January 23, 2014 | vol. 95, No. 19

Musicians kick off campaign to boost literacy

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Strumming a standup bass and blowing horns, New Orleans musicians played as actor Wendell Pierce read a children's book, "The Bourbon Street Band is Back," to about 500 elementary school students Wednesday at a public city library.

Associated Press
Ellis Marsalis, left, plays the piano with Glen David Andrews on trombone, Don Vappie on the banjo, Peter Harris on bass, Irvin Mayfield on trumpet, and Shannon Powell on drums, as actor Wendell Pierce reads "The Bourbon Street Band is Back" by Ed Shankman to about 500 elementary school students, at the New Orleans Public Library main branch on Wednesday.

The event marked the kickoff of what's being promoted as a years-long "Turn the Page" literacy campaign to boost reading levels in New Orleans by 2018, the city's 300th birthday.

It was also an attempt to break the world record for the largest reading lesson. The current Guinness world record in the category is 441 participants set by the Read Foundation in Pakistan in April 2013, Guinness spokeswoman Jamie Panas said.

She said it would take up to eight weeks before they know whether New Orleans broke the record and would make it into the Guinness books.

It will take even longer to bring up literacy rates in New Orleans, which is currently ranked the 25th most literate city among the nation's 75 cities with populations of 250,000 or higher, according to a 2012 study conducted by Central Connecticut State University.

The study ranks cities based on research in several areas, including booksellers, educational attainment, library resources and newspaper circulation.

Pierce ("Treme" and "The Wire") told the students that before he ever traveled the world in person, he did so "in books."

"The first time I took a trip was in a book," he said.

Ed Shankman, author of "The Bourbon Street Band is Back," said he was honored to have Pierce read his book.

"You spend your whole life wishing you could do something meaningful for people, and you never know," he said. "We love it that people love our books but had no idea that it was going to be a part of something as important as this."

Shankman, along with the book's illustrator Dave O'Neill, talked to the children about the themes in the book and how to make rhymes. The main theme, he said, is that sometimes in order to understand how much something is appreciated, it has to go away. In the book, New Orleans loses its music. Characters in the book are animals commonly found in Louisiana, such as turtles and alligators.

Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who worked for years after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild the city's libraries and served for a time as chairman of the New Orleans Public Library Board, said music can be a useful tool in getting young people interested in books.

Joining Mayfield for the literacy launch were jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer Shannon Powell, trombone player Glen David Andrews and others. Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, who had also been slated to perform, had a last-minute scheduling conflict and was unable to attend, event organizers said.