BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Whole Gritty City

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11-year-old Jaron “Bear” Williams, in the Roots of Music program/photo by Andre Lambertson

It’s not often that a documentary about how real culture transforms actual lives airs on Saturday-night network TV.

I’m not talking about a lucky aspirant getting plucked out of ordinary existence and voted into stardom by a celebrity panel (though I suppose that’s a form of transformation, too, and maybe even a vehicle for someone’s idea of culture).

What I mean is the way that rigorous and deep training by musicians steeped in both excellence and jazz culture offers boys and girls in New Orleans a path away from danger and despair and toward something admirable, promising and, yes, frequently swinging.

That’s the story told by “The Whole Gritty City,” a poignant, feature-length documentary that goes behind the scenes with three dedicated New Orleans marching band directors— Wilbert Rawlins Jr., Lonzie Jackson and Derrick Tabb—and that airs this Saturday, Feb. 15 (9pm EST, 8 Central).  No narration. No voiceover commentary. Just real life, real music and the connections and contrasts between the two. And sometimes the camera is held by one of those young musicians. (You can find a trailer here, and another website with useful links here.)

The film is billed as “48 Hours Presents: The Whole Gritty City,” and the link to the true-crime newsmagazine program makes sense, not just because the school-based marching-band programs in New Orleans may be among the city’s most effective safeguards against violent crime, but due to the genesis of the film itself.

O. Perry Walker High School Band/courtesy of "The Whole Gritty City"

I first met Richard Barber, a “48 Hours” editor-producer (who created this film with cinematographer and photojournalist Andre Lambertson) in early 2007, in New Orleans. Barber was researching a “48 Hours” episode investigating two murders that sent shock waves through New Orleans.

The resulting program was a gripping and disturbing look at two tragic deaths, and two separate stories that said much about New Orleans life.

Filmmaker and visual artist Helen Hill was shot and killed in her own home in the Marigny neighborhood as her husband and two-year-old child helplessly watched. A week prior, during a nine-hour stretch in which 18 people were fatally shot, Dinerral Shavers, the Hot 8 Brass Band’s snare drummer and a teacher at Rabouin High who managed that school’s band program with few resources, was shot in his car on Dumaine Street with his wife at his side. Shavers died in surgery hours later. For the Hot 8, Shavers’ murder was a devastating loss of a friend and the hearbeat of their sound. For Rabouin students, it meant the loss of a hero who’d taught them lessons in not just how to play, but how to approach life.

A sense of purposeful outrage took shape around the murders of Shavers, a young black man, and Hill, a young white woman. Baty Landis, a music-history scholar and nonprofit executive who ran the Sound Café, a coffeeshop that often hosted musical performances, joined together with Helen Gillet, a cellist, and Ken Foster, a poet, to organize a public gathering. They began planning a march on City Hall, to demand that the city address the ceaseless problem of violent crime. Some 8,000 people showed up. From a podium, speakers made demands: Better protection for witnesses and more accountability by police and the District Attorney.  Finally, trombonist Glen David Andrews addressed the crowd:

“We are young black men of New Orleans preaching culture.”

A spontaneous chant springs up: “Music in the schools. Music in the schools.”

This was the cry in answer to violence and the fear it stirs.

And that’s the context for this new film.

It’s hard to overstate the power of these high-school band directors to shape lives in New Orleans, and to shape perceptions about life. That theme, as played out in the life of one of the subjects of “The Whole Gritty City,” Wilber Rawlins, Jr., is elegantly documented in Dan Baum’s book, “Nine Lives.”

And lest you think that the powers that be in New Orleans universally shower these figures with the same respect they command from their students, this piece of mine from 2007 describes how another of the film’s main characters Derrick Tabb—snare drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band, whose Roots of Music program removes kids from New Orleans street action, and returns them to the streets as musicians marching in Mardi Gras season parades—got arrested while making music.

When I spoke with Barber earlier this week about his film, he reflected on his experience in 2007.

“I had a love and appreciation for New Orleans music and culture, but I didn’t have any real familiarity or knowledge,” he said.

As Barber combed through his material, he recalled, “I saw raw footage of the kids at Rabouin High talking on and on about how much this guy Dinerral Shavers and his positive energy meant to them, how he lifted them up when no one else would, how he took them away from negative forces. And of course, the irony is that these negative forces took him away.”

Barber didn’t yet have the idea for a documentary. He simply wanted to see what was next for these kids. “We began going down to New Orleans, and filming in the band room of Rabouin, not knowing where it would lead,” he said. He met Rawlins and then Tabb, and soon a larger story took shape.

“This isn’t really our story about these band directors and these kids,” he said. “This is their story, the one they gave us.”

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who is now also a CBS news correspondent, will host this broadcast. In a press release he hinted at how he’ll frame the film on-air:

“New Orleans buries too many of its young. This is their refuge, the band room. It’s their safe haven from the lures and dangers of the streets and the tyranny of low expectations.”

Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., band director of O. Perry Walker/ courtesy of The Whole Gritty City

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