SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France – Newly graduated St. Augustine High School Marching 100 snare drummer Brandon Mitchell also keeps the beat for the 110 Brass Band. He knows a thing or two about authentic New Orleans brass band music.

So he was as shocked as anyone to hear a credibly funky version of the Rebirth Brass Band’s “Rebirth Got Fire” at the conclusion of Saturday’s D-Day Memorial Parade in Sainte-Mère-?glise, the first French village liberated by the Allies in 1944.

He was even more stunned by the source of that “Fire”: the Voodoo Orchestra, a high school band from Utah wearing World War II-style khaki military uniforms.

After three days of early mornings, long bus rides and high-profile, tightly scripted performances – including a starring role in the D-Day parade – Mitchell and his bandmates were ready to let loose.

Watch: St. Aug Marching 100, Utah’s Voodoo Orchestra create New Orleans magic in France

Thanks to the Voodoo Orchestra, the Marching 100 went from being entertainers to being entertained via a spontaneous moment of New Orleans-style joy 4,700 miles from home.

'Are you ready?'

Saturday started as a fairly normal day for the Marching 100, if rolling around the Normandy region of France during D-Day's 80th anniversary week with a traveling party of 150-plus is “normal.”

They woke up early in the town of Deauville and boarded three chartered buses for the two-hour drive to Sainte-Mère-?glise. Darrence Anderson, a rising junior and member of the band’s honor guard, asked band director Ray Johnson Jr. about rumors they would “battle” the Morgan State University Band.

“I don’t know about that,” Johnson said. “But whatever happens, happens. That’s not the question. The question is, are you ready?”

They were ready to march in parade formation instead of standing still in concert formation, as they had Thursday at the Brittany American Cemetery and Friday on a stage in the Sainte-Mère-?glise town square.

Passing the Airborne Museum just outside Sainte-Mère-?glise, the St. Aug convoy encountered traffic. “Too many people,” complained the Italian-born guide aboard Bus 2.

Marching 100 staffer Donald Neveu begged to differ: “This ain’t nothing – come to Mardi Gras.”

No one could confuse the D-Day Memorial Parade with Mardi Gras.

The route was roughly six blocks, not six miles. There were no ladders or cotton candy-laden shopping carts, only quaint French houses of stone, and mostly sober people. And no floats, just marching groups.

Several Marching 100 parents traveled to France to see their sons in action abroad. Zoe Domino-Thomas and Larry Thomas wanted to witness their son Leland Thomas’ final march as a drum major.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Domino-Thomas, whose two older sons were also St. Aug Purple Knights in the band. “I’ve been a Purple Mom for 10 years. I promised everybody I wasn’t going to cry.

“I’m just so proud of all the boys. I’m happy to be here to support them. This is my last hurrah. We’re going out with a bang.”

Lashanda Prevost and Stepheny Andrews stood near the Sainte-Mère-?glise town hall. They had hoped to see their respective sons, Sean Johnson Jr. and Luke Andrews, perform Friday at the Normandy American Cemetery, only to arrive and discover the ceremony had been canceled.

“We’ve been tracking them down all week,” Andrews said.

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Soldiers make their way off the parade route as members of the St. Augustine Marching 100 line up in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France on Saturday, June 8, 2024 for the D-Day Memorial Parade. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

So, too, was Dia Napolitano, who grew up in the Garden District watching the Marching 100 at St. Charles Avenue and Eighth Street. “We would always hope that the parade would stall in front of us so we could hear them play,” Napolitano said.

She happened to be visiting friends in Normandy this week. “We were so excited to hear the Marching 100 would be here for the 80th commemoration of D-Day,” said Napolitano, who staked out a spot along the town square. “What an opportunity for these young men.”

The drum majors almost bungled it. For several tense minutes, they couldn’t find their all-important maces. Panicked, they were about to empty the bus luggage compartments when the symbols of their status turned up in an equipment truck.

Without them, they “wouldn’t have been drum majors,” noted St. Aug president and CEO Aulston Taylor. “They would have been walkers.

"You should have seen their faces 10 minutes ago.”

They recovered in time for Johnson’s pre-parade pep talk. “Eighty years ago on these very streets, people died for freedom,” Johnson said. “Y’all are marching on these streets right now. Soak that in.”

As the Marching 100 warmed up, members of the Jacksonville State University Marching Band applauded.

“That’s the fun of it,” Johnson said. “That’s why we do it. Musical respect.”

A last hurrah

The parade rolled right on time at 2 p.m. The Marching 100, the third band in line, stepped out smartly with the military “March Grandioso.”

Maybe it was the relief from finding their maces, or maybe it was the realization that this was their last hurrah, but the five drum majors threw themselves into the role. They maybe jumped a little higher and swung their maces a little harder than usual.

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Band director Ray Johnson Sr., center, and other band leaders congratulate the drum majors who were about to walk in their last parade as members of the St. Augustine Marching 100 in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France on Saturday, June 8, 2024 for the D-Day Memorial Parade. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

Barely 30 minutes after it started, it was over. The Marching 100 wrapped up back in the staging area with Toto’s “Hold the Line," then started to pack up their instruments.

That’s when the Voodoo Orchestra swung around the corner with “Rebirth Got Fire.”

With 30 or so members, the Voodoo Orchestra is one of several bands within Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse, a music program for high school students in the Salt Lake City area. Each band has a different style.

As soon as the Voodoo Orchestra reached the staging area, members of the Marching 100 gathered around and started dancing. The energy surged higher with “I’ll Fly Away,” a New Orleans second-line standard. Everybody sang along with abandon.

The spirit was contagious. In their sharp black suits, the nine St. Aug band staffers were all business during the parade, sternly leading the way. But they now cut loose, too. Assistant band director Darren Rodgers Jr. waved his hands in the air. Ray Johnson, smiling broadly, pulled Chapman in for a selfie.

Brandon Mitchell, the Marching 100 and 110 Brass Band drummer, lent a hand on the Voodoo’s bass drum. Were the Utah musicians really as good as they sounded?

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Members of the St. Augustine Marching 100, Utah's Voodoo Orchestra, and the Riverwood Hornets of Australia embrace each other for a group photo after they all sang, danced, and played music together following the Memorial D-Day Parade in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France on Saturday, June 8, 2024. (Photo by Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

“They were,” Mitchell said later. “I was surprised myself.”

Musicians from Longview High School in Texas jumped into the joyous scrum. So did the Riverwood Hornets Cadet Band from Australia. Bigger Hornets hoisted a smaller colleague on their shoulders.

Kaden Larm, the Voodoo Orchestra’s 18-year-old alto saxophonist, uncorked a spicy extended solo in “I’ll Fly Away” that earned a high-five and bro-hug from the Marching 100.

As the moment finally wound down, New Orleans city council member Eugene Green Jr., St. Aug class of ’76 and a Marching 100 alumnus who has been traveling with the band in France, extended what sounded like an official invitation to Chapman: “You WILL be coming to Mardi Gras!”

The St. Aug musicians needed to change ahead of a four-hour bus ride to Paris. The Normandy segment of their historic journey had ended on an extremely high, and unexpected, note.

“The spirit of camaraderie….it brings tears to your eyes,” said Edwin Batiste Jr., a chaperone on the trip and father of Marching 100 trumpeter Edwin Batiste III.

“Who would have thought that we would have a second-line in northwestern France?”

Email Keith Spera at kspera@theadvocate.com.

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