Strike Up the Band
In Step with the Baltimore Westsiders
"Group, attention!" she commands.
Out of this one moment of silence--the only one that Greene, the Westsiders' 44-year-old executive director, can count on--comes an explosion. She triggers it by throwing three fingers in the air. Dozens of white boots clack the pavement in a cool, swinging, jazzy beat.
The Baltimore Westsiders are not a traditional marching band. There's no military-style, hut-two-three-four marching. The musicians do not stare straight ahead or don Sgt. Pepper's finery. They don't have a brass section, or a woodwind section, or a row of glockenspiels. Other than one steady horn player, the Westsiders' music section consists of drums--about 25 boys and men and two women, including Greene's daughter, 21-year-old Carla Brown.
Instead, this band dances. Even when the members are supposedly just marching, they're swinging their hips. And when they get that thunderclap of a cue, they bust a move--or rather, lots of moves. They vogue, they flex, they throw their hands in the air like they really do care.
The Westsiders aren't just about booty-shaking, though. They're creating a celebration. Look at their proud, pursed-lip faces, from the teenagers to the toddlers in the show-stealing Tiny Twos section. The only thing that cracks their game faces into smiles is hearing their names called by their friends or mothers over the parade din.
You can hear their pride when they burst into the Westsiders' theme song:
All the other groups were marching down the block
They saw red and white and all the music stopped.
They put on their drums and they came on out their cut
and this is how we carry it.
What's up? What's up?
Noah Holmes is only 2 years old, but he already knows what's up. There he is at band practice, standing shin-high to the pounding drummers. He follows along behind the towering teenagers, beating a toy snare drum about the size of a hatbox, turning the tub sideways to imitate his bass-drumming elders.
"The making of the Westsider," Greene says about Noah, before whizzing off to talk to a squad of girls.
Since their founding in 1962, the Westsiders have been pulling in generations of Baltimoreans. The band was started by Greene's parents, Rosemont residents Jeff and Dorothy Pitts, to give kids something to do during the summer. Jeff Pitts had organized Boy Scout troops and Little League teams and coached a championship softball team, but he knew nothing about creating a marching band. He persuaded an Army veteran who knew a few drilling steps to school his new recruits in marching, and the two men and about 15 kids would practice at the end of Winchester Street. They called themselves the Westside Cadets.
While the teenage Cadets wore a groove in Winchester Street and her mother sewed uniforms with other neighborhood parents, an envious young Corlis sat on the steps of her parents' home. She was told that she wasn't old enough to join the Cadets, though at age 8, she was allowed in to the band's honor guard. It didn't pacify her.
"I used to be so jealous of [the Cadets]," Greene says. "I told them, 'I'm going to be here [in the band] when you're gone.'"
The tiny Westsider group made its first showing at the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1964 and caused quite a stir, Jeff Pitts recalls. Baltimoreans were used to seeing formally dressed marching bands of adults and high schoolers, he says, but had never seen a community band of African-American teenagers. The result was an onslaught of parents who wanted their kids to join up with the family-run Cadets.
By the mid-'60s, the Westsiders were 250 marchers strong, featuring members of all ages. Their drums could be heard almost daily on Winchester Street.
"Everybody in my neighborhood basically came to the Westsiders," says 36-year-old Danean Cameron, who grew up in the band; today she marches alongside her two children, who perform in the dance squad. "It was, like, the thing to do."
Many people who didn't join the Westsiders were inspired to join bands like it. Since the novice Westside Cadets first hit the streets, about 20 community bands have popped up in the city, including the Marquis, the Firebirds, the Cherry Hill Cherrettes, and the Baltimore Rockers. They range from loosely organized outfits that march in street clothes to the mighty and flamboyant New Edition, the Westsiders' biggest rival. "They are the beginning of an era," says Larry Brockington, a one-time Westsider who now drums in New Edition. "The whole west side knows about them."
Many Westsiders veterans were in strollers when they first saw the band; today their own kids proudly don Westsider red and white. Though the band draws members from not just the city but also Baltimore County, the Westsiders remain a rite of passage for Rosemont families. "Like my great-granddaughter," co-founder Dorothy Pitts says. "I pushed her, she would get out of the stroller and walk for a little bit and dance a little bit, and then she had to go back and get into the stroller."
Such continuity and Pied Piper power--inspiring children to literally dance before they can walk--is what has built the Westsiders' tradition. And nowhere is the Westsiders' power more potent than in the story of its founding family.
Soon after founding the Cadets, Jeff and Dorothy Pitts recognized they had something much bigger than a marching band. They had something that competed with the growing allure of the streets. As one current band parent puts it, "For some people, the Westsiders are the most sane thing in their family right now. To take that from them is to throw them out in the wolves."
There is something about putting on that Westsider uniform, says Dorothy Pitts, who exudes the pride of someone who has spent a lifetime of community building. "They want to be a part of something, and when they are on the street, when they put on their red and white . . . they think they own the street," she says. "They cross the street and they simply stop traffic. Sometimes you'll hear me say [to them], 'Y'all don't stop traffic. You're just crossing the street to get to the parade.'"
The Westsiders offer some inner-city kids who have never left Baltimore a chance to travel. Many get to see the ocean for the first time as a Westsider. The group goes to parades in Philadelphia and Virginia--any trip that gets the kids out of Baltimore for the day. Meanwhile, the members' parents raise money by holding pizza parties and the like to buy musical equipment and pay the way for kids who can't afford the dues, uniforms, or bus money. (Today, including dues, uniform, and bus fares, it costs about $300 to get started as a Westsider.)
The band and the opportunities it offers have opened up a new world to many members. "For me, [traveling to] Washington, D.C., was a big thing," says Cameron, who benefited from sponsorship as a kid.
In the old days, young band members, fearing that their own parents wouldn't wake in time to make the early-morning bus for road trips, would gather at the Pitts house, sleeping on the floor the night before a parade.
Today, sitting in their home filled with plaques commemorating their decades of service to the Westsiders (including one from then-U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and another from President Clinton), Jeff and Dorothy Pitts talk about how parental involvement fell off dramatically in the '80s and '90s; how a two-parent family is a rarity these days; and how some of the city's parents need more help than their children do.
"We have kids in our group from our neighborhood . . . the Westsiders is all that they have," Dorothy Pitts says. "They have parents that have no interest in them, don't know what travel is. They don't know what companionship is. . . . So you try to put them in a good environment in the hopes that you can show them a different way other than standing on a street corner."
Jeff Pitts says grandmothers are playing a larger role than ever in raising the children he sees. He walks outside and looks up Winchester Street; nearly all of the neighborhood's established families have moved away, he notes. "Where can you go?" he asks. "You can't run from the kids."
Getting swept up into the Westsiders' momentum has been salvation for some people. The Westsiders were there for the Pitts' daughter Corlis, who at age 20 got pregnant, just after successfully auditioning for the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Harlem. The band was there for Corlis' daughter, Carla--who, despite much musical talent, fell into Baltimore's drug culture for three years.
The Westsiders were there for Tangia Rogers when she became a single mom. Her daughter, Kiahanna Miles, now 8, is a youth leader in the Westsiders junior pompom section, and her mother serves as the band's record keeper and marches in parades. "You may be marching up and down the street," with your children, Rogers says, "but you are still spending that quality time."
And the band was there for Vonvelle Saunderlin, now a 29-year-old professional drummer in Los Angeles. Not only did the Westsiders give him "something to focus on" in a crime-ridden neighborhood, he says, but the band rallied around him when he successfully fought cancer. "The group always gave me a lot of warmth and support, even while I was away," says Saunderlin, who gives drumming lessons to the other Westsiders when he's in town.
Today the Westsiders are there for a 15-year-old girl who had a baby this year and figured her marching days were over, until her godmother ordered her to stop moping and get back to her dance squad.
"You need to do something," says Melinda Allen, herself a mother of three Westsiders, recalling the pep talk she had with her goddaughter. "There is more to life than sitting home and brooding onto yourself."
Corlis Greene, who has been the Westsiders' executive director for three years, says the secret to keeping the kids involved is to give them a say. She lets the young paraders choose the music and choreograph their own steps, although she reserves the right to delete moves that she deems too raunchy. She also has brought some of the older children onto the adult committees that pick parades and uniforms. And when necessary, the kids form committees to discipline their peers for bad behavior, although Greene says she reserves the right "to be Judge Judy."
Greene is a mother figure for many of these kids. She lectures bluntly about sex, doling out condoms and bringing in her brother, who has AIDS, to talk to the young Westsiders. She has brokered more than one peace deal in troubled households.
Although the Westsider way can seem like, as Saunderlin describes it, a "mini boot camp," practices are refreshingly chaotic. There are no adults with whistles demanding order. Kids shriek as they practice dance steps. The parent leaders stand knee-deep in children going over twists, stretches, and shakes. In all of the parades, a group of parents walks the route, taking up Greene's cue when she says, "Shake those hips, girls."
"With the parents so involved," Rogers says, "there's a feeling we're all on the same boat and we're all rowing."
The Westsiders aren't simply a way to keep kids out of trouble, though, or introduce them to the world beyond Baltimore. They're a means of artistic expression, one that's grown organically over the years.
Dorothy Pitts has come to realize that this extracurricular activity called the Westsiders has created its own musical tradition. "You are entering a whole new way of marching and music," she says. "These kids pick up songs over the radio. They make steps to go along with that music. . . . What they are doing is totally different. It's their own culture that they are flaunting."
It's hard to tell just how unique the Westsiders are among the nation's marching bands. After all, the South--particularly the Creole neighborhoods of New Orleans--has a long, rich tradition of flamboyant street ensembles. But two years ago, the Westsiders were invited to march in the Big Easy, and even in that parade-loving city the Baltimoreans stood out, with the group's inclusion of little kids and emphasis on dance. The New Orleans crowd paid the band the ultimate compliment by following it down the street.
"I think it was a different style than they were used to," says Quachelle Gray, one of the Westside Sparkles, the band's elite dance troupe. "We found that [the New Orleans bands] were amazing, and they looked at us like we were amazing."
Saunderlin has long since left the Westsiders to drum for such acts as Dr. Dre, Branford Marsalis, and TLC. Yet after traveling the world, he insists that his old marching band still stands out, with its inclusion of all ages and its fearless expression. "What separated us from other groups is the freedom of being creative," he says. "Other marching bands and groups have certain restrictions on how their performance can come off, where the Westsiders was pretty much open. . . . It was kind like we dared to put something new out there."
Young Corlis Pitts, a middle child with four brothers, was used to scrapping for what she wanted. And she wanted to join the Westside Cadets.
If she couldn't join 'em, she vowed, she'd beat 'em. She'd start her own group. In the early '70s, in her mid-teens, she founded the High Steppers, a Westsider squad that performed routines with walking sticks. Corlis held auditions and then demanded perfection from her recruits during parades. In no time, she became someone to be heeded. "I was a fighting child," she says.
One girl had the unfortunate habit of slapping Corlis' face with a pompom; Corlis eventually set her tormentor straight with a punch in the nose.
She would temper herself only slightly when facing down adults. When a mother came to Corlis raging because her child didn't make the High Steppers, Corlis just looked at her and said, "Well, I suggest you take your child out of the group because--guess what?--your child ain't nothing but pompom material."
Such adolescence fury only began mellowing when the young taskmaster started taking dance at Walbrook Senior High School and at the YWCA under Nilo Toledo, who had performed on Broadway in a production of West Side Story. Corlis saw no reason why she shouldn't share her new moves with her friends in the band. So she and her High Steppers came out with a marching dance called "Funk It." (Greene's dancers still perform the high-kicking routine, which she acknowledges has more in common with the Rockettes than '70s funk.)
Dorothy Pitts remembers that when her daughter's High Steppers hit the street with "Funk It," the crowd was stunned. After a year of parades, the crowds began yelling out requests for dance steps--and the Westsiders' trademark style was born.
If the Westsiders got the crowd to recognize the dance or the song, Corlis realized, then the crowd was theirs. Happy to feed the demand, she started pulling songs from the radio and finding inspiration in TV jingles along with the formal steps picked up in class. She and her friends designed a whole routine based on Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video for a Halloween parade in Boydentown, N.J.
By the time "Thriller" had swept the nation, though, the band members had more than dance steps on their minds. In the '80s, drugs and other woes ripped the fabric of the community. Many of the Cadets who once triggered jealousy in young Corlis have died prematurely, gone to prison, or wound up victims of drugs or domestic violence.
"I still see some of them now," Greene says. "They are walking around like mummies. They looked bad, and I was bound and determined that I was not going to ever get hooked up on the drugs. That I would ever look like that."
Greene may blast orders like a drill sergeant. She may lay down the law about taking unauthorized sips of water during a parade. She may lecture kids about showing up on parade day with nappy hair. She may throw open the doors of the Westsiders' HQ, the Winchester Armory in Rosemont, and send the surprised marchers into an impromptu neighborhood promenade. She may herd the huffing and puffing band members back into the armory and warn them that the season's about to start. She may nag them to get in shape for the granddaddy of the events on their schedule, the African-American Day Parade in New York's Harlem, a 31-block endurance test. She may warn the kids who can't keep up, " We're going to step right over you and keep on going."
But Greene's toughness doesn't stand a chance against her heart. For every scold, there's an infectious smile. She's constantly greeted by hugs and chased around by kids calling her name. When her boyfriend proposed to her last year in front of the group--just as Greene called, "Group, attention!"--the band pleaded, "Yes, Ms. Corlis! Ms. Corlis, say yes!" When she married Phenizee Greene last year, the Westsiders stood at attention outside Payne Memorial AME Church in the rain. As soon as the vows were exchanged, Greene skipped the reception, went outside in her veil and gown, and danced with the band as her attendants foolishly tried to keep up with her.
The woman who urges young Westsiders not to have children had a child of her own just as she had a chance to begin a career as a dancer. But after nearly 40 years of seeing hundreds of children go through the Westsiders, Greene says her sense of purpose nixes any regrets. An assistant project manager for a private security firm at the Social Security Administration, she now has four children, all leaders in the marching band. Tanika, 24, the oldest, marches by Greene's side, serves as an activity manager, and is being groomed as her successor. David Bose, 16, is the squad leader of the Sparkles, the Westsiders' elite dance squad. Twelve-year-old Angelo "Bird" Johnson is a snare-drumming maestro. But Carla is the one who almost got away.
When Carla dropped out of school and was drawn into street life, her mother lectured her. Greene tried to use herself as an example, pointing out that she resisted the lures of the street. In the end, Greene says, all she could tell her daughter was, "When you realize that everything that looks good to you isn't good for you, I'll be here."
But Carla Brown had to learn the hard way. She wound up involved in the city's drug trade. The more money she made, the more trouble she saw--culminating in 1997 with a friend getting shot to death.
A year and a half ago, Corlis Greene's prodigal daughter returned home, in what she describes as a teary reunion. "I told her everything she left, the band, me, is still here," Greene says. Then she told her daughter the band is full of young people who need guidance. The music section, she said, is looking for some new songs, a new identity, a new energy.
Greene told her child, "I took over the group and I'm looking at all of you to take over when I leave. That means you got to learn responsibility. You got to stick in there."
And Brown has risen to the challenge. Lately she's been on a tear, teaching the music section a new song every week. On one recent afternoon, while she sits at home drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and transcribing a Janet Jackson song, "All for You," off a CD, her brother Bird comes in from school and immediately gets to work--banging away on phone books, grabbing some Doritos, and sneaking peeks at the cartoons blazing away on television. In no time, he nails his rhythm part and then works out a hook on a toy keyboard. Brown says she would love to see the Westsiders start up a horn section, like in the old days. It would make it easier to arrange songs, she says. Right now, all they can do is divide a song's tracks--the guitars, bass, vocals, and strings--among the percussion instruments. Some of the songs just don't work.
"If they don't recognize the song," she laments, "it's just another beat."
But fate hands her a gift later that day at practice, when two former Westsider horn players return to the armory. The sight of the veterans sends the music section into a comical stepping session. They march toward the grinning horn players, chanting, "What's up? What's up"
The bass-drum players swing their oversize gear like elephant trunks. The snare line goes wild, hitting cymbals held up to them by young, sullen-faced kids who are dying to get their own drums. The entire drum section surrounds the horn players, who would change the whole dynamic of the band if they made the practice sessions regularly. But they don't.
Greene notes the irony that now it's her daughter who is tearing into some poor soul who's missed one practice too many. "Tradition," she says, "has a way of going on."
All it takes is for Greene to throw her fingers up in the air in the form of a W, and there comes a thunderhead pounding.
The James Mosher Parade may not have the citywide visibility of the Preakness Parade, nor does it give the band a big payday (like the $1,300 it's making by busing down to this year's Fourth of July parade in Fairfax, Va.). But the Mosher processional, tied to the Little League season's opening ceremony, is on Westsider home turf. Three other bands, including the New Edition, are marching this May 28. The Westsiders bring up the rear.
The band takes up the whole street and climbs an Edmondson Avenue hill. People step off the sidewalk and walk the route alongside the band, like they do in New Orleans. People cheer, "Go Westsiders!"
In response, the music section slows down to a crawl, soaking up all the energy. The drummers close in tight. Led by one trumpeter, they execute a stylish one-step slide that would make west-side native son Cab Calloway proud. One after another, the dance squads pull out their steps and break out the chant, "Some people say we dance too much." They hit the pavement in a fly-girl push-up pose, as if this was the grand finale. But it's not, and the band has violated the Westsiders' cardinal rule: Don't throw down all your moves to the first cheering crowd you see.
The grand finale lies three-quarters of a mile away on a baseball field. Three bands give long, drawn-out performances along the third-base line. The fields are packed. The sole ice-cream vendor is making a fortune. And by the time the Westsiders appear, the advantage they enjoy by closing the show seems like a liability with this weary crowd.
But wait--the Westsiders unleash their secret weapon. Out come the steppers, the drummers, and--looking like a Lilliputian, lagging behind in the vast outfield--here comes tiny Noah Holmes, swinging his oversize sticks. (His mother slips him in at the last minute.) The ploy works, and the crowd yells, "Look at that little boy!"
The little drummer boy's mother couldn't be prouder. "You know, it really touched me, to see him doing it," Sherrie Holmes says. "It kind of puts tears in my eyes."
Despite the Westsiders' show-stealing performance, Greene has words for the group at the next practice. One of the drummers had put his drums down early, making the rest of the band look bad. One of the dance squads started squabbling during the parade over a miscue. Public bickering won't be tolerated, she tells them.
"I saw there wasn't a lot of love out there," Greene says later. "There was a lot of friction. They were arguing with each other at the parades. We don't do that. Keep it until the end of the parade, and we'll deal with it."
Carla Brown sits in her car as the Westsiders ready themselves to go off to the Cadillac Parade, which heads down Pennsylvania Avenue this June day. It's pouring down rain. Even though the Westsiders see the rain as a reprieve from marching in the hot sun, the way these drops crash into the windshield makes even a vet like Brown laugh.
She's in a pensive mood. She talks about the old days, when her friend got shot, when things started going wrong for her on the street. She talks about the first time she showed up at band practice after her hiatus and noticed that a lot of the old-timers had left, gone off to school, or gotten jobs. The younger players who remained were trying the best they could, she says, but they needed someone to lead them. They needed some new songs.
But most importantly, she recalls, she saw that these young people were ripe to head down the same road she did.
"I wanted to show them that it's still worth being here," she says. "I wanted to put a root down for this group so I can have it when I get older. It was like coming down here and watching them try so hard, but nobody was here to lead them, teach them, and tell them what they're supposed to do. I just started getting involved in them."
Brown is about to keep on talking, but suddenly someone knocks on the window and yells that she is about to miss the bus. She takes off across the parking lot to the school bus that's waiting to rush to the parade. It doesn't matter that the rain is already creating a flash flood and her mother just might yell, "Group, attention!" before an empty street. None of it matters. The Baltimore Westsiders are marching for themselves.
Check out video footage of the Westsiders in action on www.citypaper.com.
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