ETHS Band members playing at Palm Court Jazz Cafe in New Orleans Submitted photo

Four coach buses carrying 150 members of the Evanston Township High School band, 40 choir members, five District 202 staff and 14 or 15 adult chaperones pulled away from the school on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 26, and rolled into New Orleans the next day in the wake of the wild holiday for which the city is known.

Mardi Gras 2020, awash with beads and bad behavior, was over; the novel coronavirus had not yet taken hold.

Between those events, the teen musicians had a long weekend – including Feb. 29, Leap Day – to walk, dance, cook, taste, listen and play their way around a town with an exotic vibe and a history and population unique in the U.S. and perhaps, the world.

Matthew Bufis, Director of Bands and Lead Teacher for the Arts at ETHS, says New Orleans, La., (nicknamed NOLA) more than met the objectives that guide his choice of destination and itinerary for the biennial band trip.

  His first goal, he says, is to foster “the social bonds [kids] get from being away” and from “shared experiences on the road.”

The camaraderie and connections Mr. Bufis cultivates on a trip characterize the ETHS band program in general, say Ryan Tharayil, a senior, and Avery Davis, a junior. They sat down with the RoundTable to talk about the trip. Both count fellow musicians as their closest friends. Both say they jump-started their high school careers with summer band before freshman year. “People say when you join the marching band, you walk in [to ETHS] with 100 friends,” Ryan says.

Ryan was entering the high school of 3,000 from a graduating class of 30 at Baker School. Avery says she was coming from Nichols Middle School insecure and shy, with very few friends. By sophomore year, she was the drum major, leading rehearsals and parades.

“[Band] is a place where you belong,” she says.

Mr. Bufis’s second goal for a band trip, he says, is to introduce students to a different culture. New Orleans is a cultural treasure chest – a port at the mouth of the Mississippi River; a mix of white, Hispanic, French, black and Asian racial and ethnic groups; a cache of colorful Cajun, Creole and French customs and cuisine; and, of course, the birthplace of New Orleans jazz.

The New Orleans itinerary left very few cultural stones unturned. The kids started with a Cajun swamp tour (“We got to hold a baby alligator,” Ryan says) and moved on to a World War II museum. Dance lessons were their after-dinner treat. They savored feather-light beignets at Café du Monde and at Mardi Gras World went “backstage” with floats from the Fat Tuesday parade. They visited a slave plantation and a typical cemetery, where the high water table necessitates that the dead be buried in aboveground tombs to keep them from floating away. They danced again on a boat that never left the dock (“It was fun anyway,” Avery says) and watched a demonstration on cooking gumbo. The tour of the French Quarter, with its secret gardens and whiff of mystery, was the highlight for Ryan.

Music, of course, was at the heart of the trip. The band attended a private concert at Preservation Hall, where jazz got its start, and fine-tuned their skills in a clinic with the band director of Louisiana State University.

As he tries to do on every trip, Mr. Bufis arranged for a “unique performance experience.” In New Orleans, the band played a concert in iconic Jackson Square. Designed in 1721, the Square is still the vital hub of the city 400 years later. In the spirit of the place, they played “Dixieland Funeral,” a medley incorporating the traditional “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “When the Saints.”   

The hot sun and the wind blowing the music made the concert ‘’a little crazy,” Avery says (and maybe more memorable). The most extraordinary experience for her was playing her baritone saxophone (Ryan plays alto sax) with the 18-member ETHS jazz band in the famous Palm Court Jazz Café.

Financing the trip is a two-year project that draws in as many students as possible. To keep the cost at $1,000 to $1500 per person, the band tours only in the continental U.S. The kids hold at least four fundraisers in the two years. “We bring in a vendor,” Mr. Bufis says, “and the band usually gets 50% of the profits.” Band members sell some $50,000 of Fannie May candy in the fall and cookie dough and poinsettias for the holidays. In addition, Mr. Bufis says, individual students can apply for 45-70% assistance from a generous fund established by the Unterman family.

It is clear that the band program inspires loyalty. Ryan says, “ETHS would have been much harder without band.” Avery goes farther, saying, “Band defines my high school experience.” For kids committed to music and each other, a trip with their classmates must seem like icing on the cake. Students like Avery and Ryan get to take two trips during high school, theirs to Disney World and NOLA. The plane ride to the theme park was faster and less tiring – but more expensive – than the 18- to 19-hour bus rides to and from The Big Easy. Still, says Avery, “I loved being in New Orleans.” Mr. Bufis says he and his colleagues agree. “It was a wonderful trip,” he says.