Hot Jazz, Cool Teacher: How One New Orleans Man Fosters Greatness

Jun 14, 2015
Originally published on June 14, 2015 10:30 am

Peanut butter and jelly. Abbott and Costello. New Orleans and marching bands.

Some things are inseparable.

The city best known for hot jazz is a wellspring of talented musicians. Where do they all come from? Oftentimes it's great teachers — like Sam Venable, the band director at Langston Hughes Academy, a middle school on Trafalgar Street.

Hear the story of great teaching at the top of the page. You can also hear this clip of Venable playing at his grandmother's 90th birthday:

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When you walk along the French Quarter in New Orleans, music seems to seep out of every corner. Jazz, in many forms, happens in the bars and the clubs, but also on the street corners. It is everywhere. And if you take the time to talk with any of the locals making this music, you'll learn pretty quickly that somewhere in their history is a great teacher. NPR's Sami Yenigun went to New York Islands to profile one of the city's best.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Take a stroll down Frenchman Street on almost any day of the week.


YENIGUN: Ask anyone jamming on the street corner, and they'll tell you it takes a long time to get this good.


SAM VENABLE: All right, thank you. So...

YENIGUN: This is Langston Hughes Academy, a middle school on Trafalger Street in New Orleans. This is what getting good sounds like.


VENABLE: One, two, ready, begin, next, next.

YENIGUN: The stout band director Sam Venable is trying to keep a squirming preteen ensemble focused on the lesson.


VENABLE: Who can tell me - eyes up here ladies in the back. So what is this symbol called here? Yes, Sir?


VENABLE: Treble cleft.

YENIGUN: It can be an uphill battle trying to hold the attention of restless kids right before lunch. But Mr. V., as the students call him, is methodically, patiently working his way through class. At no point does he ever lose his cool. Mr. V. says that's just who he is.

VENABLE: Any student, any teacher will tell you, you really have to push Mr. V.'s last button for him to put you out.

CRAIG ADAMS, JR.: Mr. V. was a constant advocate in my corner.

YENIGUN: That's Craig Adams, Jr., one of Mr. V.'s former students who's now working on getting his high school equivalency diploma. Adams' enthusiasm is how I found out about Sam Venable. It's clear that Mr. V. changed his life.

ADAMS: I got in trouble at Langston Hughes, and they put me in Mr. V.'s class, right. I said, oh, Lord, I don't think I'm going to like Mr. V.

YENIGUN: Adams is now 18 years old and plays music for a living. He didn't always have an easy time with school.

ADAMS: Mr. V. said, well, get on this piano. I want you to play something on the piano. And I played "It Don't Mean A Thing." (Singing) It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

YENIGUN: Mr. V. heard that Adams had a knack for music, and so he took him under his wing.

ADAMS: Mr. V. had a spot for me in his class sitting right next to his desk. He was, like, you going to do this work, you going to learn these notes and you going to be a member of the band. And he made me want to do good in school, like, Mr. V. told me I could not play in the band if I didn't have B+.

VENABLE: It's his calling.

YENIGUN: Venable says he's proud of how far Adams has come.

VENABLE: And now he's a trumpet player as well as a singer. I see him out in the quarters when I have to perform out there.

YENIGUN: For this struggling student, music is what kept him going. Same is true for Mr. V. He's been a music teacher and band director for 16 years. Venable grew up playing music. He learned the trumpet as a kid and eventually picked up the trombone. That cool, collected perseverance Mr. V. has he honed while learning how to play.

VENABLE: Not like I placed up a trumpet and I just started playing like Winton Marsallis, no, that didn't happen. I had my struggles. When I was at home with my mom and dad, I had to go in the yard. Nuh-uh, we don't want to hear that.

YENIGUN: But he stuck with it and went from sputtering in the yard to soloing at his grandmother's 90th birthday party.


YENIGUN: Hearing him rip into his trombone, it's clear he's a good musician. What makes him a great teacher?

VENABLE: It's the joy of working with kids. That's the most pleasure I get.

YENIGUN: Sami Yenigun, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.