragedy hits close to home: Terrell Burger Batiste, trumpet player for The Hot 8 and close friend of Dinerral, was an elder classmate of several TBC band members and had recently begun sitting in with their band on their Bourbon street performances when Brandon was killed.
Burger shakes his head. Its surreal...its like Im walking through it again. Someone who knows what its like to go through this, Im watching (the band members) vent in their own ways. We pray a lot, thats been getting us through. Referring to the vacant saxophonist spot in the band, he muses, B was a good guy who was about his business. He was ahead of his time. Those are some big shoes someones gotta fill.
Big Shoes To Fill
The 22 year-old musician, family man, and heir to musical legacy was also widely regarded for ensuring other youth received an education. Chantelle Adams is just one of many young adults who credits Brandon Franklin with helping her graduate high school.
When I was a student at Carver, I used to help B with his homework. After the storm, I moved to Texas and passed my classes but failed the LEAP (test). Brandon was my little brothers assistant band director and he found out from him I didnt pass the LEAP. He called me up and said, Youre too smart not to be in somebodys college let alone have your diploma. After that, he was like a cat after a mouse. Every single day hed call me, You studying? Hed come by and study with me. When I got up there to take the test, he asked Did you eat? You know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. He brought me breakfast and he told me keys to taking the test: Chew gum to calm my nerves down. If you dont know an answer move on.
Rawlins remembers Brandon going to the principal and several teachers, campaigning on Chantelles behalf. He told them, Shes brilliant. She just needs to take the LEAP test. She wasnt a student at O Perry Walker but they let her take the test anyway. And she passed.
It wasnt just me. He did that for a lot of people, says Chantelle. By him teaching in Walker, he got them in school and helped them graduate. He was like their guardian. He would go with them to help them register in school. He didnt act like a 22 year old. He was like a young man with a grown mans mind, way wiser than young men his age.
I saw him a week before he passed, he was over here chilling. He talked like he knew it was his time. He talked a lot a lot about a higher power, his religious beliefs and that he had made peace.
"I want a huge band to play at my funeral"
Its commonplace to hear people from New Orleans describing the type of funeral they want to have, which brass bands they want to perform, which funeral homes they prefer. And so it was that Brandon told Rawlins that he wanted "a huge band" to play at his funeral. Rawlins helped family and friends arrange his proteges homegoing.
Brandon Franklins funeral service was nothing short of epic. Dozens of buses filled with young musicians from all over the city piled in alongside hundreds of friends and family members, packing the church for the three hour service. The service was both deeply sorrowful and profoundly cathartic during which time the presiding minister invited mourners to renew their pact with God, inciting scores of young adults to file down the front of the church for spiritual reconciliation.
At the end of the service, mourners moved outside the church into the scorching hot sun to watch scores of young musicians wearing traditional white shirts and black pants performing memorial tributes which included Alicia Keys Ill Be Missing You. Then a second line parade formed, traveling for miles down Chef Menteur Highway behind a horse-drawn carriage that carried Brandon to his final resting place. The service, recalled Chantelle, was just what he deserved. A tribute fit for a king. He looked good and the band sounded good...just like heaven. Like if you pressed Play on the heaven CD.
"He was good with God"
Last week marked what would have been Brandons 23rd birthday, the first birthday his brother Brent spent without his twin. It was yet another day meant to be celebrated but was marked instead by loss - as was Mothers Day, the day he was killed and Fathers Day, the first year three-year old Brandon Jrs would spend without his daddy. A visit to his Facebook memorial page In Memory of Brandon Franklin shows how deeply his loss is still felt months later by scores of young New Orleanians. His band mate Juicy admits that the band struggles heavily to come to grips with the loss of their childhood friend and bandmate but maintains that he accepts Brandon's passing. To me, God made everything with TBC happen. I cant calculate why things happen. Im not worried about B though cause I know he was good with God. In his final seconds, he didnt have to worry about getting something off his chest.
Before Brandons death, To Be Continued Brass Band was on the upswing. Just last year, they released a CD with a Los Angeles-based record company and this year they played their first performance at Jazz Fest and were nominated for a Big Easy Music Award. For now, however, they are just trying to regroup and deal with the loss of their childhood friend and founding bandmate. They continue to play on Bourbon and Canal without a saxophone player. Theyve decided for the time being not to fill the position. They have however added a new member, an 18 year-old trumpet player.
His name, coincidentally, is Brandon.
There are thousands of Brandon Franklins in New Orleans, struggling to survive and make their contribution to the world. And they need our support. I ask that you honor New Orleans future by supporting our most vulnerable youth through one of the music programs listed below. It is through our young people that we will anchor our survival in something lasting.