Inside the Arc
“A Harlem Tale”
Randall’s Island lies just a few hundred yards from the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance, in the shadow of the Tri-Boro Bridge. I used to imagine that Ellington’s music could have drifted over from 125th Street back in the day, or Basie’s, or perhaps even a few licks from Bird or Dizzy, practicing in the late afternoon in some walk-up with the windows open. I never actually heard any of that, but Randall’s was often filled with great music of another kind when I was a young man, music both exciting and intense: drum corps music.
Even then, open space in New York City was at a premium. The giant shopping malls (all 2 of them) with their expansive parking lots were far out in the suburbs, and corps had little chance of accessing the high school football facilities. But there were acres of fields and paved lots on Randall’s, encircling Downing (now Ichan) Stadium, the Mecca for blue-collar sports like Irish rugby and the All-City High School Football Championships.
And on a given Friday night, Randall’s would be transformed into a kind of drum corps Garden of Eden with music emanating from everywhere as the New York corps appropriated the various blacktop lots and grassy fields, rehearsing for the weekend shows in Jersey, Connecticut, on Long Island and within the Metropolitan Area itself.
A 15-cent subway or bus token was the price of admission to hear the likes of everyone from the Immaculate Conception “Hellgaters” (the pride of Astoria) to the NY Knickerbockers, to St. Rita’s Brassmen, the Minnisink Warriors or the mighty New York Skyliners, all the way from Yonkers. (In their wisdom,”Sky” scheduled practice for 10 PM or later, after the “juniors” had finished, providing their members the opportunity to instruct the younger kids who would naturally stroll over to listen to their heroes, Bucky Swan, Pepe Notaro, Tommy Martin, et al, when the big corps convened. Talk about recruiting!)
Come Saturday and Sunday, the stadium itself was often the site of epic performances when powerhouses like Garfield, Blessed Sac, St.Lucy’s, Bridgeport PAL, Reilly, the George Washington Carver Gay Blades and the Caballeros arrived from the hinterlands to do battle with the locals, St. Catherine’s, Floyd Bennett, Selden, Our Lady of Loretto and the aforementioned Skyliners. It was on just such an occasion that a young man learned a very significant lesson – one he would carry with him for the rest of his life.
On a breezy evening in the early summer of ’62, two vets and a rookie watched from the end zone at Downing as their arch-competitor took the field. The corps in question was a legend, with several national titles, but the three who watched were members in their own right of a very legitimate challenger who had tied the champs late in the previous season and indeed, had bested them in a spring “standstill”.
The field was a sea of gold satin as the corps swung mightily with some of the hippest arrangements ever performed on drums and bugles. The younger boy, eager to gain the approval and acceptance of the veterans, spoke up. “They stink*”, he declared. (*Actually, he used a somewhat more colorful and provocative term, slightly more acceptable by today’s standards, but quite rude back then.), certain that this would demonstrate his deep loyalty to his own corps and earn the respect of his peers.
There followed one of those slight pauses, a miniscule wrinkle in time that invariably precedes a moment of truth. The corps on the field pushed towards the stands and the crowd roared in response. Finally, one of the older boys spoke. “What? What did you say?”, he asked. The rookie, a bit less certain now, repeated, “I said…they stink*”.
A longer pause ensued, escalating from the merely awkward to the downright uncomfortable. The corps turned towards the finish line and moved smartly across the field, in the near-obligatory company front., the drums powerful and the brass wailing. The rookie began to realize he had committed a faux pas, but remained confused as to the “why”.
Finally, in a slow and deliberate manner, the vet spoke. “Dig yourself.”, he began. “Let’s assume, for the moment, you are correct and they do stink*. And suppose we beat them tonight. So what? They stink*, right? No glory. And again, assuming you are right and they stink*, suppose they beat us? (They did.) Then, by your reasoning, we must REALLY stink*. You see the problem here?”
The rookie was having a moment of enlightenment, the kind the Zen masters call a “Satori”, when some profound truth is revealed to and understood by a mere mortal. “So”, continued the older boy, “when you say something like that you sound like a total jackass and you make the rest of us look bad. Those guys are just like us, except they wear different suits. You got that? Now, don’t ever let me hear you say any drum corps stinks*. Understand?” The younger boy, properly chastised, could only nod his head.
I have never forgotten the lesson I learned that evening as the breeze blew across the Harlem River and the drum corps music played: Respect your competitors. Nobody stinks*. Nobody.
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from Xtremebrass.com. The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.
Posted by Frank Dorritie on Tuesday, October 17th, 2006. Filed under Inside the Arc.