A ‘Gritty’ look at N.O. marching bands

“The Whole Gritty City,” a new documentary that focuses on three New Orleans marching bands, goes into the classroom and to the school grounds for band practice, into the young musicians’ homes and to the streets for Mardi Gras.

The film profiles the L.E. Rabouin High School and O. Perry Walker High School bands and, a program for younger musicians, The Roots of Music. “The Whole Gritty City” makes its sold-out world premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival, 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Contemporary Arts Center. The film screens again at 4:15 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14, at the Prytania Theatre.

Wilbert Rawlins Jr., band director at O. Perry Walker High School, and many of the film’s featured players will attend the premiere showing.

“I am honored,” Rawlins said this week, “that someone thought enough to document some of the stuff that we band directors are doing in our city. I also feel privileged to supply some of the solutions to problems that are current on a day-to-day to basis. Band is powerful. Band can actually save children’s live.”

New York City-based filmmakers Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson worked on “The Whole Gritty City” over a period of six years. Barber, a 20-year veteran of CBS News and editor at “48 Hours,” got the idea for the project in 2007 when “48 Hours” did program about post-Hurricane Katrina murders in New Orleans.

On Jan. 11, 2007, a crowd of 5,000 marched on New Orleans’ City Hall, protesting the at least 13 murders that had taken place within two weeks.

The killings included Dinerral Shavers, Hot 8 Brass Band drummer and band director at L.E. Rabouin High School. Shortly before his death, Shavers started a band program at Rabouin, one of the first public high schools to open after Katrina.

“Dinerral Shavers looked around,” Barber said, “and thought the best thing he could do for these kids — kids who were struggling with obstacles that got even worse after the storm — was start a marching band.”

The reaction Shavers’ students had to their teacher’s murder touched Barber.

“These tough, street-smart teenagers talked about this guy like he was an angel,” the filmmaker said. “They were really emotional about him because he had cared about them so much. And he was taken away from them the week before their instruments arrived.”

The Rabouin band worked through its loss and performed during Mardi Gras.

“That was my first glimpse of the role that band directors and music teachers have in New Orleans,” Barber recalled. “They pass the musical traditions on to new generations of kids. And so much that goes with that. The band teachers can be the most important adults in a lot of these kids’ lives.”

Inspired, Rabouin set about making his first feature-length documentary. He planned to focus on the L.E. Rabouin High School band and its new director, Lonzie Jackson, but later broadened the story to other bands.

“Things kept leading us to the larger story,” Barber said. “Our first trip down there, we met Wilbert Rawlins Jr., the charismatic band director at O. Perry Walker High School. He lost his seven best high school friends to drugs and murder. He does not want that to happen to kids in his band. You can see his dedication.”

A third band entered the picture when Barber met Derrick Tabb, snare drummer with the Rebirth Brass Band. Tabb was preparing to start The Roots of Music.

“The next year Derrick had 11- to 14-year-old kids who had never played music playing in a Mardi Gras parade,” Barber said.

Barber and “The Whole Gritty City” co-director Lambertson are excited about presenting the film’s premiere in the city that inspired it.

“That’s the town that’s going to get it the best and the most,” he said.