[radio piece] The Root Progression: Teaching In A Uniquely New Orleans Way At The Heritage School Of Music (WWNO/NPR. July 2014).

This fall, the 24-year-old Don Jamison Heritage School of Music will move into its first permanent home on Rampart Street, across from the French Quarter. The building’s façade is being sanded and painted for a December opening.

“All the classrooms are gonna have recording equipment so we can record each class,” says Derek Douget, the school’s coordinator of music education since 2010. “We have a state-of-the-art stage where we can do performances at the end of the week.”

Douget is excited about the upgrade to a new building, but he’s equally excited to expose more students to a nearly lost New Orleans tradition called the Root Progression: a teaching method devised and codified by mystic clarinetist Alvin Batiste.

“The Root Progression is basically a practice technique, and it involves the learning of intervals, so that you get them in your ear and get them under your fingers,” Douget says. “Section one of the Root Progression is just half steps. Then if you want to learn, say, an idea in half-steps, like a triad, it would be this —”

Douget plays an example on his saxophone. He studied Root Progression under Alvin Batiste — arguably the world’s first jazz teacher. The New Orleans-born Batiste taught at McDonough 35 before founding Southern University’s Jazz Institute in 1969. Batiste later spent four years as chair of the Jazz Department at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts before passing away in 2007.

Over 40 years of teaching, Batiste continually revised and self-published his own spiral-bound textbook titled The Root Progression Method: The Fundamentals of 20th Century African American Music. CLICK HERE to read the rest of this transcript…

Or go ahead and  to the audio version as it appeared on the radio: 

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My Wife With Goats (Narratively. July 2014).

This part of the park was just recently choked with vines so dense you couldn’t see sunlight between the trees. Now light blasts through the electric fence into an area so bare, it’s like a bomb went off. Thousands of pounds of greenery just disappeared, but only up to the exact height the goats can reach. The foliage starts again about six feet up, at a line of demarcation as eerily straight and consistent as the flood line that marked blocks and blocks of houses after Hurricane Katrina.

“I told you!” was all Morgana said as we disassembled the portable fence and moved her goats to tackle a new green mess.

Though we don’t live on a farm, goats have taken over our lives. Nine months ago, my wife Morgana teamed up with ten of them to found Y’Herd Me Property Maintenance, a goat-powered landscaping firm with which she hopes to clear some of the overgrown spaces that have blighted New Orleans since Katrina.

With more than 40,000 blighted properties measured in 2010, New Orleans is one of the top three most blighted American cities. Mayor Mitch Landrieu claims to have made some progress, but not everyone sees it. “When I look at the Lower Ninth Ward,” NAACP branch president Danatus Kingtold The Advocate, “the weeds are higher than the rooftops. To me, that’s blight. When we talk about…a reduction in blight, to me, I don’t see it.”

As bankrupt Detroit faces its own blight problem, it has turned to goats. When California and Texas needed help with their wildfire issues, they brought in goats to clear dry brush. Even Brad Pitt’s famous Lower Ninth Ward housing charity, Make It Right, built a large trailer called the “Slow Mow” to transport goats around to what is charitably called “green space”: vast tracts of land where neighborhoods once stood. Make It Right didn’t follow through. Still, “New Orleans needs goats,” Morgana tells as many people as her quiet demeanor allows.

We adopted our very first pygmy goat, Chauncey Gardner, a dozen years ago. Morgana seemed to softly will him into existence, much as she would later conjure up Y’Herd Me? It started with: “I want a dog.”

“We don’t enjoy the responsibilities we have,” I vetoed. “You want more?”

Days later she responded, “Then how about a goat?”

Having known Morgana for thirteen years, I see how she shares the quiet, calm nature of goats. She also longs for a more bucolic life to offset the substantial office job she’s maintained for over a decade— a job she dislikes dressing up for, a job that rarely compels her to wear makeup. Given the choice, she’d rather wear overalls and work in the sun. Still, she’s good at the indoor day job because she’s outwardly sweet and patient and she makes things happen. She can talk you into things without much talking. “You know we’ll never mow the lawn ourselves,” she kidded me. “We wouldn’t even have to feed a goat! Let’s go see the farm, just for fun.”

Suddenly, we were in rural Louisiana, watching Chauncey’s birth. “Oh my god!” Morgana exclaimed over Chauncey’s mama screaming. “She’s still trying to eat!” Indeed, between contractions, mama goat continued nibbling at the hay around her. When she was finished, she committed the only carnivorous act we’ve ever witnessed from any goat: She consumed every bite of her afterbirth. Goats never stop eating, but they’re pickier than advertised; Chauncey will consume anything made of paper (birth certificates, $20 bills, rare vinyl record sleeves) and has a weakness for discarded cigarette butts (which the veterinarian said helps to kill internal parasites), and I did once see him swallow a bottle cap (no problem for the “ruminant” species, with its “four stomachs”), but otherwise he is a food snob, preferring only the best fresh greens.

We paid $75 for the infant goat, and Chauncey’s been our amiable silent partner ever since. He even evacuated Hurricane Katrina with us in 2005, riding quietly in our back seat as we traversed America in search of goat-friendly places to stay while we were locked out of our city. We ended up taking refuge for more than a month on an urban farm in Houston, with oblivious sheep and chickens that made the resident goats look smart by comparison. He went on to also survive our daughter’s toddler years, when she would pull his fur and he’d gently knock her down.

More recently, we moved out of the Ninth Ward to a double lot across the river from the French Quarter, the site of a former citrus farm, where Morgana finally had room to hatch Y’Herd Me. CLICK HERE to read the rest of the piece at Narratively…

Or check out this very cute video about the Y’Herd Me project: 

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On the Goats of Y’Herd Me Property Maintenance (Dark Rye [Whole Foods]. July 2014).

Chauncey no longer works for us. By now he is too old. He has retired. He lives out back of our house in New Orleans, puttering about alone, eating beaucoup fresh grass and fallen plums.

At 12 years old, he’s too slow and lazy to really keep up with the grass and weeds on our modest double lot. Luckily, my wife Morgana King just got nine more goats with whom she’s started an incorporated lawn maintenance company.

Efficiency-obsessed corporations such as Google and Amazon have used goats as unpaid interns that manicure their vast, beautiful campuses. Texas uses goats to clear away brush that might otherwise turn into wildfires. Goats are especially popular as groundskeepers in California, where steep hills, deep crevices and rocky topography impede traditional gas mowers.

New Orleans, though, is famously flat. “But it’s an ideal city for this business model because the blight has gotten pretty bad since Katrina,” states Morgana’s business plan. “Even in the nicest New Orleans neighborhoods, abandoned houses just sit there for years being swallowed up by tall grass and vines … post-Katrina New Orleans needs goats.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of the piece at Whole Foods’ magazine Dark Rye…

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ReThink Youth Empowerment Camp (Louisiana Weekly. July 2014).

On Thursday July 24, Rethink’s Summer Leadership Institute celebrated a “day of action” to call for youth empowerment, and to show off the various projects the campers completed this summer.

Since 2006, Rethink’s summer program—held this year at Wilson Community Center—has gathered to raise awareness and consciousness around an issue of the students’ choosing. The five-week camps first began post Katrina. “It was designed to help the kids understand what had just happened to them,” says Rethink executive director Karen Marshall, who moved to New Orleans from Boston last October. “It was also to let the kids have a say in the way the new schools would be restructured.” Rethink became a year-round non-profit program in 2008.

The area’s “Rethinkers of 2014,” who call themselves Ujima Collective, consist of middle school- and high-school-age students

This year’s theme was freedom, and also oppression, be that systemic or simple bullying. The “Rethinkers,” as the students were called, consisted of 46 registered middle schoolers between the ages of ten and 14. About eight high school students ages 15 to 22–calling themselves the Ujima Collective—effectively facilitated the younger students and led them in group discussions, art projects and other activities. The older kids essentially ran the camp, under the watchful eye of several adults.

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer,” the campers met for their day of action at the Rethink building next to Café Reconcile in Central City. In a dark back room, students showed movies they’d made. Other rooms displayed various freedom/oppression-themed artwork, including a magazine full of original comics. A poem by Kayla Addison read, “I love AND hate the east. I love my friends and hate mean boys.” A photograph by Saniyah Barthe­lemy titled “I Eat What I Get” showed a bowl of shredded wheat that came with the explanation, “Even if the food is frozen or nasty, I still eat it because I only get one meal a day at school.” The Rethinkers also performed series of poignant spoken word pieces downstairs, where Jamia Brown preached, “They stop and frisk, but don’t stop and think…” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at Louisiana Weekly…

Or watch the video of this same ReThink program helping kids to express their ideas on how local schools should be rebuilt following Katrina: 


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Live Review: Prince at Essence Fest 2014 (Consequence of Sound. July 2014.)

I love U baby
But, just not like I love my guitar
Uh uh, not like I love my guitar
— Prince, “Guitar”

Ground lights shine up at the New Orleans Superdome, changing the stadium’s color scheme to reflect each night’s theme. This Fourth of July at the 20th anniversary of theEssence Music Festival, the entire Dome was bathed in purple as a record 45,000 grown-n-sexy folks herded their way inside to witness the timeless genius of Prince.

I love Prince. I consider him the greatest rock musician of all time. I even sang and played guitar in more than one Prince tribute band. I am a fan who places no musical demands on The Artist; I’m happy hearing him pursue whatever muse he’s currently chasing, no matter how obtuse. Recent online videos showed him and his new all-girl band, 3rd Eye Girl, playing groovy, guitar-heavy, virtuosic pseudo-metal with long prog-rock bridges—and for all of Prince’s various talents, I love his guitar playing the most. Either way, I assumed he could do nothing to make me regret spending $100 apiece for two tickets.

Now that Prince’s Fourth of July concert has passed, my assessment mirrors that of New Orleans’ resident Prince expert, DJ Soul Sister, who stated afterward, “Prince put on a great show tonight … Prince can do no wrong.”

But while Prince did sing and dance for two straight hours while leading his amazing band through a stunning array of revolutionary pop singles, I can’t get around the fact that, out of more than two-dozen songs, Prince played guitar on just two songs… CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at Consequence of Sound… 

Or watch this video of Prince dancing with James Brown and Michael Jackson… 

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The End of The Lens’ important Charter School Reporting Corps (Columbia Journalism Review. June 2014.)

Before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans education reporters covered one big, famously dysfunctional public school board. As the city now becomes the first in the country to shift from a public school system to a mostly charter—albeit public charter—school system, local news organizations struggle with how to cover almost 50 boards presiding over just under 70 schools.

Months after the New Orleans news site The Lens debuted in early 2010, its editor in chief, Steve Beatty, created a team of freelancers called the Charter School Reporting Corps to cover the dozens of new school boards. I joined that crew of around 15 reporters, mostly newbies, who were paid $50 a pop to cover each and every monthly board meeting.

“We’ve had about 35 people move in and out of the Charter School Reporting Corps over the last three years,” says Beatty, a Times-Picayune and Atlanta Journal-Constitution alumnus. “We used some students as freelancers, and some of the coverage was a little uneven. But we were getting to about 93 percent of the meetings.”

But now, three years after its debut, the CSRC is being put on hiatus, a reflection of larger financial woes at what is locally considered the best of the many news sites created to cover tumultuous, post-Katrina New Orleans. Those watching to see how The Lens adjusts to these shortfalls fear charter school coverage in the city will suffer.

In the years right after the flood, the Picayune was contracting, and The New Orleans Advocate wasn’t around yet. Even today, as the national spotlight shines on New Orleans’ charter school movement, most local news outlets only jump on bigger charter school stories. The CSRC, on the other hand, reported every detail.

“[The CSRC] kept track of the issues that were facing each school’s governance, whether that meant them just adding a new school bus route, or whether they follow the fresh food guidelines instead of using canned peas,” says Beatty. “Lots of stuff that might not interest the average general reader outside of that school community, but it helped parents know that they were welcome at meetings, that it was okay to walk in.”

The CSRC was also invaluable in terms of teaching all these new school boards the laws, and what was expected from them in terms of transparency. Though public charters make their own rules to some extent, they are partly funded by the federal government, and so they must abide by open meetings laws.

“A lot of the boards operated in a kind of clubby way and didn’t follow all the open-meetings requirements, a simple but important thing that we latched onto early on,” says Mark Moseley, who coordinated the CSRC on and off for the last three years. “We were often the only members of the public represented at the meetings. And there was some noticeable progress in that area: A lot of boards became a lot more in tune with open meetings requirements. There was a sea change in compliance. We were the reason for that.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of the piece at Columbia Journalism Review.

Or CLICK HERE to check out the work of The Lens’ CSRC.


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Prince Fans Wild With Excitement Over His Return To Essence Fest (Radio piece for WWNO/NPR. June 2014)

Dearly beloved, we will gather at Essence Music Festival on July 4th to get down with this man named Prince. Electric word “Prince” — it means “genius” and that’s a mighty big title, but I’m here to tell you: nothing compares to The Purple One.

“I don’t have a favorite era. It’s like saying ‘Which is your favorite child.’ Different eras, different songs fit different parts of your life, so I can’t say I have a favorite.”

That’s Lisa Heisser, a true Prince superfan.

“I like the song ‘Do Me Baby’ because it’s the first one I ever heard, as a young girl, 15, on the radio — and I was shocked, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ And then I thought, ‘Who is that? I’ve got to hear more.’”

Lisa’s husband Glenn Heisser totally agrees: “I was there from Soft And Wet in 1978,” he says. “I heard that song and said it was awesome. Back then he was real freaky and real sexual and he’s changed — and I’ve changed! We kinda grew up together, and that’s why I love him so much.”

Prince may be the last real rock star — at least the last who knows the meaning of mystique. He’s been unfortunately successful at scrubbing his music almost entirely off of YouTube. For many years you couldn’t even get his music on iTunes. That’s only just about to change. Around the same time as the 2014 Essence Festival, Prince will finally release a digitally remastered deluxe edition of the Purple Rain soundtrack, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer.            CLICK HERE to read the rest.

Or click >><< 2 hear the audio, which features about 6 Prince songs!

Or check out Prince’s new all-girl band playing “She’s Always In My Hair”: 


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