It is blistery cold on the 13th Street hilltop in Northwest Washington where Cardozo High School stands, and student drum major Michael Dorsey is drilling the marching 160 again and again. Bare fingers grip chilling brass instruments, silver-colored batons, and flag poles. Never mind the cold.Sunshine is just days away.
This is the final countdown as the high school band gets ready for California and the Rose Bowl Parade.
For weeks Cardozo, the city's premier high school band, has been practicing twice a day, its members going over their march routines, polishing up tunes and running up and down steps like Olympians in training.
With money no longer an object (the $119,000 needed for the trip has already been raised) and their new uniforms pressed and waiting, Cardozo's bandplayers are ready to go, carrying with them their school's tradition of high-stepping showmanship.
"We're going to eat that parade up," said assistant drum major Robert McDougal, 17, who has been counting the days. "We're going to be kicking."
Crowd pleasers" is what they call themselves, and 15-year-old Lisa Hampton, an Eastern High student watching the Cardozo band practice, knows why.
"Eastern is almost as good, but this band is bad," she said, obviously meaning good, as she leaned on a brick school fence. "When Cardozo marches, people run and dance behind them."
"At the Cherry Blossom Parade, police had to move the people back from behind the band so the band could keep up marching," she said. "They were the baddest band in the parade."
For city high school students, being "the baddest" is a good reputation for a school to have, whether that reputation rests on athletics, education or the band.
"Our band builds morale here," said Waverly M. Jones, Cardozo's principal. "Just like other schools boast about their winning football or baseball teams, at Cardozo, we point to our winning band."
Cardozo's foot-tapping routines have repeatedly won praise at the Cherry Blossom parades and made it a first-place winner eight times in 10 years at the annual Safety Patrol Parade, in which all city bands participate. Besides the Rose Bowl Parade, which will be televised New Year's day on all networks (Cardozo will be visible for less than one minute), the band will perform in the Martin Luther King Parade here Jan. 15 and the Inaugural parade Jan. 20.
Being in the band has brought a rich series of new experiences and emotions to its members.
"I remember I was in seventh grade and I saw this band wearing purple and white and I followed them," said McDougal, who lives in Southeast Washington but chose Cardozo over Woodson Senior High nearer home because of Cardozo's music program.
"I was amazed," he said. "The physical presence, the energy was enough to scare a [young] person."
And now he's in the band, and preparing for the "Super Bowl" of college and high school bands.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself, it seems like a dream," said McDougal, who works as a parttime cook at the Hawk 'n' Dove Restaurant on Capitol Hill and saves his earnings for what he calls the trip of a lifetime. He says he looks forward to basking in sunshine in the winter like rich folks, marching in the parade, meeting new people, and flying -- like many of his fellow band members -- for the first time.
"The ladies at church say they are proud of me," he said. "People stop me on the street when I wear my Cardozo button and ask me if I'm from Cardozo."
Antoinette Stewart, 18, a shy flag-carrier from Northwest Washington, with hair in corn rows, said: "Marhinc makes me feel proud. You can see the crowd's reactions. I see little girls watch me and I think about myself when I was little, and how I wanted to be in a band."
She works six days a week at Popeye's fried chicken restaurant at 14th and I Streets NW, saving her money for the upcoming trip, and to support herself. Both parents are deceased.
Eric Ferebee, 16, is another band member who does not duck the rigorous training that band director Robert Gill likens to a football practice. Ferebee travels an hour by bus and subway on weekdays and two hours on weekends to get to Cardozo from his Burns Street SE home and have Gill drill him and the other members in difficult maneuvers and songs again and again.
"I catch the V-4 or Alabama and H Street SE bus to Potamac Avenue to catch the Metro," Ferebee said. "Then I take the Metro to the Metro Center, where I get off and catch the Ft. Totten or 11th and Monroe bus that drops me off a few blocks from the school. I do that because I want to march for Cardozo."
Pride and the band's reputation keep the students coming. Gill, a Washington native and a Spingarn Hill-Howard University alumnas, harnesses their restless energy and teaches them music and discipline.
"We've been able to capture the energy of these kids, who have few outlets to release that energy," Gill said. "We work them so much that the band becomes the center of their high school lives. We laugh together, we cry together."
"Growing up is a very confusing time, a time of approaching adulthood, and thinking about the future," he says. "For some of them, if they weren't in the band, they wouldn't come to class."
Gill hopes that the students can use the music education, band travel and discipline to rise above the negative influences in their inner city communities, just as athletes often have used their sports as their tickets out.
"For many of these kids, music is inspiration," said Ronnie Joyner, Gill's volunteer assistant for the parade and a Cardozo drum major from 1973 to 1975. "It caused me to go through high school to college and into music."
Joyner is now the band director at Natural Bridge High School near Lexington, Va.
Gill reaches his students by linking the band to experiences the students have had. He watches the way the teenagers dance at parties, and puts some of their own dance steps in the bands routines.
And he sweetens such staid band standbys as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," with popular songs like, "The Way We Were," and disco soul tunes from Earth, Wind and Fire, the Jacksons, and Diana Ross -- some of the 12 songs they will perform at the Rose Bowl Parade. The band's favorite is Ross's, "The Boss."
"We go to Jet Magazine's top 20 songs and we pick a song by a popular artist at number 12 or so," Gill said. "By the time its number 4, 3, or 2 on the charts, we're playing it."
"I go to see all the great university and college bands like Grambling, Southern and Florida A & M," Gill said. "I take some of the things I observe from them and combine them with my own to come up with something different."
Washington's black high school marching bands follow the marching traditions of traditionally black southern schools such as Southern University and Florida A & M. Cardozo's favorite is Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., last year's show-stopper at the Tournament of Roses, according to parade officials.
High school marching bands average about 125 steps per minute, but Gill has Cardozo marching at about 136 steps per minute, each step bringing the knees waist high. When they play and march, band members hold their elbows shoulder-high, swaying the instruments side to side. In new uniforms bought with donations from the Washington community, their performance in California will be a kaleidescope of marching, twirling, and dancing purple and white.