Derrick Tabb had an idea. It wasn’t a new idea, but one he had been kicking around for some time. Tabb saw post-Katrina New Orleans as a city that had been badly damaged both physically and spiritually but was still brimming with potential—especially when it came to its young people. In Tabb’s own experience, music was a savior; it had set him on his path to success. But he was no stranger to the pitfalls of the streets. There were too many things that could go wrong for a kid before they ever went right, and there were too many kids who had nothing to believe in, or no one who believed in them. But he believed. And in 2007, with a $20,000 budget and 19 registered students, he co-founded a program with Allison Reinhardt to make a reality out of that belief. The Roots of Music was born.
Before Roots, Tabb was best known as the snare drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band. He is a tall, affable, soft-spoken man, until he gets excited, and then his cadence changes. A native of the 6th Ward, Tabb found his calling early. Unlike many of the kids he grew up with, he found it not in the streets, but in the band room, and it might have saved his life.
“My junior band director was my inspiration for pretty much the whole program,” says Tabb. The band director, Donald Richardson of Andrew J. Bell Middle School, was a pivotal figure in Tabb’s life. “When I was young, my grandmother passed away and I started getting into a lot of trouble with the fellas who weren’t doing anything,” says Tabb. “And I got into the Andrew J. Bell band and I saw a cat that really loved and cared about every kid in the program. But he had a special love for me. He understood what I was going through.”
When Tabb got in trouble at school, they sent him to the band room instead of the principal’s office. There he would observe Richardson, who was not only a legendary disciplinarian, but a master instructor. Richardson inspired Tabb to become a music instructor himself, and his discipline, style, and pristine musicianship planted the seeds of the program which would become Roots. But Tabb wanted his program to have one noticeable difference. “I didn’t want the program that I started to be in schools,” says Tabb. “It should be away from schools. It should be extracurricular. It should be something that kids want to come to. I wanted to do something where you left school and came to school. It teaches you a whole different everything, not just music, but a way of life.”
Marching in Rex, Mardi Gras Day 2018 (photo by Adrienne Battistella)
Tabb’s program was planned to be a pilot program. It was set to begin in May of 2008, with 19 students, a budget of $1,000 per student, and $1,000 for a bus to take them to and from the program, which at the time was held at Tipitina’s. His original instructors were Shoan Ruffin, Lawrence Rawlins, Allen Dejan, and his cousin, Edward Lee—some of the most talented musicians and music educators in the city. Tabb wanted his students to see all aspects of the music business, from music educators like Ruffin and Rawlins to working musicians like Lee, who at the time played sousaphone for The Soul Rebels brass band.
“It was basically just off of his idea of his dream of a middle school band program,” says Lee of the program’s first days. “I wouldn’t even say middle school program. It was just a band program. It was all wishy-washy and just coming right after Katrina. So, I mean, we needed the foundation. And he definitely started it.”
The post-Katrina world was a bleak place in many regards, especially in terms of musical education at the grade school level. But with his team assembled, Tabb felt ready to tackle it. Everything was falling into place, though things didn’t go exactly as planned. “I sent a bus out to get 19 kids and when the bus turned the corner at Tipitina’s I was like, ‘That looks like a lot more than 19 kids,’’’ says Tabb. “They opened up the doors and everybody was so happy, they were running off the bus. And I’m like, ‘Who are you?’”
42 students showed up on the first day of the program. By the end of the week there were 65, and by the following week there were 130. The program wasn’t even designed to be a marching band program at that time. It was primarily designed to teach drums. And there was another problem. “We didn’t have any instruments,” says Tabb, smiling widely. “We had a few trombone mouthpieces that I collected, just in case, and I bought like 20 pairs of drumsticks. And when the kids showed up—we had so many kids—it was just like, the most unorganized situation that you could possibly imagine because we didn’t expect it.”
With no instruments and too many kids, Tabb felt dejected. His $20,000 budget for six weeks was blown. And Tipitina’s was far too small to host the program. Tabb needed help. “I called up a good friend named Martha Murphy. And she saved the program,” says Tabb.
at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2018 (photo by James Cullen)
Murphy, a veteran of the nonprofit world, helped Tabb find the resources to continue the program. In fact, according to Tabb, she did too good of a job. Many people thought Roots was a well-funded program when in truth, it was barely hanging on. And Tabb himself felt like he had failed. He felt like an overwhelmed father. One day, when the money he was expecting for the program didn’t come in, his frustrations boiled over and he dismissed a troublemaking student from the program. It had all gotten to be too much, and it might have ended right there for Tabb. Then the student he put out returned with one request: “I don’t have to play in the band, I just want to stay here.”
Tabb took the student home that day to discover he was living in “damn near a crackhouse.” He discovered the student was taking care of his grandfather by himself and that his mother had recently died. Tabb was almost moved to tears. “But I didn’t feel pity for him,” says Tabb. “I felt like if I put some work into him, he’s gonna give me everything because I see the situation we’ll get out of.” So Tabb told his student to learn five scales. He gave him a week to learn them. Two days later, the student returned. He had already mastered all five scales. Like his mentor, Donald Richardson, he knew that the discipline of music was this student’s best chance. And it offered Tabb hope as well.
“Thank you for not quitting,” Tabb says. “I always tell him that. Thank you for making me not quit. Because I was ready to give up. There’s been a few times because it is hard. Everybody thinks that in this nonprofit world, you just go out there and say, ‘Man, I need some money’ and everybody just throws money. Don’t work like that.”
How it does work is a careful collaboration between the complex structure of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, world-class musicians, and a group of kids eager to be heard. It is part science and part alchemy, and a whole lot of competition for dollars, most of which are hard to come by in the best of times and much harder since the onset of COVID-19. Suzanne Raether, the Executive Director of Roots, is in charge of the less glamorous aspects of the program.
“If I’m doing my job as executive director right, then everybody has not only the resources that they need, but they have the agency to do what they want to do,” says Raether. “I’m very supportive of our staff being creative and being inventive. And being innovative. We had to be in 2020, to stay alive. We had to pull out the creativity.”
Roots currently operates with a budget of $800,000 annually, which Raether says “could easily go to a million.” The majority of that funding comes from individuals, with a “mix of $10 to $10,000 donors.” And if $800,000 sounds like a lot of money, in fact it is a pittance for a program that employs five section leaders, a band director, tutors to help the students with their schoolwork, transportation to and from the program, a snack and a “hot nutritious meal” daily, and band uniforms and instruments. In the bandroom, the cracked bell of a sousaphone sits on the floor as a reminder of just how tenuous their situation is.
On the musical side of things, Band Director Darren Rodgers, a St. Augustine and Talladega College alumnus, is responsible for bringing together a group of kids ages 9 to 14 from all over the city and turning them into a formidable marching band. In a small red brick schoolhouse on the grounds of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the students are taught to read music, to play their instruments, and to march. It is an immersive program. New students are nudged towards the instruments to which the instructors think they will be best suited. No one is excluded, regardless of their ability level. Every student is set up for success, because at Roots failure is not an option. And the results are impressive.
“We’ve been called an all-star band, especially around Mardi Gras time, because the kids are usually very polished,” says Rodgers. “They believe that we bring in kids with talent. Most of our kids, 95%, start from scratch. They’ve never played an instrument before.”
At the Treme Sidewalk Steppers second line, February 9, 2020. (photo by James Cullen)
A FAMILY TREE
In fact, musical ability isn’t part of the equation at all. The program is meant to serve low income families, and to act as a crime intervention program. But unfortunately, Roots is only a five-day-a-week program, and the violence in New Orleans is 24/7. Recently, a 14-year-old Roots student, Ja’Mere Alfred, was gunned down on Christmas while accompanying his two older cousins to Walgreens on Bullard Avenue in New Orleans East. Alfred was well-liked and talented, and his death shocked both students and faculty.
“That was like one of the sweetest kids in the world,” says Tabb of Alfred. “All he wanted to do was play drums, play video games, play football, and eat. He’s never been in trouble here. Not one time. He’s never been one of the kids that we have to check on school-wise. Very talented kid. And for that type of capability to be laying in the coffin right now is just totally messed up.”
Tabb was visibly upset as he recounted Alfred’s story. You could see there was a part of him that believed he failed; a part of him knew the city failed. Another part saw this tragedy as sadly quotidian, something we’ve come to expect and accept in our community. And he bristled at that notion. “We can’t save every kid,” says Tabb, “But at the same time, I believe if our city really wanted to, I believe we can.” Tabb explained that Roots of Music has to turn away kids every year, and that without more programs citywide, there will be more unnecessary losses, and more grieving families.
Because at its heart, Roots is a family. It is not uncommon for multiple children from the same family to go through the program. Enjoli Coco and her brother Alvin are both currently enrolled at Roots, and their mother Eliseanne, a teacher, has seen them both grow as musicians and people. And the kids are enthusiastic about the program as well.
“Being in Roots taught me how to play saxophone and discipline,” says Enjolie Coco. “I love everything about Roots. They are my friends and family.”
Coco originally wanted to play trumpet, but there were no openings, so she decided on saxophone, influenced by Roots alum Utopia Francois who she affectionately calls her “big sister.” Francois has an impressive resume. The niece of Phil Frazier, co-founder of the Rebirth Brass Band, she was born into brass band music. She is a NOCCA graduate and is currently continuing her musical education at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Francois has also attended three summer programs at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Two of those opportunities came about through Roots scholarships.
Francois always looks after young Alvin Coco, who cut his teeth on the second line circuit when he could barely hold up his trombone. “Alvin was always playing with different bands, and I always want to make it a point to make sure that Alvin was just protected,” says Francois. “And that he knew what to do and what not to do. And I told his mom I think it would be a great idea for Alvin to go to Roots. I was just planning everything out of it just to make sure that he was on track.”
This intergenerational bond between alumni, instructors, and students makes Roots truly special. Alumni are encouraged to come back to the program to assist younger students. The instructors are chosen to represent various facets of music, from touring musicians like Erion Williams of the Soul Rebels, to music educators like Shoan Ruffin, and Alijah Jett, who is both an educator and a working musician with the 21st Century Brass Band. And the students are encouraged to take it all in and find their voice within the program.
With COVID-19 and the subsequent school closures, that voice has been harder to find. For a time, Roots was able to practice outside, with each section leader teaching a socially distanced lesson one day a week. But full band practice hasn’t been an option. And the void is palpable to both the students and the instructors, who would now be polishing the Marching Crusaders for Mardi Gras.
“We do so many things, but everybody knows that Mardi Gras is our time,” says Erion Williams. “That’s our main performance for the year so it’s extremely disappointing. I’m disappointed for our eighth graders that won’t get that opportunity, but we’re in the planning stages right now and trying to come up with different things to offset what we’re not doing.”
But 2020 wasn’t all disappointments for the Roots. In June they got to appear on the “Kelly Clarkson Show,” where they wowed the host with a marching band rendition of her hit song, “Since You’ve Been Gone.” It was a bright spot in an otherwise challenging year.
In spite of the obstacles, these community leaders remain optimistic. After all, Roots of Music was born out of hope. “This isn’t forever, you know,” says Raether. “There is light at the end of this tunnel. We are going to be able to march again. We will have another Mardi Gras.”
Tabb and Raether both know how tenuous this year was. COVID-19 has changed the landscape in so many ways. Creativity has been key, from educating the students through sustaining the program through donations and grants. Despite the polished look and sound of the band, Tabb and Raether emphasized that Roots is “not a rich program.” The Roots building, usually a hive of activity, has been all too quiet. Everyone is missing their family. But there is also an underlying optimism for the future as Tabb discusses his vision for the future.
“Suzanne is going to help us get our own building,” says Tabb, excitedly. “She’s gonna have this great office. We’re going to have a great band room. Great marching space. And hopefully we can be in this neighborhood.”
The Marigny neighborhood that has adopted Roots as its own is especially important to Tabb. He sees it as a centrally located space, free from the Uptown/Downtown ward beefs that have so long plagued the city. It’s a place where everyone can get together, and the neighbors don’t mind hearing the scales and runs and drums, or the sound of young feet hitting the streets as they prepare for Mardi Gras.
But the end for Tabb has always been the same as the beginning. He is clear-eyed about the program. He understands that music is “the least important” thing at Roots, a metaphor. He has been through the bleak days, and come out on the other side. He has wrestled with doubt, but never let it consume him. And, along with his team, he has built a community that didn’t exist before. One which has taken root.
“When you say roots, you have to think about—it don’t take just water to grow a plant,” says Tabb emphatically. “You know, it takes a lot to grow a plant. You need sun, water, nurturing, loving, it takes a lot to grow that root. And that’s what we said here, it takes a whole village to raise this kid, and we have the village.”
For more info on the Roots of Music, check out therootsofmusic.org. Top photo of Derrick Tabb and helmet photo by James Cullen