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Washington Prep on The Big Stage

washington prep jazz band at the Playboy Jazz Festival

Though Washington Prep’s Jazz Band was commended by the LA Times for their performance at the 1993 Playboy Festival, it’s the story of their transformation which deserves the rave reviews. It is perhaps the most powerful statement taken into evidence, that I have seen as to why our music programs are vital to the survival of our children and our community.

In spite of winning The LA City-Wide Championship and their success at the Hollywood Bowl, Washington Prep’s marching band, along with its director and conductor Fernando Pullum, is starting the new semester with only 57 instruments for over 100 students. Marguerite Lamotte, the high school’s principal (and number one fan), constantly beats the streets for donors as Fernando pointed out, “In the community that we come from (South Central Los Angeles); people are more concerned with feeding their kids, than purchasing horns or private lessons.   Even during the set at the bowl one of the saxes fell apart right before the tenor solo. I felt so bad for the kids. I had to yell for a horn to be passed to our soloist, who performed brilliantly.”

Fernando and his charges have become old hands at adversity after struggling down the road that took them to last year’s Playboy Jazz Festival. When Playboys dream invitation arrived on February 1st, Fernando was faced with the task of converting a marching band into a jazz band. All this had to be accomplished while trying to placate the students who had to sit and watch as the players they shared their instruments with crammed for the concert in June. As Fernando explains the situation created its own share of heroes.  

“This was the first time some of these kids (all but one of them underclassmen) saw a jazz chart. I know for a fact that it was the first time Darone Bowers picked up a bass. They all hung around till 4:00, 4:30 then 5:30 and took all this abuse from me, while all their friends were outside playing.”    Like a football coach who could never betray his sense of admiration for the Herculean efforts of his over matched squad, Fernando withheld his praise till the goal line was in sight. Shortly before the concert, after 5 months of scaring his charges witless, Fernando stood up in front of the band holding a chart. “It says professional up here on the right hand corner. These charts are the real thing there is nothing harder. If you can play these changes there is nothing you can’t do. What is a math or a science problem compared to this.”   In fact the bands trombone player went on to achieve the highest math score in the state on the CTBS proficiency test. “I don’t want or expect all my students to be musicians. But I hope they can use this experience as a building block for success.”

Wynton Marsalis, whose band gave a special command performance at Washington Prep echoed Fernando statements, “Kids are not fed by vague speculative concepts or slogans like “stay in school” or “don’t do drugs”. You must provide pertinent information and espouse philosophies which allow kids to develop. Proficiency in something like music addresses fundamental values like discipline, negotiating your personality with others, math, history and social conceptions. It teaches you that if you develop the necessary tools you can deal and succeed with what is !”

“The reason I’m in South Central LA is because of what my teacher, Marcellus Brown (Chicago State), did for me. Fernando went on to say, “I was into doing all those crazy things in Chicago. All my friends were into gangs. He got me a scholarship to the University of Michigan and when I asked how I could repay him he said, ‘Help ten people.’ That’s what I tell my kids. You can’t rely on anyone else to help. One of our biggest successes was with a gang banger who came out here from New York. He was immediately snapped up by the kids out here because he could fight. They used to terrorize their friends by saying, ‘I’m not coming after you, I’m going to get —— to beat you up. I almost kicked him out of the band. But he turned himself around and became my Drum Major and now he’s got a scholarship to one of the state schools. He has been instrumental in aiding the kids in the present band. Everybody who meets him now, says he’s the finest gentlemen they know.”

The transformation has spread through the entire school. The other kids watch people like Wynton, Bobby Bryant bring their bands in, the success at the bowl and the esteem in which the band members are held and want to become part of it. Junior High students are already dropping by the band room as Fernando points out.

“We need $35,000 to fund next year’s program. As a result we are always putting out the word for donors. Recently one of the jr. high school students came up to me and gave me a twenty dollar bill. Because of the level of sacrifice that young man went through to give that 20 up. That twenty will mean more to me than any 10,000 dollar donation that comes down the line.” What has happened at Washington Prep is only an indicator for the larger community.

“I see a great deal of resources being channeled toward the entrepreneurs who have had their buildings burned during the riots. It was the people who lacked hope or something to believe in who burnt those buildings down. We must invest in those people in the community if we don’t want to repeat our mistake.”

As far as the future of Washington Prep’s Jazz and Marching Band, this year is a coach’s dream, all but one band member will be returning. Or as Fernando puts it, “The City’s in trouble this year.”

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