Once a 25-student band, Karr is now one of the city’s most recognizable musical forces
In New Orleans, we take band culture seriously. It’s not just because of Mardi Gras or football season, it’s because music is a way of life in the city.
“I don’t think there’s any other city in the country where literally everybody has a family member that has been a band member at some time in their point in their lives,” said Christopher Herrero, the band director at Edna Karr High School.
Herrero has walked the halls of Karr for literally half of his life, graduating from the school in 2004 and returning fresh out of college to become the school’s band director.
“When I came back, we started with about 25 kids in the band,” he said. “Now we have a 100-piece band that performs everywhere for a lot of people.”
By a lot, we mean the thousands. Karr’s band has appeared from T-Mobile commercials to BBC and most notably Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” where the band can be seen marching down the streets of its Algiers neighborhood.
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The band’s list of accolades since Herrero’s takeover nine years ago reads like a Cinderella story. One of its most recent accomplishments is winning the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s high school brass band competition, “Class Got Brass.”
“Karr did not have a brass band until we started it about five or six years ago,” he said. “That was $10,000 awarded to the band program, and a lot of it covered instrument repairs because we have a lot of old instruments, and to keep them up costs a lot of money.”
But the brass band, and playing instruments in general, has afforded players opportunities beyond the doors of Karr.
“They’ve had chances and opportunities to perform with some big names here, like Hot 8 Brass Band,” he said. “So, the kids are making a living for themselves with their brass band life. They’re being exposed to not just marching and concert band, but they’re embracing their New Orleans culture, keeping our culture alive especially in this time where there’s a lot of talk about gentrification in the city. I think it’s very important that we keep our culture alive through the arts and through the music, that’s the very fabric of the city.”
Herrero’s influence is like the DNA that flows through his students look and sound, and it’s apparent every time the band plays.
“I can honestly say that the past decade that I’ve been a band director, we’ve been arguably the most influential band in the city,” he said with a smile. “We’ve seen other drum majors try to be like our drum majors, we see other bands try to emulate what we do.”
Herrero said the band plays more to the crowd, which adds to its popularity. Its symbiotic relationship with the football team is apparent in its game entrance, which has gone viral countless times.
“That defines Karr, because at Karr we’re definitely a strong family,” he said. “We actually have a picture in the band room of the band and the football team on it in one still frame standing together, it says, ‘United we stand, Divided we fall,’ and we believe that as a family here at Karr we’re way stronger together and we try to instill those values to our kids so that they win when they go out into the community once they leave Karr they can instill those values into somebody else and improve our city, one student and one person at a time.”
As for the future of the band, Herrero is leaving his fingerprints on more programs than just his own high school.
“I have a lot of different band directors come every year to recruit kids, and just to talk to the kids,” he said. “We do trips to different college homecoming games, so they can see different campuses, and even when we go on our out-of-state band trips at the end of the year, the kids are exposed to the world outside of New Orleans, because some kids barely go across the river. Across the river, that’s a trip for them. I remember a couple of kids told me, ‘Mr. Herrero if it wasn’t for you, I would have never seen Orlando or Dallas.’”
The band is even producing more directors, who have a chance to follow in Herrero’s footsteps.
“I have about seven students right now that are currently in college to be a band director,” he said. “So, in the next 10 years, we are going to see a whole lot more of the Karr influence in the city. These kids don’t go to just Jackson State or Southern (University), they go to different colleges all around the country. So, they’ll be able to put their touch and their spin on bands in the future, and help our culture continue to grow and evolve with the time.”