Dunbar High School resurrects marching band

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Band teacher Charles Funn's voice thundered in a classroom at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, shouting the names of familiar Southern foods as a way to help the students to find their rhythm. You can feel both, he explained, in your soul.

"Fried chicken, greens, hot sauce, potato salad," Funn instructed above the small assembly of squealing trumpets and booming bass drums that clumsily converged as students struggled to raise their instruments and legs at the same time. "Grease!" he encouraged, jerking around his lanky body.

The group of 25 rehearsing with a handful of pawnshop instruments is a far cry from the 185-person, celebrated band that Funn led in the late 1990s at the historic citywide high school. It was around then, he said, that music was "scheduled out of existence" as the school system began focusing on producing competitive test scores.

This year marks the first concerted effort in more than a decade to resurrect the marching band at Dunbar, a school whose nickname, "The Poets," is as much an homage to the renowned African-American poet whose name is on the school as it is to its once-celebrated fine arts program.

"It's like I've been born again, like I died and went to heaven three times over," said Funn, who writes music for his students with titles like "Mama's Draws" and "Juice."

The accomplished trombone, bass drum and piano player toured with musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles and the Temptations before starting his 36-year career in the school system. He joined Dunbar's faculty in 1999.

"We're going to get the spirit back in here — not just the statistics, and what looks good on paper," he said. "Let's just put it this way: When the music suffers in the town, it's usually because of politics, not the children."

The group made its debut this week, marching at an event with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Of the debut, Funn said: "Well, I know now that if rehearsal is terrible, that means we'll be off the hook."

The band played for its toughest audience, the Dunbar senior class, on Friday. "Being with the mayor was special," said Kalayah Cooper, a freshman who plays the snare drums. "But [on Friday], they have to feel it. We need them to feel it."

Principal Kristina Kyles credits Funn for committing himself to resurrecting the program despite little money and resources. Right now, there is about one instrument for every five students.

While students were encouraged to bring their own reeds and mouthpieces, Kyles is seeking sponsors for uniforms and performances, and Funn is looking to pawnshops and opening his wallet.

"I was told, 'Give Mr. Funn a kid and an instrument, and he'll give you a musician,'" Kyles said. "So I just did that and stayed out of the way."

That's just what Funn did with J'Quan Harris, a sophomore who picked up the bass drum — a focal instrument for a marching band — for the first time this year.

"I didn't want to do it, but I thought that we've become too much of a sports-oriented school, and we can be a music school again," said Harris, who also is an athlete. "It was a school full of pride, not just for athletes, but for everyone. And that can happen once again."

Building Dunbar's pride will take work, said Kyles, who came to Baltimore from Boston this year to lead the school, which has struggled with academics. She believed the music program was important as the school seeks to reinvent itself as a renowned institution for black students, with a math and science curriculum designed for students interested in health professions.

Having done her research before she came to the city, Kyles also said that "too many students don't recognize the history of this school — the history they're a part of."

"It's sad to see them marching without uniforms, sharing instruments, but the cognitive benefit of a music program in a college-preparatory institution is priceless," Kyles said. "Every great college-preparatory, science and tech high school has a great music program because those go together."

Students at Dunbar said that they do feel a part of history.

Amara Hill, a freshman at Dunbar who trained at the Peabody Preparatory, said she was crushed when she didn't get into Polytechnic Institute, her first choice, where she had hoped to play the trumpet for the school's popular marching band.

"Sometimes God sends you in a different way to pursue your dreams," Hill said. "And how funny that the year I came here, they get a marching band. He sent me here to play and to be a part of history. I think we're going to be the new competition."

Teven Davis, who transferred from Poly to Dunbar, said he still visits his old school to watch the band play. A lifelong musician, the student said that music also has helped him with his classes "because it's basically everything you need — reading, math and science."

The senior, who has trained in all percussion instruments, said he felt it was an honor to play for Dunbar his senior year.

"There's been a lot of respect that's been lost, and we've been trying to get it back for the longest [time]," Davis said. "I just feel like I'm a part of something great."

As the band practice came to a close one day this week, Funn stood before his group, asking a pivotal question: "Should we go through it section by section again, or take a chance?"

For perhaps the first time in unison that day, the group gave a resounding answer.

"Take a chance," they said.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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