JPSO ‘Band of Excellence’ hits right notes with students

In 2010, former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand proposed to meld the city’s love of music with a positive diversion for youth outside of school. Now, eight years later, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Band of Excellence can boast having graduated approximately 800 male and female youth, with 95 percent attending college. 

“We have a rigorous program,” said band director Brandon Hansell. “It really gives students an outlet to express themselves and be around positive people who help them progress and get the best out of them.”

Hansell says the band is open to middle school and high school students, mostly in Jefferson Parish, although any student ages 12-19 can apply.

The beauty of the program is that everything is provided for members – instruments, music instruction (on how to play and read music), transportation after school and a meal, uniforms and performance opportunities in and out of state.

“I’m looking forward to the Alcorn College (vs. Alabama State) game in Mississippi,” said new member Amari Knighten, an Archbishop Rummel sophomore who also plays for the school’s band.

  He said the JPSO Band of Excellence has challenged him musically, helped him grow as a musician and expanded his musical interests.

“I like the music we play, and the people, too,” he said. “Mr. Brandon is a great director. … They give us a lot of constructive criticism on how to play and what to play.”

More than music rehearsal

Hansell, who became director in 2015, directs the band with assistant Thomas Dean, who also directs John Curtis’ band; and former Band of Excellence graduates percussion director Gerald Daniels; and Kenneth Collins, who is the music arranger and John Ehret band director. The band has assistance from other Sheriff’s Office workers: Deputy Devin Rogers, Deputy Sandy Sanders, Sgt. David Green and Detective Wayne Hyms, who drive buses to pick up band members after school and bring them home three days a week.

These program leaders not only teach music but are mentors and father figures, when needed, and they use discipline, work with parents and check up on kids at school to keep them focused on college and beyond.

“Music is just an illusion – something we share in common as teacher and student,” Hansell said. “We have a close bond like a family member. Our goal is to see what is going on in these kids’ lives and be part of their lives as a role model.” 

At a recent rehearsal, Hansell saw a band member drop his large instrument on the floor by the door entrance as he walked in. That was quickly corrected.

“Hey, Pablo, move your instrument case from the door,” Hansell told him from across the room. “We have to be mindful and careful as we come in.”

In an effort to continually improve the program, Hansell recently purchased a bassoon and oboe to give members more instrumental variety.

Another tenet of the program is procuring college scholarships for high school seniors, Hansell said. The program has alliances with Talladega College in Alabama, Southern in Baton Rouge, Grambling University in Baton Rouge, Alabama State, Jackson State and Alabama A&M in Huntsville. Hansell said one band member, Marcus Renew, earned a full academic scholarship to Yale University.

Members like Keanu Cleveland, 16, who is one of several from the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, aspires to play in a college band.

“I learned how to be a leader,” said Cleveland, a third-year baritone player.  “I’m a section leader, and I have to look after and help my fellow baritone members. It’s also taught me about the different genres of music.”

Pedro Ortiz, 12, plays baritone and alto sax and enjoys traveling.

“I’ve learned a lot of my scales, how to sight read, play music better and be confident when I play in front of an audience,” Ortiz said.

Upcoming performances

The JPSO Band of Excellence has a repertoire of approximately 50 songs a year, Hansell said, including jazz, orchestral and current music. Music at each performance varies, depending on the venue, he said. The band also has been in band competitions.

“We’re in high demand,” Hansell said. “We do everything we can to support the community and be involved in the community.”

The band’s next performance, according to Sgt. Green, program manager,  is Sept. 29 at 10 a.m. at the Gretna Festival parade. 

Other performances this fall include the Alcorn University homecoming parade Oct. 6; the Krewe of Boo parade Oct. 20; a Southern University home football game Oct. 27; and an opioid awareness event by the Drug Enforcement Agency Dec. 8 at Audubon Zoo. Other performance dates are pending. 

While the band primarily targets Jefferson Parish kids, any local youth is invited to be a member. Auditions are not required. There is a beginner’s developmental program, Sgt. Green said, with additional classes, at no charge, on Saturdays. 

JPSO chief of management services Sean Lusk, a member of St. Martha Church in Harvey, attended a recent rehearsal and was impressed with what he saw. 

“It’s amazing,” he said. “These are fine young people, and we’re very fortunate to have Brandon. He’s done an excellent job with this program.”

To inquire about the band, email jpsoband@gmail.com  or visit jpsoband.com. The band is sponsored by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO) and the Joseph P. Lopinto III Community Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit and is funded partially with grants.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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