Inside the Arc – Three Who Matter

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Today he’d be called a “Dreamer”, qualified for the DACA Program, but those terms didn’t exist in 1947 when Billy Cobham’s family brought their son to Brooklyn from Panama, at the age of three.

For the next few years, young William was not allowed “off the block”, but one fateful summer day in the early ‘50s, he just couldn’t be restrained from running up to the corner to watch the marchers in the Brooklyn Day Parade, and who should come down the street but a community sponsored drum and bugle corps, The Wynn Center Toppers, their bright satin uniforms sparkling in the sunshine.

But it was the sound of the drums that riveted him, and the sight of multiple drummers playing in unison with stunning precision. Though his cultural heritage was rooted in percussion and he had plenty of exposure to that tradition, Billy had never witnessed anything quite like this. Game over, or to be more precise, game begins.

Start there and draw a straight line through a little church parade corps in Brooklyn, then St. Catherine’s Queensmen (say hello to a couple of iconic drum instructors, Bobby Thompson and Orus Cavnor), continue at New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art, proceed to the Sunrisers, the US Army Band, and land on the squares that say Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Mahavishnu John Mc Laughlin, Dreams (with those Brecker Boys), Spectrum, the Grateful Dead…etc.

Meanwhile, on the left coast, a youngster too tall for his age is coaxed to look beyond the ‘hood and join the Los Angeles Police Youth Band. A few parades later he spots the Velvet Knights and signs on the dotted line until he’s “drafted” by the Anaheim Kingsmen to march in the center of the snare line next to another refugee from schoolyard basketball named Float, and the pair of them drum their way to the first DCI Championship in 1972.

While 5 other LA kids named “Jackson” who lived on his street sought their fortunes in pop music, Ralph Hardimon went on to study at USC, then the University of Oregon (with Charles Dowd), partner professionally with the great Fred Sanford, and eventually become quite possibly the finest percussion teacher/arranger drum corps has ever seen, rolling up a resume that includes the Alberta Girls, Santa Clara Vanguard, Blue Knights and so many other notables. His Vic Firth marching sticks are the most popular on the planet. Sure, they’re good, but it’s really because he’s that good, and has done that much good for thousands of students. Ask any of them.

A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of a pandemic and a country in social turmoil, a young man named Amari Amaju graduated from high school into a very uncertain world. This is nothing new for him, having been born prematurely and growing up Black in the south, with all that goes with that.

He had entered the Soulsville Charter School in the 6th grade and also graduated from Stax Academy, the neighborhood music school that grew out of that seminal R&B label (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes…et al.) around the time Concord Records acquired it a few years back. Instructors there include alumni from bands like Booker T and the MG’s and the Bar-Kays.

Amari blossomed as a drummer and will be attending Grambling State this fall, on a snare drum scholarship.

All of which, once again, points to the advantage of diverting some city funds that might otherwise be earmarked for enforcement to programs that emphasize encouragement.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Amari Amaju will turn out to be a world-famous jazz performer like Billy Cobham, or a superb music educator like Ralph Hardimon. Maybe he’ll just become a doctor and cure Alzheimer’s, or a police commissioner who can actually keep the peace in a city, or a good husband and mentor. But whatever the case may be, it is certain that, just like the others, his life will matter. In fact, it already does.

About the Author:
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 The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Saturday, July 4th, 2020. Filed under FrontPage Feature, Inside the Arc.