NEW ORLEANS (AP) — One. Two. Three. Four.
One. Two. Ready. Breathe.
For a brief moment, it’s silent as a roomful of grade-schoolers take a breath and wait for a signal.
With a wave of his hand, their director, Lawrence Rawlins, queues them in and they sound their instruments in unison, playing the notes to Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire.”
The band, known as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, is rehearsing for its upcoming performance at this weekend's annual Satchmo Summerfest, a two day-festival dedicated to the legendary New Orleans jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The festival will be held Saturday and Sunday. The Roots of Music plays Saturday at 11:30 a.m. outside of the New Orleans Jazz Museum's gates on Esplanade Avenue.
Established in 2007, the Roots of Music is a nonprofit, after-school and summer music education program for kids ages 9-14 from low-income households.
Derrick Tabb, Roots co-founder and executive director, said he was inspired to create the program after his junior-high band director took a special interest in him.
“He saved my life,” said Tabb, who then began to use music as a positive outlet.
He has expanded on the music-program concept by introducing transportation, food, and tutoring.
Roots of Music operates three buses that pick up the students from over 50 schools around the city, Tabb said. After practice, the buses take the kids back home. As for food, each day students receive a hot meal, donated to the program from organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank.
The tutoring program is led by students from Tulane and other local universities. Tabb said he hopes that 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 succeed,” Tabb said. “Implementing them made this a no-excuse program.”
The program operates year-round, with students coming four to five times a week for music history and theory lessons, instrumental instruction and performance preparation, which includes honing the marching and drill skills that make them Carnival parade regulars. Since starting in 2007, the program has grown from a group of 42 student musicians to about 150.
Throughout the year, they perform at conventions and festivals in New Orleans, in addition to parades. The band also travels around 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 gets them to see another part of the world, experience a different culture and meet new people that they probably wouldn’t have.”
With kids coming from all over the city, Tabb said the program is about much more than music.
“It’s also like an anti-crime program,” he said, explaining that the band helps the kids build friendships and learn about teamwork. “It brings them together around a common goal at a neutral place. Now they have a positive reason to be together instead of being out doing whatever.”
Tabb said the added bonus of bringing the kids together is that it also brings entire communities closer.
“When you bring the kids together, you bring moms, dads and everyone else. It builds 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 graduate from the program.
“I’m sad because, I’ve been here since I was little,” he said. “I know it’s going to hit me hard.”
Before 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 was learning the rudiments of music and playing the drums, before eventually moving on to horns.
Although he wishes he could stay longer, he said he is grateful for all that he has been able to accomplish with the group.
“Playing a horn isn’t just for the moment,” he said. “I can get scholarships to schools now and travel all over the world playing music.”
Like Tabb, Peterson said music has changed his life. When he’s older, he wants to play in a brass band before branching out to work as a band director.
“There’s no feeling like coming here and seeing kids happy and wanting to succeed,” Tabb said
Roots of Music graduates, like Jazz Henry, have gone on to have professional careers in music. Others are on their way.
Every high school band in the city has students from the Roots of Music, most serving as section leaders, Tabb said. The program also has a partnership with Berklee City Music Boston, an out-of-school, student-centered music and performing arts educational organization.
Tabb has big goals for the program, which is back to its normal operations following a period of remote learning due to the pandemic and a hiatus after Hurricane Ida.
“I want to make this the best place for kids to come to,” Tabb said. “I want them to want to come here every day.”
Students interested in joining the band or those who wish to donate to the organization can learn more at therootsofmusic.org.