Back when renowned jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright was a student at Locke High School, being a musician was even better than being on the football team.
During those years, the band was a source of pride for the community of South Los Angeles. When the Locke “Saints” went marching, the spirit was contagious: heads bopped, fingers popped, toes tapped.
Known for precision playing and smooth dance steps, the musicians from the inner-city school regularly beat bands from wealthy suburban areas, winning invitations to perform throughout the nation and abroad. At home, their skills earned them the admiration of fellow students--even gang members.
“I got out of a lot of fights that way,” Albright said laughing. “They’d say: ‘Don’t mess with Albright, he’s in the band.’ The band room at Locke was sacred ground.”
That ground was also the birthplace of a generation of young musicians who, like Albright, went on to make their mark in the music industry: jazz pianist Patrice Rushen, percussionist Ndugu Chancler and trumpet player Ray Brown all studied music at Locke.
But in recent years the highly acclaimed department has lost its prestige. Budget cuts, a decrease in the number of faculty teaching music and a changing student population have taken a toll on the program, said Reggie Andrews, chairman of Locke’s music department.
To rejuvenate the program and raise much needed money for uniforms and instruments, Andrews recently enlisted the help of the school’s alumni. Sunday, Albright and others held a benefit concert at Crossroads Theater; their first organized effort to keep the music legacy alive.
Students, alumni and Locke supporters filled the Crenshaw area theater, sharing memories of their days at Locke and the music that brought them together.
“It doesn’t matter that we came from Watts. We’ve shown the world what music can do,” master of ceremonies Rory Kaufman told the audience, adding: “Locke Saints forever.”
Alumni attribute the success of the music department to the intense dedication of instructors Donald J. Dustin, Frank Harris, and Andrews, who spent long hours with students serving as friends, mentors and counselors as well as teachers.
“They always encouraged us to be the best,” said saxophonist Rastine Calhoun, who graduated in 1979.
Dustin, now director of performing arts for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the program set “incredibly high standards” for students.
“Too often we try to find excuses for why kids aren’t achieving,” he said. “Students can achieve and they will.”
Locke High School opened in 1967, two years after the Watts riots. Students then and in later years “wanted and needed to be a part of something, to say they belonged,” said Harris.
Through the music department they found just that.
“We turned Locke into a home,” Harris said. “A place where students spent most of their time.”
From 7 a.m. to late at night, students were in the band room practicing, studying or just hanging out. Even in the summer the room was often filled with students.
“We were a family,” said Robbie Odom, who graduated in 1980. “Everybody looked out for each other. The band kept a lot of brothers in school.”
There students learned about rhythm and cadence, dissonance and harmony. But they also learned about life.
In addition to the marching band, there was a jazz band, wind ensemble and orchestra. Andrews, a former bassist with Willie Bobo, arranged for jazz greats such as Bobo, Herbie Hancock, Gerald Wilson and many others to visit the school and share with students.
“That exposure was the key for me,” said Chancler, who graduated from the school in 1970 and ended up working with all three at various points in his career.
Calhoun was 10 when he first saw the band marching down Central Avenue in the Watts Parade.
“It was so powerful,” he said. “All you could hear was: ‘Here comes Locke’s band!’ Everybody was so proud. . . . The only other time I remember feeling that sensation was when James Brown came to Watts when his song, ‘Say It Loud--I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was out.”
Calhoun decided then that he wanted to be part of that tradition.
At its peak, Locke’s band had more than 200 members, Harris said. The community and parents helped students raise money for uniforms and trips and turned out to cheer them on at competitions.
But the music department began to decline in the mid-1980s. In 1982, Dustin left the school and the next year Harris left to become the coordinator of performing arts for senior high schools in the Los Angeles school district. Busing began to deplete the school of a number of talented students. Then there were budget cuts.
Today, the department is about half as large as it used to be and the sparkle and shine that distinguished Locke has waned. But its past greatness proves that the potential is there, say alumni.
“Trying to maintain the tradition is very hard to do, but it’s not impossible,” Andrews said.
Among those who were a part of the program during its heyday, the commitment remains.
“I cherish those memories,” Harris said, his voice thick with emotion. “There is still a family feeling about Locke. I think it will forever be that way.”