NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A frail but smiling jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain congratulated student musician Jasmine Batiste with applause and a handshake after the 17-year-old delivered a solo rendition of Warren Easton High School’s alma mater on saxophone.
It was a moment when the New Orleans high school’s musical past met its present during a recent jazz concert celebrating the school’s 100th birthday, which officially falls on Sept. 16. The “jazz legends” concert, held Sept. 5, also honored the life and legacy of Dixieland jazz player Fountain, a 1945 graduate who performed with some of the best in the business, including Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt and Harry Connick Jr. He also played for four presidents and Pope John Paul II.
“This is where I really, really started,” said Fountain, 83. He walked the halls with the aid of a friend’s arm, and at times a walker, posing for pictures and autographing concert programs. “It’s amazing what they’re doing with this school, you know. It’s good.”
Warren Easton is one of the city’s oldest public high schools. It opened as Boys’ High School in 1913 and was later renamed for a popular school system superintendent.
Nearly a century after its founding, it has much to celebrate. Its doors have turned out some of New Orleans’ finest musicians — among them Fountain, trumpeter and pianist Nicholas Payton and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews — as well as judges, politicians, teachers and policemen.
“This is a living monument to the history of this city and the numbers of great people that went here,” said Charles Foti, a 1953 graduate who went on to serve as the city’s sheriff and state attorney general. “Being great doesn’t mean that they became really rich or really famous, but really enjoyed life.”
Warren Easton survived disaster, too.
When the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, inundating the school along with 80 percent of the city, Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock stepped forward to help the school rebuild. She had no former connection to the school, just an appreciation for architecture and preservation and desire to help the crippled city.
Warren Easton was closed for one year after Katrina for repairs and reopened as a charter school on Sept. 7, 2006. In the eight years since Katrina, Bullock has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help repair the flood damage, fund scholarships and new band uniforms. She also helped launch an on-campus health clinic.
“I think that what she did was a testimony to her as a person, to her understanding of what was important during the time of Katrina when the whole city was suffering and people were talking about could it ever come back,” Foti said. “They had all kinds of problems going on, and she was like a ray of light that existed here.”
Bullock has a home in New Orleans and her adopted son, Louis, was born there. A crayon drawing of her, along with a shiny name plate, hang in the school’s “Hall of Fame” where the walls are decorated with pictures of alumni.
A large portrait of Andrews, painted by a student, hangs on the wall too.
Andrews, a 2004 graduate, has become one of New Orleans’ most well-known trombone players. He travels the world representing New Orleans and was scheduled to perform on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Wednesday.
“This school is one of the reasons why we all become great young people,” he said. “It just made me who I am and taught me respect and pride and everything.”
Andrews and Payton performed at the recent concert celebrating the school, but the evening was all about Fountain.
“To be honoring Pete Fountain is such a beautiful thing,” Andrews said. “I never got a chance to play with him before, but here we are now honoring one of the greats that opened the doors for people like me, and I’m happy to be here.”
Many at the event said they hope the school can keep the talented alumni coming.
“Warren Easton is very well-rounded,” said Barbara Ferguson, a former student who went on to serve as the school’s principal and the city’s first female superintendent of schools. “It has a strong library, a strong music department, and a very strong art department.”
It also has a century of stories.
Foti and friends chuckled as they swapped memories, including how Foti was written up in high school for popping firecrackers in the school basement. Years later, after becoming sheriff, he had inmates paint the school.
Batiste said being a part of the Warren Easton legacy gives her immense pride and confidence.
“It just adds to my persona,” she said. “It just makes me walk a little taller. It just makes me play my horn a little better.”