Since his nomination as CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2009, Derrick Tabb has perhaps received more attention for his work helping New Orleans’ kids than for his role as snare drummer in the mighty Rebirth Brass Band. Each day after school at the Jackson Square Cabildo (the use of which was made possible by Mayor Mitch Landrieu), Tabb’s Roots of Music Foundation provides free music education—instruments included—to approximately 125 local children ages nine through 14. Kids need no music background to participate, just a 2.5 grade point average at a school lacking a music program. These days, kids might also need a lot of patience as well, as Roots of Music currently boasts a 500-plus person waiting list.
Tabb admits there’s no way he could pull off such a popular program on his own: “Jennifer Blanchard is our Director of Academics and our Volunteer Coordinator. She recruits tutors and helps secure partnerships with local universities.” Each day at Roots of Music before the music begins, traditional scholastic tutoring is provided by Tulane graduate students who help kids with homework and other academic issues in exchange for college credit. Recently, Blanchard was able to get Xavier students on board to teach after the holidays as well.
“Jennifer has really taken it upon herself and really made a difference,” Tabb says. “Not only have about 85 percent of our kids brought up their school grades by at least one letter grade, but because of her, the kids aren’t forced to go to tutoring. They now want to go.” After tutoring and music class, Roots of Music provides a snack, as well as a bus ride home.
Tabb sees Roots of Music as something different from average school music programs. “Where others might focus on jazz and general music education,” says Tabb, “we focus on marching band.” Some of the less experienced and younger kids are not in the band yet and take beginning classes. The band kids however, march in several events a year. This year Tabb will book six performances for his students in all, including at least three during Mardi Gras—Oshun, Bacchus and NOMTOC—plus the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade in January. Tabb also hopes to broaden Roots of Music’s scope to teach kids the art of music production in a real recording studio, and the ins and outs of other aspects of the music business.
Some might wonder why Roots of Music doesn’t instead set its sights on helping any one of New Orleans’ many struggling public schools; Tabb sees benefits in remaining an independent program. “I want to bring all the kids to one neutral spot, mainly to teach the kids to be friends before enemies,” he says. Tabb realizes the need to push back against New Orleans’ frivolous, unfounded turf wars. “Most of the people I know that play music tend to get along,” says Tabb. “A lot of cats that don’t get along on a personal level, once they go through a gig they get along, and I want to bring that impression of music from the beginning, rather than, ‘I’m from the 3rd Ward,’ and ‘I’m from the 4th Ward,’ and all the bull that comes with that.”
Despite all the national attention, funding remains an issue for Roots of Music. Someone has to keep the money coming. “I am a musician, not a fundraising guy,” says Tabb. “Still, it’s up to me to raise $36,000 every month.” In the face of this constant struggle to find operating capital, Tabb recently started what he calls his “Campaign to Sustain.” His goal is to raise one million dollars to sustain Roots of Music at its current level for three years down the road, and so far, several prominent donors have jumped on board. Come January, American Express will donate one dollar (with a cap of $50,000) for every click on a Spin.com-produced music video by Grammy-nominated singer Raphael Saadiq, which also features students from The Roots of Music. HBO’s Treme has also made the Roots of Music (along with the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic) the charity recipient for a fundraising event that will take place February 12 at Generations Hall.
“If our million dollar goal is achieved, we can run the program for three years,” says Tabb. “Then we can focus on raising money for expanding the program, rather than struggling all the time just to sustain it.”