When Jaren E. Marshall, Jr. puts on his headset, people call him DJ Big Time. He’s 11, a sixth-grader at Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, and one of 10 students who recently got the chance to capture a bit of music history at Preservation Hall.
Just before the omicron variant sent COVID-19 cases soaring across the country, Marshall and his fellow DJs took part in an intergenerational experiment. They visited the jazz landmark in the heart of the French Quarter to listen to live music and interview the older musicians there. The stories they collected will run on Be Loud Radio, a weekly, kid-run show designed to give students a voice — and the confidence that comes with it.
Be Loud Studios was created by Alex Owens and Diana Turner, two teachers who were looking for ways to engage reluctant writers. The organization offers kids a chance to participate in the weekly radio show as well as a variety of after-school programs and summer camps. Whenever possible, staff introduce kids, virtually or in person, to people who are eager to answer their questions about the city’s history and culture.
The field trip to Preservation Hall came at the perfect time. Owens had just completed an intergenerational fellowship program and was looking for opportunities to connect the student DJs with older adults. At the same time, Pamela Blackmon, the development and programming associate at Preservation Hall Foundation, had started to worry about the older musicians, many of whom were socially isolated during COVID.
“It was incredible to see their spirits lifted again,” Blackmon says. “The older musicians love connecting with kids.”
Marshall interviewed Gregg Stafford, a 68-year-old trumpet player who supported his work as a jazz musician by teaching elementary school math for nearly 30 years. Being with the kids from the Be Loud organization “took me right back” to the classroom, Stafford says — and Marshall’s questions took him right back to his roots.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Stafford recalls a pivotal moment at the beginning of his sophomore year in high school that charted his course to becoming a musician. “The elective I wanted wasn’t available,” he says, “but the band instructor just happened to be in the office when I was talking to the principal and he said, ‘Take instrumental music,’ and loaned me a trumpet. I’ve been playing ever since.”
Marshall, who has been DJ Big Time for three years now, says he loves “getting to meet new people and learning about different social problems and things happening in the world.” He particularly enjoys talking with older people — “they give you so much knowledge and wisdom,” he says.
Stafford’s stories are what 11-year-old DJ Rose — a.k.a. Ella Joseph — remembers most from her conversations at Preservation Hall. “That’s the part that stands out to me from the day,” she says. “Getting to learn history through him.”
The importance of connecting with younger generations isn’t lost on Stafford, who visited Preservation Hall multiple times a week while in his 20s and befriended many older musicians whom he later played with. “Every opportunity I get to be with younger generations, I try to instill in them the importance of getting an education and staying out of trouble and working towards their goals,” he says. “Whatever I can give to them and they can carry throughout their life, I think I’ve done what I need to do.”
Owens adds, “In a city [New Orleans] that has a lot of problems, it’s our responsibility to teach [kids] that for all the things that are hard, there are also all these amazing things. We want them to know it’s their responsibility to help capture and share all of those stories that preserve our culture.”
Once the students have prepared their questions, conducted their interviews, and produced them for radio, their confidence soars, Owens says.
Stafford noticed his young interviewer’s self-assurance. “Jaren is very smart and very into what he’s doing,” Stafford recalls. “I told him, ‘You’re gonna go a long way. ’”
As it turns out, Marshall is well on his way: He plays a youth football player in the Netflix family comedy, Home Team, which was shot in New Orleans. He credits the student DJ program with giving him the confidence to audition.