Our Guardians of the Groove series continues this month with another New Orleanian with music in his blood. Each month we've been working with community-supported radio station WWOZ to showcase people who are working to preserve the musical culture of the Crescent City, with a WWOZ DJ driving the interview.
This month we're featuring a man who has mentored thousands of the city's great young musicians -- Landry Walker High School Band Director Wilbert Rawlins Jr.
Action Jackson (WWOZ): Can you tell me about your journey from beginning to where you are today?
Wilbert Rawlins Jr.: My father, Mr. Wilber Rawlins Sr., he played professional drums with Irma Thomas, Lionel Hampton. Music is in the blood.
My brother and I, Lawrence Rawlins, is the band director at McDonogh 35. We both grew up behind the stage with Irma Thomas, little bitty babies running around the set going to practice every day. So I think from a very early age we understood that musicians have to practice, its long hard work, its dedication.
I remember my dad got his fingers cut off in a grinder. He worked at Dupree Storage and Forwarding, that was about 12 p.m. He got home at 5 p.m. and he put two big bandages on his fingers and he started to get dressed, and my mom said what are you doing? And he said I have to go and play. She said you can't go and play, you just chopped off two of your fingers. And he said I have to go play, there are no other drummers for the band, I have a responsibility.
My dad was a musician and my mom was a school teacher. My dad always wanted us to be musicians, my mom always wanted us to be teachers, so I guess what happened was they made music teachers and so both my brother and I are music teachers.
Band is big business, very big business. Say you go to football Southern University in Baton Rouge, there's only about 70 people on the team, there's only about 30-40 of them that have scholarships, but the band is about 270 members and its about 180 of them who have scholarships.
We pride ourselves on teaching kids the basic fundamentals of music. It’s a language, it’s a foreign language, it’s math, it’s science, it’s social studies.
In math class they give you a piece of paper and the problem is for you to write it out and you have five minutes to complete this problem. Not in music. In music you have to instantaneously subdivide time. Reading those notes, 1 e and a 2 and 3, instantaneously, that means the brain is chopping up rhythms. You have, if that's an e, an f, how you finger e, how you finger f, finger g, so you're doing five or six things at one time. So that's why again they say musicians are smarter than the average people. You know, maybe 20 percent smarter, because you're doing so much at one time.
Action Jackson: What advice do you have to help improve the community?
Wilbert Rawlins Jr.: To the parents I would say hold your children. Hold your children close to you. Get involved with your children. You be the person that's going to pour everything into your children that they need. Don't allow someone else to teach your child, to pour into them your child. You know what your child needs. You should be the closest thing to that child, that child should be able to come to you and tell you anything. You know to educators, continue to educate, don't give up. These children, they are worth it.