Matthew Hinton / The Times-Picayune
Paul Batiste, left, and Russell Batiste, right clap for Live Oak Elementary fourth grader Krishawn Keasley, 10, during auditions at school on March 11 for the Batiste Family International School Fine and Performing Arts, a new program starting in the 2009-10 school year.
Three generations of Batiste men sat behind long tables in a rehearsal space at Live Oak Elementary. Their ages ranged from 16 to 61.
Drummer Russell Batiste, 43, flicked his wrists and tapped on drums to show a hearing-impaired student how to carry a beat. Paul A. Batiste, founder of the Batiste Brothers Band, stopped two students in the middle of a lackluster duet. He told them to step out of the band room and return prepared to sing, this time with shirts tucked into their pants.
And so went a recent audition for a new Recovery School District performing arts program at the Uptown school. The session, as it turned out, featured more encouragement than tough critiques, with a blend of hand-holding and light scolding from veteran musicians.
"It was a proud moment, " said percussionist Damon J. Batiste, 41.
The Batistes -- a New Orleans family with professional music credentials stretching back to the 1960s, including bands and solo acts -- intend to bring new creative energy to Live Oak during the 2009-10 school year.
The Batiste Family International School of Fine and Performing Arts at Live Oak will add a yet-to-be-finalized arts curriculum to a traditional academic setting. Every student from kindergarten to eighth grade who wants to take part will be included, regardless of musical ability.
At least 10 Batiste family members will be involved, instructing students, soliciting donations and playing other roles. Family members and school system officials haven't finalized details of the program's mix of donated time and compensation for participating artists.
"This program is all about bringing the music back to the city, " said Paul Batiste, 59, band director at Sophie B. Wright Charter School.
Family members hope to bring international artists to teach during brief residency stints, said Damon J. Batiste, founder of New Orleans South African Connection, a nonprofit organization that has developed a cultural musical exchange between South Africa and New Orleans.
The school hopes ultimately to offer instruction in disciplines such as drama, dance and the visual arts as well as music. Young students would also learn about the industry's business side. Organizers envision the school becoming a feeder program for the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
"When people say 'Batiste, ' people know: a good time, great music and great family, " Damon Batiste said. "Why don't we use these resources to lift up arts education?"
The project has the backing of Superintendent Paul Vallas, who has used Damon Batiste as a district arts consultant. Moreover, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., suggested years ago that the Batiste family start a music school for young people.
The budding arts program is dedicated to the memory of the family matriarch, Estella Curtis Batiste, 92, who died in 2007. Relatives say she always emphasized allegiance to family and to music education.
Estella Batiste and her husband, John J. Batiste Sr., 96, a former grocery and hardware store owner, taught their boys to play music using a donated upright piano.
The Batistes are distant relatives of celebrated musician Harold Battiste; Alvin Batiste, a clarinetist and educator; and Milton J. Batiste Jr., a trumpeter. But through the years, the descendants of Estella and John Batiste Sr. have forged distinct musical careers of their own.
Brothers John, David and Paul formed a band in 1962 -- David Batiste and the Gladiators -- that played at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1965. Since 1976, family members have played together in the Batiste Brothers Band, performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and internationally.
At a family home in Metairie and on stage, impromptu jam sessions still break out.
The Live Oak audition session became a family affair, too, only without the jamming.
Keyboardist David Batiste, 61, congratulated one student, Jermaine Scott, on a monologue he performed from the musical "Dreamgirls."
Batiste told Jermaine that he had an "aura" about him -- and to pull up his pants.
"Like Martin Luther King would say, 'Keep your eyes on the prize, ' and the prize is you, " Batiste said.
Jermaine grabbed his skateboard and strolled out of the room, exuding confidence.
"I know I can do it, " the 14-year-old said. "I dreamed of it."
Darran Simon can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3386.
Published: Monday, April 23, 2012, 10:02 PM
Batiste Cultural Arts Academy, a K-8 charter school of more than 600 students in the Irish Channel neighborhood, will get extra resources to bolster its arts programs as part of a federal initiative led by the Obama administration. The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities on Monday named Batiste as one of eight schools in the United States that will participate in a program called Turnaround Arts, a two-year initiative to showcase how involvement in the arts can boost grades, graduation rates and civic engagement.
Batiste joins elementary and middle schools in Denver, Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, all of them among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in their state and already recipients of a federal School Improvement Grant.
Batiste, located on the site of the old Live Oak Elementary, is in the second year of a turnaround effort led by the charter management organization ReNew.
As part of the arts initiative, Batiste will get philanthropic dollars for new art equipment and musical instruments, and the school's leader, Ron Gubitz, will get coaching on how to incorporate the arts into the school day and curriculum at the Aspen Institute in Colorado this summer.
Helping with the effort will be actress Alfre Woodard, one of eight high-profile artists participating in the program.
It's not clear exactly what role the artists will play, but the list also includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington and Forest Whitaker, all of whom will be "adopting" one of the eight schools.
"Here's someone with a storied career in film and television who is going to bring not only her star power but her expertise and her story to our students," Gubitz said. "It's important for our students to see pathways to success -- that hard work does pay off."