Outside O. Perry Walker Senior High School on the West Bank, drum major Ryanell Antoine is flexing, kicking and twirling. It looks effortless, even when he bends back from the waist until his chest is flat as a table. "He's the best one out -- can't nobody burn Ryanell," says freshman Lance Lockett as he waits for his ride home, a trombone case in his hand.
Danielle Jones, a senior, is also keeping her eyes on Antoine. "That's my future boyfriend there," she says with a big wink. She and her friend, Kenda Gibbs, carry the school's banner in the band and so they've seen Antoine's popularity up close. His following tops even the quarterback's, they say, because the quarterback needs Antoine to rev up the crowd.
Antoine walks over to say hello. He's been drum major for two years, but he can still recall when he was first chosen. "My popularity got bigger," he says, especially with the girls. "They were calling the house all times of the night."
Over at St. Augustine High School, the four drum majors for the Marching 100 also received additional attention early on. "Like the first game," says Theadore Boatner, raising an eyebrow. "Too much to handle," says Ansley Williams.
New Orleans musician Derrick "Oops" Moss, bass drummer for the Soul Rebels Brass Band, remembers traveling with the Southern University band when he was their drum major during the 1980s. "I just stepped off the bus and the girls screamed," he says. "I couldn't believe it."
Band director Wilbert Rawlins may be the local expert on the phenomenon because he has eight drum majors at George Washington Carver High School. "It's hard to keep their heads from swelling," he says, "because everybody wants to know the drum majors."
In 1980, jazz trombonist Eddieboh Paris was voted most popular student at Joseph S. Clark Senior High School -- a direct result, he says, of his being drum major there for three years. "You're in front of the band," he explains, "and that's a jewel to the girls."
New Orleans is in the heart of what could be called the marching-band popularity belt, which stretches approximately from Texas to Florida, says Gerard L. Howard, a McDonogh 35 grad whose Web site, the Marching Sport Experience (www.marchingsport.com) is a mix of band information, photos and audio. It's in this southern region that drum majors are wildly popular, Howard says. In fact, anyone who even plays an instrument stands out.
"Down here, a band member is looked at as better than an athlete," he says. "In other places, if you're in the band, you're a geek."
"I'm really looking forward to being the first person to see everything," says Ryan Armour Jr., Carver's head drum major, practicing his "crab" -- a severe backbend -- in the hallway outside the band room.
Parade crowds may also be seeing something for the first time -- a row of eight drum majors marching in front of one band. "It's eight people who look like one," says Carver band director Wilbert Rawlins, a graduate of two strong band programs, at John F. Kennedy High School and Southern University.
People will know the Carver band is coming when they see a line, eight strong, dressed in orange, white and green. "Eight is going to be our trademark," says Rawlins. "That is going to define Carver high school."
The idea came to him last year, when eight kids tried out for drum major and they had all practiced together. He couldn't pick among them, Rawlins decided. "So I went to my principal," he says, "and said that I wanted to raise about $10,000" -- for eight drum major uniforms at $900 or so apiece. They hit their goal by hosting a fundraiser and a dance, and selling everything from shoestrings to popcorn.
This is something that Rawlins had to learn on the job. "They don't teach you fundraising in college -- Begging 101," he says. But without that money, he can't do his work. "It doesn't take much to teach a kid to play an instrument," he says. "But we need to be able to put a horn in his hand." Which means that the band director has to raise the money -- $40,000 for eight new silver sousaphones, $700 for a new clarinet, $400 for each marching band uniform.
Rawlins' passion is contagious, says Armour. "Now, even students who are not in the band love the band," he says. "If they didn't see us during Mardi Gras, I really do think they'd go crazy."
On a personal level, Rawlins' devotion has also meant a lot, says Armour. "A lot of us -- including me -- are from single-parent homes. And to most of us, Mr. Rawlins is like a father figure -- he understands everybody's situation."
Rawlins doesn't have any children, Armour says, and so he often tells the band that he is blessed to have 120 children -- them. Armour certainly considers himself one. When he first came to Carver, he says, "I didn't know anything about a trumpet." After Rawlins taught him one-on-one, band became Armour's "number-one love."
Most people don't understand how important band is to his kids, says Rawlins. A student can come to him with a parent on drugs, no role model, and Rawlins introduces him to a band's discipline and structure. It's not unusual for kids to maintain Rawlins' current minimum grade-point average simply so they can stay in the band. "And if he gets a scholarship and can learn a trade, we've produced a citizen," he says.
"Mr. Rawlins is a very level person," says Armour. "Because of the way he is, I am really happy."
For football season, Carver had eight male drum majors. Now two of the guys are getting back on their horns and two girls will be stepping in. Young women aren't always treated equally in marching bands, says Lester Wilson, band director at Xavier Preparatory School. "I tell the girls there's no difference -- it's just a stereotype," he says. But sometimes when Prep is marching, he hears the crowds yell, "Where are the boys at?"
Male or female, they're all drum majors, says Armour. "Because all eight of us want to be drum majors, all of us want to crab, and we all want to be in front with a big white hat and a big white stick."
Familiar New Orleans faces often sit under the big hats at some of the South's most renowned marching-band colleges -- like Southern, Texas Southern, Jackson State and Grambling universities. Derrick Moss, a graduate of Alcee Fortier Senior High School in New Orleans, carried the baton at Southern for four years. Students from all over the country try out for Southern's band, Moss explains, but New Orleans has supplied more drum majors than any city by far.
"A lot of drum majors come out of New Orleans," says St. Aug grad and six-year Texas Southern drum major Reginald "Action" Thompson, who saw the same thing at his college. Thompson attributes that to New Orleans' role as a "band mecca" and as a city, he says, "where you almost can dance before you can walk."
In New Orleans, you also talk about band long after high school, says Web site creator Gerard Howard, a self-confessed "bandhead" who, at age 26, still talks about band nearly every day with his friends. "We call each other a fair number of times each day, and 98 percent of the time it's about band," says Howard's friend Jared Powell, who played trumpet at Warren Easton High School and Southern, and is now holding practices for New Orleans' first professional, college-style marching band, "The Marching Fury."
Go to a football game in New Orleans and you'll find that most fans in the stands are there to see the band, Powell contends. He recalls an Easton homecoming game in which their football team beat John F. Kennedy Senior High School 53 to 0. But Kennedy's band was clearly better, says Powell, and so the football results didn't matter -- Kennedy fans still felt triumphant. "It's two games in one," Howard explains.
For a drum major, football season is great, says Derrick Moss. But Mardi Gras parades, he says, are like "Superdome events" -- so big and exciting that they make other parades seem like family outings. That means that bands will be using all their pizzazz to whoop up the crowds. "When you turn, that cape -- like Batman's -- flips over and it's a different color on the other side," Moss says. He high-steps back and forth, demonstrating how bands generate "flash" with their capes, swinging horns, pointed toes, high leg lifts, white spats, white plumes and white gloves.
A drum major is expected to do his part to get the crowd roaring. During college, Moss also had to be limber enough for the crab, a classic drum major move. "I would have the whistle in my mouth, and I would go all the way backwards with my head upside down. Then I'd take a breath and blow it for four counts." To the band, those four whistles signal the tempo -- an essential drum major duty.
Next, Moss determines the crowd's excitement level. "I wouldn't look up," he says, but he would listen. If there was a smattering of applause, he'd break into another move. If it got louder, he'd give them something else and then something else, until -- finally -- he heard screaming.
Moss liked being the only drum major because it gave him more freedom to adapt to the music or to a crowd's mood. But he believes that, at a high school level, it's often necessary to have more than one drum major to help bandmates master the music. "Especially now, since New Orleans has cut back on music in the junior high schools and you have to teach them to actually play their horns in high school."
Edwin Hampton, band director at St. Augustine, says that, as a result of the junior high cuts, the musicians entering his program play at a more rudimentary level. "The caliber has gone down," he says, "but because of the rich music history in this city, there's a higher level of performance than in other cities."
Moss agrees. In New Orleans, he says, the high competition level means that marching bands are more advanced than those in other states. He believes that Hampton's program deserves much of the credit for keeping the bar high. "St. Aug is probably the number-one reason that the bands are still trying to be good," he says.
He'll get no argument on that point from jazz saxophonist Victor Goines, a St. Aug grad and the current artistic director of jazz at The Juilliard School in New York. "St. Aug has pushed the envelope," he says. "New Orleans bands are always pushing to be -- quote-unquote -- like St. Aug."
Public school drum majors have the upper hand -- if you're talking about their ability to twist, bend, dance and twirl the baton, says former Clark drum major Eddieboh Paris. But he believes that the drum major position at St. Augustine is the highest honor in town, for another reason. "If you're a drum major at St. Aug, Hamp saw something in you," he says.
Hamp -- Edwin Harrell Hampton -- is 74 years old and has been directing the band at St. Augustine since 1952, when he was drawn to New Orleans for its music. At the time, he was fresh out of the military, where he had fallen in love with the discipline and found the chain of command "beautiful."
In Hampton's program, music comes first, and that means more than just popular songs. "For a kid to play in a marching band and never play a John Phillips Sousa march is blasphemy," he says, as he sits -- immaculately dressed -- in his St. Aug office. Band practice is about to begin; young men in gray sweats are streaming in and out of the room, grabbing tape, reeds and valve oil. Two broad-shouldered directors enter and discreetly retrieve a wooden discipline paddle from behind the couch.
Hampton's office walls are covered with honorary diplomas, citations and photos of former students who became professional musicians or public servants. Lining one wall is a row of putty-colored filing cabinets. Hampton opens one drawer, filled with graph paper marked with arrows and x's that map out shapes. One is a concentric circle, another spells out "St. A," another is a row of diamonds. Hampton put in long hours creating these formations, but he doesn't have one clear favorite. "If you're good at this, your best formation is probably the next one you're trying to do," he says.
Hampton recalls the genesis of his program, more than a half-century ago. For the first decade, he spent nearly every summer at marching band workshops in the Midwest, where he learned the art of intricate field routines known as precision drilling. The idea originated with the Romans, he says, who carefully mapped the movements of thousands of soldiers, where they started and where they stopped. He absorbed all these ideas and then brought them south, to his own Purple Knights. To him, marching and precision drill are simply forms of dance, "ways of marrying the rhythm to the music."
Today, many bands practice precision drilling. But Hampton did it first and the best, says Isaac Greggs, who for 34 years has been the acclaimed band director at Southern University. "I am a precision genius," Greggs says, "but I got into it because I saw St. Augustine."
Every day after school, the St. Aug drum majors head to the parking lot behind the school to set the tempos and keep the beat while they and the rest of the 128-member band practice marching for two solid hours. One cold Friday, a 1989 drum major, John Ross, now a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, stops by to say hi to Hampton and to watch today's practice. He sits on a bench and points out what drum majors watch for -- horns in swinging motion; high bent knees; straight, even rows of marchers.
It's easy for former drum majors to be overly critical, Ross says with a grin. "You always have this feeling that they're not really marching as high as we did. Or that they're not swinging their horns consistently."
But every year, Hampton chooses a new set of drum majors with care, asking each young man to write an essay about why he wants the job. Hampton says that leadership is important, but there are other factors. He wouldn't, for instance, choose his best trumpet player for drum major because he needs him for the band's sound. So he often leans toward a drum major who plays, perhaps, clarinet -- "because no one is going to hear him anyway."
In the end, Ross says, it comes down to instinct. "Choosing a drum major is like buying a pair of shoes -- it's got to really fit." The training is also personal -- how one drum major handles a situation may not work for another.
Hampton makes his choices, and then the drum majors must live up to the job. "You can't be the class clown," says David McCrea, leaning on his baton after practice. "You're constantly being watched," says fellow drum major Tramaine Spencer.
Pressures aside, all four of St. Aug's drum majors say that they have wanted to be a drum major since they were small and that they're thrilled to be doing it, especially now that Mardi Gras season is here. In 1967, Rex chose the St. Augustine band -- which by then was called the Marching 100 -- to march in their parade and thereby integrate Mardi Gras. People who watched said that it was Hampton's strict discipline that kept the band looking straight ahead and moving forward despite thrown bottles, cans and catcalls.
Overall, Hampton feels as though the good overshadowed any of the bad. "It was a happy day for me," he says. He was particularly moved by an older black woman who got down on one knee in the street, thanking God that she'd lived to see that day.
Now, 37 years later, St. Aug routinely marches two parades a day during Mardi Gras season. It's the physical exertion that sets a New Orleans parade apart, says Hampton. "It's so long -- geographically and timewise," he says, typically four hours of marching compared to maybe three hours in other cities.
This town seems to have its own philosophy about parades, he says. "In New York and other places, people are coming to the parade," says Hampton. "They say that, in New Orleans, we're taking the parade to the people."
The man known as Mr. B. is satisfied with one drum major. So is drum major Ryanell Antoine. "It only takes one drum major to run the show," he says.
"Too many chiefs ... " adds Larry Birden Jr., who is known inside the Walker bandroom as Mr. B.
The bandhead grapevine says that Antoine is currently the best drum major in town. He won the approval of Eddieboh Paris, who saw Antoine compete against other local drum majors at football games this year. "He's real good; he can dance, he can wiggle, he has a lot of energy," says Paris.
What matters even more, Paris says, is that Antoine has a good band behind him. "O. Perry Walker has the best high school band as far as sound," he says. "They sound like 180 pieces. And everybody's playing their instrument -- I was so impressed. All the horns were listening to each other."
Walker's biggest competitor is Carver, mostly because band directors Birden and Wilbert Rawlins are close friends from their days at Southern.
Birden, like Rawlins, contends with fundraising dilemmas. He says that it can be tough to march a 6-mile Mardi Gras parade in the midst of drunk people and then come home with only a few hundred dollars for their bank account -- what's left from the typical $1,400 fee after the school pays for buses, insurance and liquids for the kids. Birden understands that a gig in a parade is, more than anything else, a business transaction, but he wishes that more krewes would help raise money for his band and others once the parades have finished rolling. "If you really value this, give back," he says.
Antoine, a junior who plays the snare drum, remembers the difference Birden made in the band when he arrived here in 2000. "When he came, we started learning a lot," he says. "He taught us to read music." Now Antoine maintains a 3.2 grade-point average and has hopes of going to college on a band scholarship.
Before he goes, however, he has one more year to really fine tune the art of drum majoring. He's also helping out his friend Travis, a sophomore who's now a drum major at Sarah T. Reed. "I would like for him to be the best drum major in the city," says Antoine. "And when I leave, I'll give it to him."
Right above Edwin Hampton's desk is a framed image of Martin Luther King Jr. with an excerpt from "The Drum Major Instinct," a sermon King gave in February 1968: "Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness."
Reginald Thompson, now a minister -- "a drum major for Jesus," he says -- remembers that King quote from his days at St. Aug. "I see it as an example of peaceful leadership," he says, talking about how all the different instruments come together in harmony under the direction of the drum major.
The framed image is also familiar to Xavier Prep director Lester Wilson, a St. Aug grad as well. "Just like anything else, if you have a charismatic person out front, it will show throughout the entire group," he says.
Wilson puts it simply: "The band goes as the drum major goes."