“I just hate ignorance where there’s knowledge for you,” Wanda Rouzan declares adamantly. The much-loved vocalist, bandleader, actress, businesswoman and life-long educator elaborates saying, “It just takes a book and a teacher.”
Since Katrina’s onslaught destroyed her Gentilly home in the neighborhood she’d called home since childhood, the New Orleans native has been living in Florida along with many of her family members. Because of the storm, Rouzan lost her teaching job as an itinerant dramatic arts teacher for gifted students in the New Orleans public school system. Nonetheless, she vows “teaching will always be a part of what I do in my life.”
Rouzan, who got the crowd jumping with her warm and energized performance at November’s “Down by the Riverside” festival at Woldenberg Park, compares her life at present to a “traveling salesman” of sorts—living out of a suitcase and heading to locales like Colorado and Michigan as well as stops in New Orleans to perform. “I could never be without New Orleans,” she stresses while expressing her concern about the city’s air quality and its effect on health.
As a youngster, the multi-talented Rouzan was surrounded by music. By age 13, she and her older siblings Laura and Barbara formed a vocal group called the Rouzan Sisters that performed in churches, talent shows and other social functions. She lived just two doors down from the musically rich Brunious family so traditional jazz was always part of life. However through her years at Xavier Prep High School, Xavier University and Penn State University, where she earned a Masters Degree in speech pathology, her focus wasn’t on music but theater and academics. It was while she was teaching communications at her alma mater, Xavier University, that producer Vernell Bagneris recruited Rouzan to help out with the production of his musical “One ‘Mo Time.” Her involvement led to her joining the cast when the show moved to New York and she toured as Thelma until it closed in 1984. This experience acted as her first step back into the music world and in the early 1980s, Rouzan started fronting David Lastie’s band, A Taste of New Orleans. With the blessing of the Lastie family, she took over the saxophonist’s ensemble on his death in 1987 and she continues to perform and tour with the group.
Rouzan wore many hats in the 1980s, acting and singing in shows like “The Music Man” and “A Night in Old New Orleans,” gigging with traditional players like guitarist/banjoist Danny Barker, trumpeter Teddy Riley and clarinetist Pud Brown, establishing her own booking and event planning company, Rouzan Entertainment and forming her own record label, Huckle-Buck Records. She’s used all of these experiences in her 20 years teaching gifted students in the Orleans Parish school system. Based out of Coghill Elementary School near Southern University, Rouzan would travel to other locales to offer instruction in theater. She sees her work as extending beyond the stage, teaching her students life skills that can be drawn upon whatever their chosen paths.
“Children love the arts,” says Rouzan, who uses her own enthusiasm to motivate students. Kids, she explains, know they have to be able to read a script or read music in order to participate in the theater productions. She finds that being involved with theater inspires them to further these skills. “I incorporate all of the arts,” she adds, ”I bring in the music teacher, the art teacher and they [the students] see how they work hand-in-hand.”
Through teaching, Rouzan hopes to preserve the cultural traditions of the arts and give her students the information and desire to “carry the torch.” As a second line grand marshal, she brings to the classroom her immediate involvement with New Orleans’ jazz funeral heritage. By taking her students on field trips to significant spots like Preservation Hall, her aim was to instill interest in and open up the world of this city’s rich musical history.
“It’s given me a joy in helping shape young people’s lives,” says Rouzan, who is known to her students by her married name, Miss Brazile. “The sheer joy of seeing the glow on their faces, that’s what keep you teaching.”
Rouzan will continue lead A Taste of New Orleans, a band with a repertoire that includes traditional and modern jazz, rhythm and blues and contemporary sounds that reflects her New Orleans upbringing. This taste flavors her approach to teaching and, as she often says and as her debut CD release proclaimed, It’s What I Do.
“I love what I do,” Rouzan declares with all the enthusiasm and caring she brings to bandstands and the classrooms.