NEW ORLEANS » In other parts of New Orleans, school bands have spent recent weeks marching up and down narrow neighborhood streets, often followed by flocks of children. But not around McDonogh 35 High School in the 7th Ward, where neighbors say the band remains in school, hunched over its music and cramming for Carnival parades.
"This year, we only hear bits and pieces of music, because most of the band is inside learning their parts," said Earl Foucha, 70, a former McDonogh 35 trumpeter who lives across the street from the school.
Daily parades began last week in New Orleans as the annual lead-in to Mardi Gras, which is Tuesday. By this weekend, parades will be rolling nearly all day, one after the other. Each will include a minimum of seven bands, as stipulated by city ordinance.
Krewes, the masked social groups that ride on floats during their Carnival parades and toss beads to crowds, have booked McDonogh 35 for parades every day this weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But earlier last week, the band director, Lawrence Rawlins, was still working on fundamentals. As the brass and drums rehearsed, he stopped short and gestured toward the trombones.
"There are three parts," he said. "But I only hear one."
Rawlins, 40, was hired only a month ago to take over the band, which has slumped in recent years as students lost interest in the program. The band went without a director for most of this school year. So he will hit the streets with 40 members, a size considered tiny for a band that once was four times as big. Few are seasoned marchers: Half are seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, which the school now serves.
The pressure is on. Loubreia Blackmon, a senior and the captain of the color guard, said her cousins, band alumni, reminded her about the trophies that lined every wall of the McDonogh 35 band room.
"They say we have to live up to that legacy," she said.
As soon as the band gets off the bus, it will be thrown into competition. While the floats line up and take on riders, it is traditional for bands to wage musical battles on "the neutral ground," the local term for a wide, grassy street median.
"In New Orleans, band is a sport," said Gerard Howard, a McDonogh 35 graduate who founded bandhead.org, a site devoted to marching bands. "So bands have to be ready every time they leave the gates of their school. Because whoever is out there will get blown at."
In many ways, Rawlins is considered part of the "band head" community. He is a seasoned director who continues to split his time between McDonogh 35 and the Roots of Music band, a program for 9- to 14-year-olds that just marched in the Rose Bowl parade.
So he knows the routine. Band aficionados typically view each group twice, at the preparade faceoffs and a few miles down St. Charles Avenue near Lee Circle, where they stand under an expressway bridge that provides grand acoustics for bands marching underneath.
Howard said the critics gathered at Lee Circle are likely to cut the band some slack because Rawlins is so new to the job, "but he will have to give a decent showing for what he has."
Rawlins also feels the pressure. While he occasionally sighs and says, "If I can only get through Mardi Gras," he is feeling more confident. His band may still be seen as an underdog, he says, but his band members have pluck. He happens to have a special admiration for underdogs, he said, "because I’m a younger brother."
Like the rival coaches in the Super Bowl, which was held in New Orleans Feb. 3, Rawlins faces sibling rivalry on the job. Since krewes typically place powerhouse bands near the front of parades, McDonogh 35 will spend the weekend walking several places behind the famed O. Perry Walker High School band — led by Rawlins’ older brother, Wilbert Rawlins Jr.
Historically, alumni say, no one questioned that McDonogh 35 was a top-tier band. The school, which opened in 1917 as the first public high school for black students, claims a long line of prestigious graduates, including the city’s first black mayor, Ernest Morial.
Though there was no formal music program in the school’s early days, students learned to sing, sight-read and play instruments from staff members who moonlighted as jazz musicians, like Osceola Blanchet, a chemistry teacher in the 1920s who gave music lessons during his lunch hour and featured students in operettas and quartets, said Al Kennedy, a historian and author of "Chord Changes on the Chalkboard."
A recent graduate, Veronique Dorsey, a 21-year-old college student and trumpeter who is credited with holding the band together until Rawlins arrived, said she had heard about the band’s history from her mother, who marched with it in the 1970s.
"It wasn’t the loudest or the biggest, but it always had a really good sound," Dorsey said.
Rawlins, too, grew up hearing the history. Exactly 50 years ago, his father, Wilbert Rawlins Sr., led the McDonogh 35 band as its drum major.
"So I know this band can be something," he said. "It used to be something."