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Playing it forward with Class Got Brass?

The fourth annual Brass Got Class? competitoin is part of the Congo Square (Photo: Kim Welsh?

The fourth annual Brass Got Class? competition is part of the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival. (Photo: Kim Welsh)

This is prime parading and festival season in New Orleans, from Mardi Gras Indians strutting their stuff on Super Sunday to a variety of music festivals drawing people from all over the country and the world. But there’s one event that has chosen not only to focus on a special New Orleans band tradition, but also to put a chunk of change into the support of their music education.

This Sunday Class Got Brass?, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s contest for Louisiana high school and middle school brass bands, will take place in Congo Square. What started out as a fairly modest idea four years ago has grown into a highly competitive, extremely entertaining part of the upcoming two-day Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival.

Class Got Brass? not only exposes a variety of school brass bands to the public, but also hands out more than $20,000 worth of instruments to the top schools’ music programs. This year, band directors who want more personal instruction for their students can request clinics with members of the world-class Preservation Hall Band.

It wasn’t that many years ago that local brass bands seemed to be a fading tradition. They never completely went out of existence, of course. How could you have a second line without them? There just weren’t a whole lot of new ones. Some, myself included, worried that with a new and decentralized charter school system, it might be even more difficult to continue what had always been a cherished neighborhood tradition.

New Orleans-born Kelvin Harrison, one of the directors of the Kipp McDonough 15 Middle School who teaches instrumental music, says that we shouldn’t worry.

“In fact, I see it almost completely the opposite,” he says. “It seems like there are more kids engaged in the whole process of playing brass bands. I know coming up as a kid here in New Orleans there were few groups. As I became a teenager there was the Dirty Dozen. Their influence helped me to learn to play. They kind of changed things; they became a little more modern. Nowadays there are kids all over. They’re putting together groups and from what I understand they’re working.”

McDonogh 15 middle School brass band took first place honors in the competition's first year.

McDonogh 15 Middle School brass band took first place honors in the competition's first year. (Photo: Kim Welsh)

Harrison says that what began right after Hurricane Katrina as a way to just find working instruments for his kids has blossomed into a successful music program, one that has helped put back brass bands front and center.

Karron Brown, the other McDonough 15 Middle School music educator, was born and went to high school in Los Angeles. He chose to come back to the South, the home of his mother and her family, to go to Jackson State University, earning a degree in music education. Three years into his job, he can attest to the pride projected by his students at being in a real brass band, a skill and talent other kids can look up to.

“It stems from generations in their families, in their communities, where their brothers or sisters or uncles played,” Brown says. “They have their reputations to uphold.”

But while Brown says there’s a built-in camaraderie among young brass band players, there’s also more than a little competition.

Harrison agrees, adding that a lot of that is due to the 4-year-old Class Got Brass? program.

“It’s something to see,” he says. “The first year we actually took first place. Since then the Class Got Brass? has gotten better and better. The competition is pretty serious now.”

So, if you want to see some really talented, upcoming New Orleans-style musicians in the making, go to Congo Square on Sunday afternoon. They will blow you away – literally.

Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival

  • Where: Armstrong Park When: Saturday, March 21 and Sunday March 22
  • What: Class Got Brass? Competition Sunday, 3-4:30 p.m; winners announced at  5:45 p.m.
  • Information: about programs for both Saturday and Sunday, go to www.jazzandheritage.org/congo-square

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]