Fourth-generation New Orleanian and Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement honoree in Music Education Jonathan Bloom was destined for the classroom. The veteran teacher, a dedicated figure in the Orleans Parish School Board since 1981 and current Arts in Education Specialist for OPS, hails from a musical family. Bloom has spent most of his career in middle school classrooms and the local school system at large. It’s a life of service—“a calling”—he feels blessed to pay forward.
OffBeat chatted with Bloom—a passionate and thoughtful speaker who nurtured rising stars such as Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and “Big Sam” Williams, among others—after a recent exchange trip to Cuba, what he calls a “beautiful experience” that broke down barriers and fostered a cross-cultural “welfare of brotherhood” that brought tears to his eyes.
How did you come to be a music educator?
My whole family is musicians, my grandfather played violin on my mother’s side and my mother taught at Grunewald School of Music so she taught a lot of guys who came out of World War II who were jazz musicians like Red Tyler and Earl Palmer, back in the ‘40s, and my mom also sang with the New Orleans Opera. She was from a family of 16 and all 16 of ‘em played instruments. I have uncles who taught music like my mom’s baby brother who taught jazz ensemble at Dillard; another uncle, Alvin Batiste, taught jazz at the Southern University of Baton Rouge; another uncle, Kidd Jordan, who taught at Southern University in New Orleans. I had all types of examples of excellence, so it was easy for me to follow that path.
What do you feel has changed in the 30 years you’ve been in the classrooms?
In 1980, I didn’t have a cell phone, none of the teachers had cell phones, none of the kids had cell phones or video games, and those distractions kind of pull at kids. That’s one of the issues.
Do you believe the school system’s music programs have recouped in the years since the federal flood?
In general, most situations have not reached their level of where it was maybe 15 to 20 years before Katrina. And that’s for various reasons. At one time we had 60-something itinerant music teachers that dealt with just elementary schools in the public school system.
We had electives, and somewhere along the line somebody said we no longer needed the arts, we needed just math and science, the technological. What people don’t realize is that [with] music, you use the same side of the brain as you use for math. That’s why you get so many people who are great in other disciplines who say, “Well, I played music.“ That’s analytical thinking and it helped them to be great in whatever they decided to do outside of the arts.
What else have you noticed over the decades?
We don’t have community meetings that create an appreciation for what the arts do, because many of the band directors and choir teachers were surrogate parents for kids.
That’s why we have such a big crime problem. Because the more you take away from activities that put kids together in groups, that directed them and gave them examples of how to function socially, collectively with groups of people and when you take that out of the process, then you don’t have that experience… It’s all connected and relevant.
So, yes, we have some problems but what are the solutions, you know? Are we willing to pay a price for it? We put more money into incarcerating people than we put into education. And we don’t put anything into the arts.
What are you doing when it comes to solutions, especially now in an administrative role?
I’m going out on a daily basis into the community and I’m begging, borrowing and stealing any resources that I can get to bring in for any of the programs, just to give kids that experience. Also, I’m being realistic in this day and age—can we recognize what we had many years ago? Can that happen, is it possible? I’m just saying everybody that goes into education, for the most part that I know of, [does so] with the idea to make a difference and they can save the world, they can save every child. And somewhere along those 30 years, I realized that I couldn’t save everybody but I would try.
And another thing that we have to really deal with, and our public services and city officials need to think about it, at some point money can fix a lot of our social ills. When you start to get to that point where money can’t fix things, then we have a serious problem. When we get out of the business of educating people and giving people opportunities to raise their consciousness level, then we’re gonna have some issues, because you don’t change consciousness in one day. It has to be ongoing.
How was the trip to Cuba?
It represented hope, that one day that we can change this. We’re in a fire fight, we’re putting out fires all the time. We’re in the trenches digging ditches trying to nurture this next wave of human resource, and that’s all we want to do because we’re only stewards—custodians—for a season. They’re gonna be at the reins. They’re gonna be the ones taking care of us, so we better teach them well.