Eastern High Marching Band’s Capitol Hill parades delight DC residents

The mostly low-income kids in the Eastern High School Marching Band are loved by the mostly wealthy DC homeowners who witness their practice

Eastern High School band director James Perry, right, gives direction to students as they march through the Capitol Hill neighborhood in preparation for homecoming and the school's 100th anniversary.
Eastern High School band director James Perry, right, gives direction to students as they march through the Capitol Hill neighborhood in preparation for homecoming and the school’s 100th anniversary. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Rush hour traffic ground to a halt as the high school band director walked backwards into the busy Capitol Hill intersection, followed by a line of teenagers clutching trombones, trumpets, French horns and flutes. That tuk-tuk-tuk of bass drums echoed in the damp October air.

“Straight ahead, band, you gotta look straight ahead,” James Perry, director of the Eastern High School Marching Band, shouted to the students through his megaphone.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey!” they sang back.

Eastern High’s homecoming and a celebration of the school’s 100th anniversary were just days away, and the 65-member band — known as “The Blue and White Marching Machine” — was rehearsing for a performance Saturday that would draw hundreds of Eastern students, parents and alumni.

Now they followed a familiar path, down A Street NE toward Lincoln Park, delighting neighbors and anyone else who happened upon them.

Almost everyone pulled out their cell phone to record the band as it passed. With four students across, they went all the way.

The Eastern High School marching band practiced their performance ahead of their homecoming on Capitol Hill on October 6. (Video: Lizzie Johnson/The Washington Post)

People cheered and shouted encouragement from their front corners, car windows and the small tables set up outside the local coffee shop, Wine & Butter. Kids chased teenagers down the block. Sometimes passing patrol cars turned on their lights and blocked oncoming traffic so students could pass safely.

Only the dogs weren’t fans. They lunged at the ends of their leashes or huddled behind their owners, unsure.

But Perry, 41, who also works as a meeting supervisor at Eastern, didn’t take it personally. He chalked it up to the drums.

As the students walked high down the street, over wet leaves and under a sky of dwindling rain clouds, the driver of a black Toyota Camry rolled down his window and looked out. A woman smoking a cigarette, blue handbag slung over one shoulder, paused on the sidewalk and stared.

“Hello band?” Perry shouted.

“HHH!” they shouted.

They passed million-dollar townhouses decorated for Halloween, with pumpkins dipped on porch steps and gauze ghosts frozen on lawns. A small child pressed against the front door of a home, his breath misting the glass.

Nearby, Katie Telligman, 42, put on a warm jacket and stepped outside her home to better hear the music.

“This has been one of the biggest things we’ve discovered since we moved to this street five years ago,” said Telligman, who works in communications and has lived on Capitol Hill since 2002.

For a while, the pandemic had disrupted these impromptu parades. Now the neighborhood appreciated them even more.

“We’ve seen some of the kids grow up,” Telligman said. “It’s so unique and brings joy to people’s lives. They don’t put this on the real estate ads for the street, but they should. Where else in DC can you find this?”

‘The Pride of Capitol Hill’

In room W01, Perry aimed to give her students something they couldn’t always find elsewhere at Eastern High — a place to dream.

Eastern’s 735 students, nearly all black and most from poor families, face obstacles that the wealthy residents surrounding the school rarely experience. Eastern has long struggled with low test scores, high absenteeism and teacher burnout.

She and her twin were inseparable. Then a gunman tore the 15-year-olds apart.

But in the band room, the teenagers felt they had a chance to strive for more.

“The most important thing is family and new opportunities,” explained Marcelle Hodge, 17, a senior trombonist. “It’s more than I would have had in other programs. I want to get good grades, go to college and get out of my neighborhood. I’m thinking about Texas Southern.”

Perry, who played alto saxophone in Norfolk State University’s band, knows such a thing is possible. Recent graduates of Eastern’s program have received scholarships to Columbia, Florida A&M, Mississippi State and other universities — places where he tries to take students to band competitions to show them what’s possible.

What is not covered by a student’s scholarship is supplemented by care packages from their musical alma mater. The boxes from the band arrive stuffed with detergent, socks and underwear, towels, deodorant and other universal children’s essentials.

Many of Perry’s students “come from tough backgrounds and deal with a lot at home,” he said. For 15 years, he has led the program, which includes younger students from nearby middle schools that lack music programs.

Perry raises money for the band program by charging booking fees for their performances in society. It costs $750 – plus transportation – for a performance from the drum line. The entire band costs $1,500.

It takes about two performances to pay for a pageant, he said, usually in the Washington region but sometimes as far away as Atlanta. The buses are the most expensive part.

In 2019, Perry said he donated his own money to the band by selling his car so the teenagers could travel and afford new warm-up uniforms. He is now going to work, he said.

The Capitol Hill Community Foundation also gave the band a $20,000 grant to repair and replace instruments and announced plans to raise $90,000 more.

The band’s kids have always been scrappy. They used to play in subway stations to raise money. They washed their worn-out uniforms at the laundromat because they couldn’t afford dry cleaning, hand made them as needed. But the band’s motto – “The Pride of Capitol Hill” – has proven true time and time again.

The community, Perry said, “really just adopted them.” In 2008, when the band needed $3,000 for the bus trip to a show in Ohio, the neighbors raised the money. And in 2015, when the band needed another $4,000 to get to Virginia, the community stepped up again.

The students train three times a day, before, during and after school, and usually finish at 19.00. Perry often reminds them that their reputation as “the premiere band in town” means everything.

The band room reflects their success. The piano and cabinets are topped with colorful trophies and other awards. They have performed in four NFL halftime shows, three presidential inauguration parades and the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Games. When The Washington Post moved out of its old building in northwest DC, Eastern’s band marched through the newsroom.

Anything short of excellence, Perry tells the kids, is “bad for the brand.” When students talk over each other or fail to listen, he makes them do push-ups and calls it “character building.” He does not tolerate bad behavior.

“It’s homecoming week!” Perry yelled into his megaphone Tuesday afternoon as they began rehearsing.

The students were gathered on the football field — hoods strapped around their faces to ward off the rain — preparing for their jaunt around Capitol Hill.

“The show is on Saturday, everyone,” he continued. “Do we give up? Or do we conserve our energy? Do you all understand?”

“Yes Mr!” they shouted back.

Davon Richardson, a 15-year-old sophomore who plays trumpet, peppered Perry with questions, eager to get started. He was wearing a thin shirt, despite the 53 degree weather, and was hopping from foot to foot to stay warm.

He liked to parade through the neighborhood, he said.

The residential streets they marched down reflected a different reality than their school — the homeowners were predominantly white — but the students loved it.

“People cheer over their houses and listen to and enjoy us,” Richardson said. “I like to hear them shout.”

“Yeah, it feels like I’m making people’s day,” added Tobias Johnson, 16, a junior who also plays trumpet. “I see them smile and it makes me so happy.”

Their instruments may be old and their uniforms worn. Their section can be short two trumpets. But they knew they had a unique ability to evoke joy.

The strains of “Just Got Paid” by Johnny Kemp thundered down the street. It was one of the band’s favorites along with “I Would Die For You” by Prince.

The teenagers continued to stomp — all knotted knees and twirling drumsticks — as they ventured deeper into the neighborhood. In house after house, heads popped out of front doors. The music was the only lure that could make them go outside on a drizzling afternoon.

“Go band, go band!” shouted Adrianne Marsh, 44, a political consultant, who bobbed and swayed in time with her two young daughters.

On the sidewalk, a blonde girl in a school backpack shook her shoulders. Her little brother leaned back in their mother’s arms to get a better look.

Just then, two girls in pink shoes flew past them, hand in hand, chasing after the band.

One of them was Bahman Koosha’s 6-year-old daughter, Nikki Koosha, who said her favorite instrument is the drum because it makes her “feel happy.”

“I like the band to make noise,” she said.

“Almost every other day we come and see,” said Koosha, 41, an engineer.

“As soon as the kids hear them, we have to go out,” said Filip Medic, 42, director of a nonprofit organization.

He paused and watched as his 3-year-old, Tessa Medic, started running again with Nikki.

At the end of the block, the band took a break.

Perry blew his whistle. The teenagers fell silent and he gave a few pointers over the megaphone.

“My fingers are freezing,” a flutist whispered to his classmate. “They’re going to fall off.”

A few moments later they turned and resumed their march. The trombonists went first, dancing as they stepped, followed by the rest of the band, in a cymbal-clashing, drum-beating, sousaphone-roaring ruckus.

“Eastern!” they shouted.

In their wake, the music slowly died away and the neighborhood was quiet again.

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