New Orleans' St. Augustine High School Marching Band emerges from pandemic to play notes of hope

Sharyn Alfonsi reports on the self-dubbed "Best Band in the Land," New Orleans' St. Augustine High School Marching Band, Sunday on 60 Minutes.

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The heart and soul of the famous Mardi Gras parades of New Orleans are its marching bands, and few are as revered and storied as the St. Augustine High School Marching Band – self-dubbed the "Best Band in the Land." Sharyn Alfonsi goes to the Big Easy to profile this local institution as it emerges from pandemic lockdown to practice and march again. "Best Band in the Land" will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, March 14 at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on CBS.  

The "St. Aug" band, as it's known in the local parlance, is one of the few predominantly Black, all-boys Catholic high schools in the country. The band's reputation and track record are well known in music circles; four alums of St. Augustine are up for Grammy awards Sunday night.    

This summer the band got a new band director, Ray Johnson. Johnson is an alum of the school and served as its assistant band director in the 90s. Now, he's been tasked with tuning up the nearly 70-year-old institution. Johnson demands excellence. "Everything has to be precise. The marching, the precision, standing correctly," he tells Alfonsi. The locals take their bands very seriously, says Johnson. "In New Orleans, marching band is a culture. Just like in some places they have football as a culture. But here in this city, they live, breathe, eat, sleep, everything marching band," says Johnson.   

Johnson has made a mark in the short time he's had the band. It was no mean feat, as the pandemic shut down Mardi Gras and shortened the football season. Despite the lack of big motivating events to showcase their efforts and a one-month stretch when the pandemic halted practices, Johnson's focus and discipline is upping the band's game.

"One year ago, [this] is not the same band you see today," says Kabrel Johnson, a drummer. "I'm not going to lie, [the band] was a little bit less disciplined. But now if you move… you're going to have them pushups after… that parade," he says, referring to the military-strict formations the band's members must adhere to as they play and march.

Recently, Johnson decided it was time for band members to put on the uniforms that had been stuck in closets for months. He ordered a dress rehearsal march through New Orleans' Seventh Ward. Residents came out to watch, treated to a sound signifying their town may soon get back to normal.  

For Kabrel, it was a step in the right direction. "I think it's so good that the band marches around the block. Because I feel like that is-- that is St. Aug, that is New Orleans.," he tells Alfonsi.