Sunday, December 7, 2008

A few moans of frustration escape as members of the Ballou Senior High School marching band attempt to conquer “Conquistador,” a challenging piece.

But the roaring number, based on the work of jazz musician Maynard Ferguson, is appropriately titled for a group of students who are shattering stereotypes in one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Some 40 trophies in the band room speak of their against-the-odds achievements, which were chronicled in a documentary this year.

In recent weeks, band director Darrell Watson has been crossing his “legs, arms, fingers, eyes, everything” as Ballou anxiously waits to hear whether its students get this year’s biggest prize: the honor of performing in the Inauguration Day parade.

“Everywhere we go it’s, ‘You guys get selected into the parade?’ ” Mr. Watson, 38, said during a recent practice. “That’s the first question everyone asks me.”

The Majestic Marching Knights’ track record is impressive. They’re already booked for next month’s Rose Bowl parade and next year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. But being in President-elect Barack Obama’s procession would carry special meaning for this predominantly black band.

“We really want to be there,” said Lewis Franklin, 17, who plays the sousaphone, which resembles a tuba. “I can’t put it into words how badly we want to be there.”

A spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, Linda Douglass, wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press that she could not provide the number of marching bands that had applied, but she said the committee could name its picks any day now.

Mr. Watson said he was told he would hear by mid-December.

With a busy lineup already, Ballou band members have been practicing to perfection. Students clad in their school uniforms — navy polo shirts and khakis — blow and beat instruments provided by the school system, and they do it each day after school for three to four hours and sometimes on Saturdays. The dance squad, dressed in shiny gold pants, stretches in front of a colorful mural featuring jazz great and D.C. native Duke Ellington.

The school has hit some rough spots in recent years that have fueled a negative reputation. Four years ago, a student was fatally shot in a hallway, and in 2003 the school closed for several weeks after a mercury spill. The surrounding neighborhoods’ struggles with crime and poverty also contribute to the school’s bad rap.

Students are eager for high-profile gigs like the inauguration because they help shake off stereotypes.

“It would be good on our behalf because statistics always say black kids don’t do good stuff,” said dancer Stephanie Stewart, 16. “People always think because we are a Southeast school, it’s bad. … And it’s really not that bad.”

At the heart of the band is Mr. Watson, a Ballou graduate who has directed the band since 1995. Mr. Watson found his calling in his teen years when he played trombone in the school band. He also served as a drum major and student conductor.

“One day I was sitting in the band room and I looked at my band director and I said to myself, ‘I could do that.’ I said, ‘I’m going to come back one day and take his job.’ ”

Mr. Watson cracks jokes with the kids, but when it comes to music, he’s a stickler. Students credit him with saving their lives, becoming a father figure.

“This school is near and dear to me,” he said. “I don’t care what people say. I know what’s here. A lot of people say, ‘Why are you still here?’ Because I know the talent that’s here. Nobody gave up on me, and I don’t want to give up on them.”

The band’s feats are featured in “Ballou,” a documentary released this year by D.C.-based filmmakers Michael Patrei and Casey Callister. They say they have hired a Hollywood screenwriter to tell Mr. Watson’s life story in a feature film.

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