Jordan is one of a group of dedicated musician-educators who are trying to change that.
Capitalizing on their city's culture - which places music right behind food as a basic necessity - rich resources and preservationist instincts, these
artists have established a free comprehensive music-education program that could be a model elsewhere. Many cities have extra-curricular programs that supplement participation in school bands. (In Philadelphia, there is the Settlement Music School.) But few take New Orleans' multifaceted approach, in which public schools, churches, private foundations and colleges work together to develop the musical arts, performers and audiences.
Although news about the Louisiana public education system has been overwhelmingly bad - taxpayers recently learned that their schools were, once again, ranked among the nation's lowest on the basis of standardized test scores and graduation rates - the young products of New Orleans' music- education programs are charming the world through recordings and festivals such as this weekend's Jambalaya Jam at Penn's Landing. None of the headliners of this year's festival, which ends tomorrow, is a graduate of New Orleans' music-education program, but it will be represented by members of the Subdudes and the Olympia Brass Band, as well as musicians supporting Dr. John.
In New Orleans, in addition to the Jordans (Marlin's debut, Especially for You, has just been released), there's 22-year-old Harry Connick, the pianist and singer who studied for years with pianist-educator Ellis Marsalis before being named heir apparent to the croon crown.
Then there is Marsalis' family, itself the stuff of legend. Trumpeter Wynton, 28, and saxophonist Branford, 29, are the best-known. But trombonist and record-producer Delfeayo, 24, is now emerging, and 12-year-old drummer Jason, though still in school, was a guest during his father's set at the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
There are also new Meters drummer Russell Batiste; alto saxophonist Donald Harrison; trumpeter Terence Blanchard; the Neville Brothers' family-based rap offshoot, The Next Generation Nevilles, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a group of young musicians revitalizing the brass-band format.
These and other less visible success stories have one thing in common: New Orleans' organized program of lessons, workshops and apprenticeships, which can start as early as fifth grade and end with completion of a jazz or popular-music degree at a local college.
"We're trying to establish a feeder system, and it's coming together," explained Ellis Marsalis, who devised the program 18 years ago while teaching at the city's arts high school, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Marsalis, now on the faculty of the University of New Orleans, conceded earlier this month that in the beginning, his work as a teacher was selfishly motivated. "I got tired of arguing with guys my age about the music. I started using youngsters, and I found it was easier to train them to play what I wanted to play."
For students who want to be jazz or classical instrumentalists, preparation can begin in fifth grade. The nonprofit Jazz and Heritage Foundation, organizer of the yearly New Orleans festival, last year established the Heritage School, which is run by Edward Jordan and offers free weekly after- school classes for fifth- and sixth-graders.
Junior high students are eligible for the 30-piece Jazz Outreach big band, an after-school group that is sponsored by the public school system and draws musicians from around the area. Each academic year, Jazz Outreach also holds a series of in-school workshops featuring name performers. The series, tailored to musicians of various grade levels, was spearheaded by Wynton and Branford Marsalis, who donate time as well as musical instruments to Outreach.
Instrumentalists can audition for admission to the public performing arts high school or well-regarded band programs at regular schools. They may also participate in intensive skills clinics and large and small ensembles that travel throughout the region. Ellis Marsalis estimates that four or five members of each high school band study privately with working New Orleans musicians - from Dixieland guitarist Danny Barker to jazz artists Tony DeGradi, an in-demand saxophonist, and Johnny Vidacovitch, a drummer.
In choral music, particularly gospel, churches are the primary incubators of talent, though a number of city high schools have well-respected choirs that experiment with contemporary arrangements of traditional gospel. Here, too, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation plays a key role, enlisting such well- known groups as the Zion Harmonizers to participate in the lecture-seminars it holds regularly in churches and schools.
"We explain to these kids who are in the choirs about the beginnings of gospel," said Zion Harmonizer Sherman Washington, whose quartet has been performing for more than 50 years. "We try to give them a sense of quartet- singing the way it was years ago, before they allowed drums and guitars into the church."
Both Ellis Marsalis and Edward Jordan stress that the fundamentals of music are central to every phase of New Orleans' interlocking programs.
"Most of the kids you hear playing in brass bands and stuff - their fundamentals are horrible," Jordan said from his office at the University of New Orleans, where he runs the woodwinds program.
"We spend a lot of time on the college level trying to correct these bad habits. That's the motivation for the Heritage School. We want them to get some theory under their belts and at the same time learn the correct ways to produce sound, the correct approaches to counting and sight reading."
Jordan hits upon another, more serious motivation: "If we set up the right environment now, we'll maybe save a few kids from the world of crack and the whole element of poverty they're living in. We're thinking about music, but we're really addressing the whole, complete human being here."
Though it's too early to tell whether the Heritage School is having an impact, the fruit of the city's thorough music curriculum was inescapable at the exuberant 10-day Jazz and Heritage Festival, which concluded May 6.
Creating a holy ruckus in the Gospel Tent were the Gospel Soul Children, an incandescent "all-star" chorus culled from area churches, and the McDonogh No. 35 Choir, one of the city's outstanding high school groups.
Tanya Noland, one of the nearly 60 voices from McDonogh, said she wasn't nervous performing for the festival throng. She has had plenty of practice cutting loose in school: "We have our own room, and when we get in there for practice every day, we know it's our time to let go."
In the Heritage Tent, the Rebirth Brass Band introduced trumpeter Derrick Shezbie as a key soloist. Shezbie, a junior high student, played Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" with a surprisingly thick, robust sound and phrases that were wise beyond his years.
Across the way in the Kids' Tent, the Jazz Babies were wrapping it up. The Babies are elementary school students who put on skits in which they portray notable New Orleans musicians discussing their craft. The idea is to offer young students an easy way to learn about the music, says third-grade teacher Cherice Nelson, creator of the program.
Nelson doesn't care whether her students become musicians. Like many involved in New Orleans music education, she's interested in developing awareness. "It's important to create a knowledgeable audience here," she said. "There is a wealth of talent in this city, and the only way it will survive is if people appreciate it. Some kids come into my class thinking Louis Armstrong is just the name of a park."