Inaugural Parade Meets Battle of the Bands
Having Clinched Coveted Spots, Student Musicians Aim for Bragging Rights

By Nikita Stewart and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dunbar Senior High School's Crimson Tide Marching Pride band was outside yesterday afternoon, stepping through its routines in the cold, when Rodney Chambers's cellphone vibrated.

The band leader hesitated. In recent days, whenever he got a call, he thought it would be the Presidential Inaugural Committee, giving the Northwest Washington school a highly coveted spot in Barack Obama's parade. It never was. This time, he let the phone buzz a few times before taking the call.

Moments later, he halted the practice, right in the middle of N Street. "Guys, I have big news," he announced. "We have been accepted to the inaugural parade!"

The band is among dozens across the country winning a chance to march in the Jan. 20 event. They include the JROTC band at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where the 56 members greeted the news with elation, and Howard University's band, which also celebrated yesterday.

Meanwhile, Walter Harley, music director at Oxon Hill High School, was still waiting by the phone. "No, I'm not nervous at all," he said, as if reassuring himself.

The 2009 parade might have been the toughest competition in inaugural history, sparking jumpiness and jubilation that began Friday when groups began getting the calls inviting them to march along Pennsylvania Avenue.

The parade can only be so long, and the interest was especially high to join in the history of welcoming the nation's first African American president. There were 1,382 applicants, initially whittled to 780 deemed appropriate for a parade. Compare that with 73 groups plucked from 343 applications in 2005. The last time there was such a feverish pitch was during Bill Clinton's first inauguration, when about 500 groups applied.

Even apparent shoo-ins, such as Obama's alma mater, were on edge.

"We were as excited as everyone else," said Carlyn Tani, external relations director of Punahou School in Hawaii. "Our school has never been in an inaugural parade."

Punahou will bring 135 band members, 22 JROTC cadets and six cheerleaders, Tani said.

The winning groups had to impress two reviewing panels -- the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, which collected and winnowed down the applications, and the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which made the final choices.

The judges reviewed DVDs, heartfelt essays and photographs from marching bands, tumbling teams, mounted horse patrols and Boy Scout troops. The Presidential Inaugural Committee emphasized diversity in the picks, wanting every state represented, although Illinois and Delaware, home states of Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., appear to have received a bit of favoritism, based on the numbers so far.

Almost 50 groups had been contacted by Monday, and a few more learned their fates yesterday. Others are still hopeful. About 100 are usually selected.

The parade tradition dates to the country's first inauguration, when George Washington was sworn in April 30, 1789, in New York, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Continental Army soldiers, members of the government and Congress, and residents escorted Washington to Federal Hall for the inaugural ceremony.

Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inauguration and accompanying parade were the first in Washington, according to the committee, and James Madison's in 1809 saw the first organized parade. African Americans did not participate in inaugural parades until Abraham Lincoln's inauguration in 1865.

In making choices, the Presidential Inaugural Committee "looked at the merit of the group, its diversity, the type and level of talent," said Kevin Griffis, the panel's spokesman. It also sought geographic diversity "and what sort of tradition a group would bring to the parade."

Locally, the choices include Dunbar, T.C. Williams, the Howard University Showtime Marching Band, the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets, the Hampton University Marching Force, AmeriCorps Alums and Comfort Carriages of Aquasco.

The selections might have inadvertently intensified longtime rivalries among historically black colleges and universities: The parade could become the ultimate battle of the bands. Besides Howard and Hampton, choices include Delaware State University, Florida A&M University and Grambling State University, historically black universities that meet in competitions each year.

Bragging rights are up for grabs. Howard's longtime band director, John E. Newson, got the word in a call shortly after noon yesterday. "I said, 'Thank you, Lord,' first of all," he said. "The next thing was . . . now we've got to do the hard work."

Newson said the competition among the bands was real, but only during games. Howard's band had never applied to march in the parade in the 22 years he has served as director and associate director.

He said he has heard that Obama is a fan of Stevie Wonder, and the band plans to perform his hit "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" as it passes the reviewing stand near the White House.

Uh, oh. Hampton's planning the same tune.

Who's the best band in the land?

"The Hampton University Marching Force," said Rasan Holmes, assistant director of the 225-member Virginia group, which is making its first inaugural appearance.

The 430-member Florida A&M band last played in an inaugural parade for Clinton's second term. Director Julian White appears to be keeping its song list close to the vest. "We're going to do something very special in the parade. I can't tell you what it is," he said.

At T.C. Williams, senior Taylore Horn, 17, plans to carry the Virginia flag along the parade route. She had been in high school in New Orleans just a week when Hurricane Katrina hit, collapsing her home's roof and sending the family to a new life in Alexandria.

"I want him to see us," Horn said. "I want him to remember us when we pass him."

Staff writers Michael Laris and Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.

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