Actress Sandra Bullock is bullish on New Orleans’ Warren Easton Charter High School, whose roots date to 1843, when its predecessor opened as the first public high school for boys in the state. After mergers and name changes over the ensuing 60 years, it gained greater visibility and prominence in 1913 in an impressive new Neo-Gothic building on Canal Street as Warren Easton High School, so named to honor the city and state’s first supervisor of education.
Now celebrating the centennial of its new name and quarters, the school is showcasing its musical prowess with a Jazz Legends Concert Thursday evening, September 5, featuring Warren Easton alums Nicholas Payton and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews in a tribute to fellow Warren Easton student and jazz great Pete Fountain, who will be in attendance.
Designed in the same brick Neo-gothic style as buildings on Loyola University’s early-20th-century St. Charles Avenue campus, Warren Easton has weathered ups and downs in its 100-year history at the site: most recently its near demise after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its miraculous transformation through the interest and activism of Bullock, as well as the support of parents, students and local government.
Event co-chair and Mardi-Gras chronicler Arthur Hardy recalled how the actress became interested in the school.
“She was searching for a non-profit/charity to embrace after Katrina and was referred to us by an attorney friend in Rex, whose outreach program was helping public schools.
She did her due diligence and scheduled a visit and was sold on the value of the school.”
Seven years and several hundred thousand dollars later, the school reflects Bullock’s financial generosity in new college scholarships for students, band uniforms, elaborate video equipment and renovations to the building’s auditorium, where students have performed since the inception of Warren Easton’s musical program in 1921.
This year, Bullock was honored as the People’s Choice Awards “Favorite Humanitarian” for her dedication to Warren Easton, documented in the accompanying video.
You can find Warren Easton graduates as college department heads around the country, at Pat O’Brien’s piano bar, in performance at Carnegie Hall and holding forth on the awe-inspiring stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Acclaimed performers such as Louis Prima, Pete Fountain Al Belletto and Nicholas Payton, New Orleans society bandleaders Rene Louapre and Frankie Mann, and Grammy winner Cosimo Matassa are on the list, Tenor Charles Anthony, who went on to study at Loyola, set an operatic record, being on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera House for 57 seasons.
Graduates who achieved fame and notoriety in other fields include New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro and my uncle, Lowell Damonte, who for four decades taught scores of young New Orleanians to swim.
While a student, he organized the first preparatory school swimming team at Warren Easton, then established the first Audubon Swimming Team at the Audubon Park Pool. In 1959, he did the same at Tulane University, organizing its swimming team and aquatic program. In his 1966 tribute to my uncle after his untimely death at just 58, University President Herbert Longenecker lamented the loss of “Mr. Swimming.”
New Orleans States-Item columnist Hermann Deutsch, in a November 1966 tribute headlined “Damonte Nice Guy Who Finished First,” chronicled his career as a swimmer, beginning at Warren Easton and ending as Tulane’s swimming coach.
“With all that,” Deutsch wrote, “he was never a ‘swimming bum’ as there are golf bums and tennis bums. He did not trade on his repute as an athlete or his prowess in aquatic sports for an easy income.”
Like so many graduates of the school, grateful for the superior education they received, Uncle Lowell gave back to the community throughout his life.
This Thursday evening, you can be the recipient of a variety of musical treasures that Warren Easton alums and students are giving back to us all.
Jazz Legends Concert, September 5th, 8 p.m., Warren Easton Charter High School Auditorium, 3019 Canal St. Tickets, $50, in advance at www.eventbrite.com/7581543601?ref=eweb or at the door.
September 15th, Noon to 2:30 p.m. — Open House at the school
September 16th, 1:00 p.m. — Presentations and speeches in auditorium; 2:00 p.m. –Brick plaza dedication and burying of time capsule in front of school.