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Echoes of New Orleans

Drum & Bugle Corps Veterans Still Feel Beat
by Drew Broach
Drum & Bugle Corps Veterans Still Feel Beat

They hung up their skins and brass long ago. So excuse them if they look and sound a tad rusty this weekend, when dozens of veterans of New Orleans area drum and bugle corps from the 1960s and '70s take up instruments again to march in the Corps de Napoleon parade.

Mike Poche, an organizer of the reunion, said Friday that he expects 80 to 100 musicians, some traveling from Texas and California, to join under the banner of Echoes of New Orleans.

"We all grew up together," said Poche, 48, band director at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge. "Some of us haven't seen each other in 30 years."

The reunion celebrates a type of music that isn't heard much these days in the New Orleans area. Drum and bugle corps emerged in the United States after World War I, when military veterans formed musical groups to show their patriotism in parades. As the movement developed, junior-level corps sprang up, limiting membership to those 21 and younger. They often were affiliated with Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion units, Catholic Youth Organization chapters or police departments.

The music took hold in New Orleans, where jazz was developing in the early years of the 20th century. Louis Armstrong's first instrument was a bugle, and much later, while still schoolchildren, the Neville Brothers played in a drum and bugle corps. The New Orleans Police Department had its own drum and bugle corps from the early 1970s until 1982.

At the movement's local peak, southeast Louisiana was home to such groups as the Southern Rebels and Bleu Raeders in Metairie, the Stardusters out of Arabi and the Masqueraders in New Orleans. During the summer, they loaded up buses and trucks with young musicians, parents, equipment and food and traveled a multi-state competition circuit, sleeping along the way in school gymnasiums, said Emile "Moe" Latour of Kenner, former director of the Bleu Raeders and a member of the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame in Addison, Ill.

All that went diminuendo after fuel prices skyrocketed in the late 1970s, curtailing travel, Latour said.

For his part, Poche is determined to strike up the band again.

He said he and another local corps veteran, Mark Ryan, were independently trying to organize a senior drum and bugle corps as a permanent presence. Then Carnival approached on the calendar, and suddenly their ideas merged into a reunion to march in a parade, Poche said.

"We didn't know any of this was going to happen until January," he said.

Former musicians, some now in their 60s, eagerly signed up. Old instruments were fished out of closets, bought off eBay, scavenged from school buses and refurbished. Two rehearsals were held at Curtis.

Poche said Echoes of New Orleans will play at least two tunes, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the New Orleans standard "Big Chief." The group doesn't have official uniforms, but members will try to dress uniformly: all in black.

"What they lack in music and precision, they'll make up for in heart," said Latour, 65, who won't march but plans to witness the reunion performance.

Poche said he still hopes to organize a permanent group, the Greater New Orleans Drum and Bugle Corps Association, and probably will hold an inaugural meeting in a month or so.

"Right now," he said, "we just want to get in the street and put on a parade."

Drew Broach -