When Robert Gill started teaching music at Cardozo High School 10 years ago, the school had no band. Scratchy phonograph records spun the music for sports halftime shows.
But Gill, a Spingarn High School and Howard University graduate, had big plans. He set about to start a 100-piece marching band he could eventually take to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl Parade.
His dream is finally coming true.
In 1970, it was only a fantasy. "I was excited about getting a band started there," Gill recalled. "I can remember putting up signs the first day of school encouraging students to come out for the Marching 100.
"Well, the assistant principal hinted that I might be a little crazy. He assured me I would get more laughs than students."
Gill managed to field 40 people by homecoming that season and 65 people by season's end. The band improved so much the first year it was invited to perform in the Interhigh championship football game at RFK Stadium the following year, and has played there every year since.
Back at the start, the band's struggle was even reflected in the uniforms, much different from today's purple and whites. Those first outfits consisted of white pants, a purple windbreaker and baker hats Gill's wife Mary made.
Dwayne Casey, the band's first team captain, remembers, "We were sort of a joke around the school back there in the early days. The students laughed about our size, our uniforms and our performances." But that was a long time ago.
Since then the Cardozo Marching 130 has made great strides under Gill's guidance, culminating this year in the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl Parade.
The road to Pasadena has had some interesting stops along the way. The band has made its mark in Detroit, Disneyworld, North Carolina and Virginia. It has performed in the Inaugural Parade, the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Apple Blossom Parade. It has entertained both NBA and NFL fans during halftime shows, taking first place awards no less than 20 times.
Gill said the band's constant activity over the years and "the fact that we have won so many awards really got us over" with the Rose Bowl committee.
Although the event is nearly a year away, Gill is already making preparations. He is busy recruiting replacements for the 40 seniors who will graduate in June and hopes to suit up and march 170 people, the largest in the school's history.
Gill, who is also pursuing a master's degree in administrative supervision, said the Rose Bowl affair is overwhelming him. "The cost for the trip, uniforms and everything is astronomical. I don't think a lot of people in this city really understand the magnitude of this whole thing." He calls it "the pinnacle of success for high school bands."
But the success is no fluke. Gill has traveled "to see all the great bands like Grambling, Southern and Florida A&M. I take some of the things I observe from them and combine them with my own to come up with something totally different."
At least 50 of Gill's former students have gone to college on music scholarships. Gill expects that figure to increase in the future.
In recent years, he has been scheduling more band competitions in college settings because "I think that physical exposure to college environments goes a long way in lessening the students' fears and attitudes toward college."
Cardozo's local and national popularity has also prompted more D.C. public schools to emphasize marching and concert bands. Prior to Cardozo's emergence in 1970, McKinley was the only school in the system to field a marching band.
Since then, bands at Woodson and Dunbar are on the rise while Anacostia and Ballou are making some measured progress with their programs.
Jim Wilson, band director at Dunbar, says the success of Cardozo under Gill's leadership has "given the other bands something to shoot for. The fact that they have been invited to the Rose Bowl is really going to have everyone trying to improve their program so they can get a shot in the future."
Although Gill says he is grateful for support the band has received, he sees room for improvement. For instance, "Some of the instruments are not indigenous to marching bands and prevent us from getting maximum performance."
Gill also considers the band's achievements important for students who aren't members. "When I first came here, the football and basketball programs received so much attention for their success that we practically went unnoticed.
"Now the band has given the students something to really be proud of. It gives them a successful accomplishment to identify with."