NEW ORLEANS (AP) – One. Two. Three. Four.
One. Two. Ready. Breathe.
There is silence for a moment as the entire room of students breathes and waits for the signal.
With a wave of his hand, their director, Lawrence Rollins, lines them up and they play their instruments in unison, playing the notes of Starpoint’s “Object of My Desire.”
The band, known as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, is rehearsing for an upcoming performance this weekend at the annual Satchmo Summerfest, a two-day festival dedicated to legendary New Orleans jazz musician Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The festival will take place on Saturday and Sunday. Roots of Music plays Saturday at 11:30 a.m. outside the gates of the New Orleans Jazz Museum on Esplanade Avenue.
Founded in 2007, Roots of Music is a nonprofit after-school and summer music education program for children ages 9-14 from low-income households.
Derrick Tabb, co-founder and executive director of Roots, said he was inspired to create the program after his junior high band director took a special interest in it.
“He saved my life,” said Tabb, who then began using music as a positive outlet.
He expanded the concept of the music program by introducing transportation, food and tutoring.
Roots of Music operates three buses that transport students from over 50 schools across the city, Tabb said. After training, buses take the children home. As for food, students receive a hot meal each day, donated to the program by organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank.
The tutoring program is led by students from Tulane and other local universities. Tabb said he hopes the teachers 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. “Their implementation made this a no-excuses 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 their marching skills and drills that make them regular Carnival parade regulars. Since the beginning of 2007, the program has grown from a group of 42 student musicians to about 150.
Throughout the year, in addition to parades, they perform at conventions and festivals in New Orleans. The band also travels around the world in search of 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 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 kids build friendships and learn about teamwork. “It brings them together around a common goal in a neutral place.” Now they have a positive reason to be together instead of doing anything outside.”
Tabb said an added bonus of bringing kids together is that it brings entire communities together.
“When you bring 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 horn, the Satchmo SummerFest performance will be his final one with Roots of Music, as it’s time 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 searching for random bands on YouTube.
“I just knew I wanted to join them,” he said.
After a quick application, he learned the basics of music and played the drums, before eventually switching to the horns.
Although he wants to stay longer, he said he’s grateful for everything he’s been able to accomplish with the group.
“Horn playing is not just instantaneous,” he said. “Now I can get scholarships for schools and travel all over the world playing music.”
Like Tabb, Peterson said music changed his life. When he’s older, he wants to play in a brass band before working as a band director.
“There’s no sense of coming here and seeing kids happy and wanting to succeed,” Tabb said
Graduates from Roots of Music, such as Jazz Henry, have gone on to have professional careers in music. Others are on the way.
Every high school band in the city has students from Roots of Music, most of whom serve as section leaders, Tabb said. The program also has a partnership with Berklee City Music Boston, a student-centered after-school music and performing arts educational organization.
Tabb has big goals for the program, which has returned to normal operations after a period of distance learning due to the pandemic and a hiatus following Hurricane Ida.
“I want to make this the best place for kids to come,” 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.