How music is transforming and saving lives in New Orleans

Learn more about the "The Whole Gritty City" and how music programs are helping kids

Mardi Gras and its parade season is underway in New Orleans. For many of the city's children, being in a marching band is a lifeline. There are dedicated band leaders who are passionate about keeping kids safe -- teaching them about music and about life.

That's the subject of "48 Hours" Presents: "The Whole Gritty City", hosted by CBS News cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis. Born and raised in New Orleans, Marsalis has seen first hand that music has the power to transform, even save young lives.

Shot in New Orleans from 2007 to 2010, "The Whole Gritty City" portrays the setbacks and the triumphs of band members and their adult leaders in America's most musical city and one of its most violent and where almost half the kids live in poverty.

The film goes behind the scenes with three dedicated New Orleans marching band directors. Their goal is to prepare students to march in Mardi Gras parades, but the real lesson they teach is survival in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country.

"New Orleans buries too many of its young," says Marsalis. "This is their refuge, the band room. It's their safe haven from the lures and dangers of the streets and the tyranny of low expectations."

The film by Richard Barber, a "48 Hours" editor-producer, and Andre Lambertson, a cinematographer and photojournalist, also follows the lives of five band students. All have lost someone close to them to violence, yet each finds purpose, solace and joy in the marching band.

Jaron "Bear" Williams
The Whole Gritty City

Jaron "Bear" Williams, 11, is one of them. He uses a video camera provided by the filmmakers to record his walk to school. "This is the street I don't like, because it has guns," he says to the camera. Not far away, his 19-year-old brother was shot to death. "I cried the whole day," he says. "I couldn't get him out of my head."

After his brother's death, Bear joined the Roots of Music marching band and learned to play trumpet. He earned his way into his first parade. The experience was life-changing. "I feel like I'm the best thing in the world and I can't be stopped," he says.

"I have the power of the music," says Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., one of the band directors featured in the documentary.

"I don't care if you just had something very tragic that happened to you in your life. Once that band gives you that downbeat, and that music is right, and it's powerful," says Rawlins. "Just for that brief two or three minutes you forget everything, every problem you had. You have no cares in the world. Yeah, it must be nice to actually live like that, with no cares in the world."

For so many kids in New Orleans, the band room is their refuge. It's their safe haven from the lures and dangers of the streets and the tyranny of low expectations. What brings them here is a chance to be center stage at Mardi Gras -- two solid weeks , 50 parades, and tens of thousands of spectators. For the kids in the marching bands it's a test of skill, talent, discipline and endurance. A hard-won badge of honor - that earns them respect.

The music teachers in the film are passing on a legacy that perhaps saved their own lives. Like concerned adults all over the world, they're investing in kids that are not their own -- demanding excellence of them and giving them the tools to achieve. These dedicated instructors use rhythm, harmony and tune to show these youngsters what they can do, who they can become, and why it's important to develop your human potential to the fullest.


Learn more about the work of New Orleans' band directors and their students: