Stafford Agee vividly remembers receiving his first horn. He was 12 years old and playing with the Bucketmen Brass Band and learning traditional New Orleans music from Milton Batiste. Agee didn't own an instrument, and the one he borrowed broke during a gig. So Batiste sent Agee to see Alan Jaffe, the late founder of Preservation Hall. That was in 1985, and Agee still plays the trombone Jaffe gave him that day.
"I can get a brand new instrument and it plays good for a bit, but after a while, I gotta get back on my baby. I gotta get back on my old horn," Agee says.
That trombone was the first instrument Agee ever owned, and since then, he's been lead trombone at John F. Kennedy High School, toured the world with the Rebirth Brass Band, acted as a music consultant for the HBO series Treme and won a Grammy in 2012 with Rebirth for best regional roots music album, Rebirth of New Orleans.
Besides making it possible to pursue a career as a professional musician, receiving an instrument from an older musician he admired instilled in Agee a sense of responsibility to give back to the community that fostered his talents as a young boy.
"I do feel the responsibility of paying it forward," he says. "If there's a working horn, then a kid has a chance at playing."
That sense of responsibility led Agee to start Rebirth Instrument Repair in partnership with the Tipitina's Foundation and Best American Craftsmen (BAC) Horn Doctor, an instrument fabrication and repair shop in Olathe, Kan., that specializes in brass instruments. Working out of a space at the Tipitina's Foundation headquarters on Tulane Avenue, Agee will take calls for any local school that needs instrument repair, which is pretty much every school with a marching band.
Agee has his hands full. Walking into the third-floor suite at Fountainbleau Storage that houses his repair shop, the first thing you see is instrument cases piled almost to the ceiling. They're filled with broken horns. The space has a repair shop, a bathroom and an office with a leather couch, where Agee sometimes spends the night if he has a difficult repair job. He estimates that he repaired more than 200 instruments this year. Seemingly the only time he isn't repairing horns is when he's playing one with Rebirth, which is his primary source of income.
Agee, a licensed welder, has only been repairing instruments for a few years. But he's been working with his hands his whole life. One of his earliest memories is receiving a boombox for Christmas when he was 5 and taking it apart to see how it worked.
His curious nature and professional experience came in handy after Hurricane Katrina when BAC Horn Doctor founder Mike Corrigan came to New Orleans to repair instruments for local musicians. Corrigan says the images of devastation he saw on television following Katrina and the levee failures motivated him to do something to help. Knowing how important music is to the city, he decided to take his mobile repair van to New Orleans. He repaired so many instruments on his first trip that he decided to make it a yearly ritual.
"Everyone down there would wait a year for me to come back to have anything fixed," he says. "A combo of not having enough money or the ability to get to a repair shop meant I was their only choice."
One of those musicians was Agee, who stood out to Corrigan because he expressed interest in learning instrument repair, not just getting his horn fixed. Agee's experience as a welder made him an apt pupil, and Corrigan was able to teach him quickly how to do basic horn repair. In the past four years, Agee's talent for instrument repair has given him a second career.
"If there's a point where he gets older and doesn't want to be flying all over the world and drive everywhere, he'll have this," Corrigan says.
There's certainly a market in New Orleans for people like Agee and Corrigan. Agee has personal experience dealing with schools' needs for instruments, going back to his time at John F. Kennedy High School. ("I remember sometimes us having to borrow some instruments from schools we were playing against," he says.) In addition, his band mate and close friend, Wilbert Rawlins Jr., is the band director at L.B. Landry-O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School.
Rawlins, who studied music education at Southern University and has spent the last 20 years directing marching bands, says a scarcity of instruments among school bands hasn't changed much since the days Agee played for Kennedy. Rawlins' job has opened his eyes to New Orleans schools' dire need for instrument repairs.
"I would say that anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of a school's instruments are broken (and stored) in a back room," he says.
Keith Thomas, band director at Lake Area High School, says the number of broken instruments makes it hard to equip all of the 200 students in his band. He says another problem is that the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) doesn't provide the funds necessary to keep the bands operating.
"There isn't a line item for us in the budget," Thomas says. "I believe they put it in the general fund and we have to ask our principals to try and make something happen."
OPSB Superintendent Stan Smith said the board is hamstrung when it comes to funding broad initiatives like marching band programs. Since Katrina, the OPSB has seen a drastic reduction in the number of schools it governs, overseeing just 20 schools as opposed to 130 before the storm. Of those 20 schools, the OPSB only runs six directly; the other 14 are charters schools with their own boards. The OPSB runs two schools that have marching band programs, Eleanor McMain Secondary School and McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School.
The Recovery School District (RSD) governs 68 New Orleans schools — five direct-run and 63 charter schools. Smith says the RSD, like the OPSB, does little in deciding what schools do with the money they're given.
"Those are decisions that are made on a school-by-school basis," he says.
Many of the budgetary decisions are made by the Louisiana Legislature, which requires schools to meet certain mandates regarding curriculum and teacher's wages. For example, the OPSB saw an increase in state funding this year for the first time in four years, but the state required that half of those funds go to teacher salaries and wages. At McMain and McDonogh, the OPSB pays to have band directors on staff, but leaves it up to the directors or individual schools to hold fundraisers for uniforms, instruments and travel expenses.
As part of the OPSB restructuring post-Katrina, the director of music position was eliminated. Vondel Smith-Sloan, the last person to hold that position before the storm, says instrument repair has always been an issue among New Orleans schools.
"Band directors have to make an extra effort so the instruments are up and ready," she says. "It was always amazing to me what they were able to accomplish. Some of them had to do fundraisers constantly."
Rawlins and Thomas also look to local businesses and charities for funding. Bethany Paulsen, a member of Tipitina's Foundation's board of directors, said the foundation's Instruments A Comin' program donated $200,000 in instruments to eight area schools this year alone, but high school band directors continually talk about the need to repair instruments they already have. Agee now gives the Tipitina's Foundation more options in how to donate.
"Knowing that we have a system in place that's a certified repair process will allow us to reach more students and make better use of donations," Paulsen said.
Paulsen says the foundation primarily works directly with band directors to place instruments. Agee uses his connections among the tight-knit community to assess the needs of individual schools, sometimes repairing instruments for free or at reduced rates if funds aren't available.
"The bands are raising their own money and if it's not enough, I can make it enough," Agee says.
His work is a labor of love; there's not a lot of money to be made in repairing instruments for cash-strapped high school bands. But Agee says he wants to expand his shop and, when he retires from touring with a band, initiate an apprenticeship to teach young people how to repair instruments as a career.
For now, though, Agee is focusing on getting kids involved in music the best way he knows how: by putting an instrument in their hands, one repaired horn at a time.