Perseverance Helps High School Band Pass Trial by Fire

The evening before the Los Angeles citywide marching band competition last month, Washington Prep High School band members were exhausted. The musicians had marched up and down their scruffy football field for hours in practice, determined to win back the title they had lost the year before.

As the sun set, the band director told the youngsters to go home and relax.

Three hours later, the band room that housed most of their instruments was engulfed in flames. As a smoldering fire consumed more than $100,000 in instruments, choir robes and sheet music, word got around to band members. Many ran back to the school to watch the destruction.

No one was hurt in the fire, but band members wept as they huddled behind police tape, harboring a question they were afraid to ask: Would they still be able to compete for the city title?

Indeed. Playing a flawless performance the next afternoon on dozens of borrowed instruments, the 120 musicians were named best high school marching band in the city for the third time in four years.

They're not looking back.

"[The fire] made me more motivated to get out there and win," said saxophone player Aaron Johnson. "We were not going to let that stop us."

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Even before the fire, the South-Central Los Angeles band was drastically short of equipment. Few musicians at Washington Prep can afford to buy their own instruments, so they practiced on the limited number of horns and drums the Los Angeles school district provides, sharing instruments for practice and borrowing them for competitions. Full band rehearsals forced at least a dozen players to march with phantom instruments.

Now, with the loss of six tubas, a new drum set and about two dozen trumpets and saxophones, the number of players without instruments has doubled.

On Friday, a sheriff's arson detective, Don Powell, said the fire's origins were suspicious and investigators have not ruled out foul play. The band room, which sustained an additional $100,000 in damage, will take up to a year to rebuild.

The room was a home away from home for many band members, who played music and hung out in the spacious hall during lunch hours.

Now, practice is held in the school's auto repair workshop.

"Look at us," trumpet player Dante Phillips said sadly, gesturing to the auto shop. "We're cramped up in that dark room with cars and tools. We can't even hear ourselves play in there because there's no soundproofing. It's not a good feeling."

With musical talents to nurture and a safe place to do it, band members skirted the troubles that grip many of the district's students. For the last two years, every graduating band member has gone on to college, some on music scholarships to such schools as USC and UC Berkeley.

In October, the jazz ensemble--consisting of the marching band's most skilled players--was named best new talent of the year by the L.A. Jazz Society. They were also invited to play at the Playboy Jazz festival for a second year.

Such victories made the shortage of instruments and equipment tolerable, said band director Fernando Pullum.

"It's always been an uphill battle" to keep the band functioning, he said. "But the fire has been major. This is like having a mountain thrown in the way."

In the hopes of recouping their losses, band members will play in a benefit concert Sunday at Local 47 of the musicians union at 817 Vine St. in Hollywood.

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Practicing this week for the concert, students played--and played and played--classic jazz tunes of Thad Jones.

In the middle of practice, a young woman in the marching band entered the auto shop-turned-band room. She wanted a trombone back from a jazz ensemble player who shared it with her.

Pullum looked dismayed over how to negotiate practice time among students who trade off instruments.

"Can she bring it to you later?" he asked the student, a plaintive tone in his voice. "She needs it right now."

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