Clark High School Band: Remembering a Great Legacy

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA-- At the end of upcoming spring semester, a school will close it's doors, signaling the end of a tradition.  Today, we take you back in time to 1982, when three high school band students started one of the most beloved brass bands in the world.

Earlier, in 2018 Clark Senior High School's marching band echoed under "the tunnel" during the Mardi Gras season.  The "tunnel" is one of the most notable spots on the parade route in marching band culture.  Where St. Charles avenue meets U.S. 90 on the Ponchartrain Expressway, a marching band can bellow and delight the crowds with the power of perfect acoustics.

Clark's Marching bulldogs did this, as they have done every year.  This year, every performance meant more than most, because the band and every other extracurricular activity would cease by the start of summer.  At this time, the school only has a senior class--the sign of impending closure.

The silence of high school band instruments signals the end of a New Orleans Legacy.

Kermit Ruffins went to Clark and says "my grandmother, my Auntie Coleman Ruffins... they all graduated from Clark.  A lot of my family members went to that school.  There's a little outrage throughout the Clark alumni and the bulldog family. We never thought that would happen."

Joseph S. Clark was named after the first president for Southern University.   The high school opened in 1947 in Treme, as the first school below Canal street to educate blacks in New Orleans.  Over the years, it's had several notable alumni including civil rights hero, Jerome Smith and the legendary Oretha Castle Haley.

Clark school also has a large pedigree of musical alumni.  The world renowned Rebirth Brass Band, started as a neighborhood group of high school students.

Kermit Ruffins' cousin, Dennis Minor was the principal at Clark.  Ruffins says, "he got me into Clark and I met Phil Frazier in 1982 and we started the Rebirth Brass Band."

In 1983, Phil and Keith Frazier along with Kermit Ruffins, who came out of 9th ward, formed a band simply called "the group."  They played for tips on Bourbon St.  at the start, but they were quickly becoming something great.

"Ee met this guy who had an organization with the St. Thomas project. His name was Bobby Lynnard. He wanted to be the manager of the band.   His organization was called Rebirth. He said if i'm going to be the manager, I want you guys to change your name. That struck us right away! He never went on to manage us, but he gave us our name," says Ruffins.

Rebirth would transcend what it meant to be a brass band by refreshing the brass band scene with hip-hop culture and flavor.  They would travel across the globe as ambassadors of New Orleans music, going right out of high school to Japan, Austria, and Sweden.

A gift of music had turned high school band students into stars.

Kermit is proud of the talent in New Orleans' youth saying, "you can go to any school right now and there's some kids that can stand next to me and play just as good as me at 14 and 15 years old."

If there's a message in the music and a message in THIS story, it's that Rebirth's success is a testament of the many treasures that came out of 1301 N. Derbigny street.

The President of Clark's Alumni Association says, Clark's alumni will continue to fight for Clark and it's legacy.  The hope to rename a charter school and continue Clark's tradition.


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