"People don't support bands like they do in the South," according to Robert Gill, director of Cardozo High School's 170-member "Purple and White" strutters who, in January, will be the District's first high school band to ever step off the Rose Bowl Parade. In Gill's mind, Washington is not a band town.
Oh, but it is!
Despite slashed school budgets that threaten the jobs of several band directors in the District school system, high school bands are bigger, better dressed, and more popular than ever. If not by public support, the popularity of the bands can be measured by student enthusiasm as reflected by their growing size and numbers.
Ten years ago McKinley High School's "Tech Trainers," just less than 100 marchers in new maroon and gray uniforms -- their first real ones -- were considered the high school band. McKinley, most agree, was the only high school band able to compete successfully on regional and national levels in the late '60s and early '70s.
Last year, however, Woodson, Dunbar, Eastern, Cardodzo and McKinley High Schools and Shaw Junior High sent more than 900 horn and drum plalyers, flag teams, pompon girls and majorettes marching down avenues such as Pennsylvania and Constitution, rightfully conceited in high plumed hats, color coordinated outfits and spit-polished white or black shoes.
Washington's bands also participated in parades as far away as Orland's Disney World and New Orlean's Mardi Gras. And any band worth its uniforms suited up last spring for the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va., as big a tradition for local bands as Washington's salute to the cherry blossom.
Perhaps because of the recent celebrity of Cardozo, local high school bands are being invited outside the city. But student enthusiasm reflects their impact at home. Parading onto the field at half time, the band peps up a crowd whose school spirit may as low as the half time score. The overall success of the band can be a barometer for the student body's morale.
"When the band is going good, and the football team is doing all right, then it's going to be a good year," Gill said. "The band is like the heartbeat of the school."
At Shaw Junior High, whose 200 piece band -- including majorettes and flag-twirlers -- rivals any of the District's senior high bands, the influence on the student body is strong.
"The band is a great influence on behavior, attitudes towards learning the total cooperation of all the students at Shaw," according to principal Percy Ellis. "The students have something to identify with. The band is a source of pride."
"We don't brag a lot, even though we have a lot to brag about," Kenneth Sizer, 17, said last week as he waited outside McKinley for band practice to begin. Sizer, the drum major, and band captain John Banks, a senior sousaphone player, talked for an hour about their favorite extracurricular activity.
"Music-wise, this band plays better than any other band here," Banks said.
"The complaint people have against us is that we're small," Sizer sighed. The band had 53 members last year and sometimes McKinley's 50-member pompon squad was bigger than the band.
Band directors Peter Ford, of McKinley, and Charles Hankerson, of Woodson, said musical skill and their band's priority. Both schools have highly regarded music programs.
For Cardoza's Gill, who admits that many in his marching band do not play at high school level, "Music education is not preparing everybody to be a professional musician. Music is a leisure activity for many of these kids."
Band uniforms (about $200 apiece), travel costs and other expenses also are not included in school budgets. Bands, therefore, spend a lot of time raising funds. Cardozo band members will be selling roses outside RFK Stadium during pre-season Redskins games to help raise $119,000 for the trip to Pasadena. Woodson needs $25,000 to send its 150 marchersto the Mardi Gras, a trip McKinley also would like to take.
The bands deppend on bake sales, bazaars, dances and private donations -- for which they usually have to compete, setting the tone for traditional high school rivalry.
"You talking about school spirit? This band's got it," a McKinley band mother boasted.
And from a McKinley saxophone player came a plea: "Yeah, and we need more people to share it with us."