Walt Whitman High School Stage Band

1979 to 1982, Bethesda, Maryland

Every band means: Every. Band. So let’s go back to 1979.

I had been playing bass for about 2 years when I got to high school. Since third grade, I’d played trumpet in the school band, but when I entered high school in tenth grade, I gave up the trumpet. We returned it to the place we’d rented it from for seven years.

The jazz band at our school, or stage band, as it was called, was a class. I think it was pretty early in the day, like 2nd period. I remember eating my bag lunch in the class and then buying another lunch at lunchtime nearly every day.

A piano player named Sam Jannotta and I were allowed in as tenth graders, and for that first year we stuck to each other closely, since everyone else was older and seemed better than us. There was another piano player and two other bass players, so we’d both get the last choice of songs to play on.

That first year, tenth grade, the stage band made a record. Every kid had to pony up some money and pre-buy 10 copies or so. (I think my other 9 copies are still in my parents’ basement). We went to Rodel Audio, a studio in Washington about which I remember nothing at all. We cut 8 songs, and I played on 2 of them.

Stage Band album

I don't know what kind of bad acid trip the cover is supposed to evoke. And yes, the back cover had the credits handwritten in magic marker. By the way, you can click on all of these photos to see them larger.

Labels for the record

It was my first time in a recording studio. Unfortunately, it was also the first time I had ever encountered a diminished chord, so on my first recording session ever, you can hear a pretty nice wrong note, loud and clear. In “Basically Blues” at about 3:55. I saw the little diminished symbol (a circle) and figured it meant “minor.” It turns out that’s not right.

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“Basically Blues”

“Groovin’ Hard”

The stage band was conducted by Ron Dobberstein, an energetic little guy who would often get a little blob of spittle on his lips when he was really worked up over something. We called him Slobberstein, but not to his face. Google tells me he passed away in 2005 at the age of 73.

There were some great players in the stage band. I was not one of them. I had very little interest in jazz, but it was a chance to play bass (and eat lunch) for school credit.

By 11th grade, of course, there were more kids my age in the band, but there were still two older bass players. One was named Saul and I concocted a dislike for him based almost entirely on the fact that he had a Music Man Stingray bass that I thought was ugly. Also I thought I was secretly better than him, but he always played really loud. The other player was Dave Montague, upon whom I lavished all the admiration I withheld from the evil Saul. Dave played a Fender Precision, like me. He also played standup bass in the orchestra. He could play really fast. I remember we once had a concert outside. Dave’s bass was in its case, leaning against a pickup truck. Someone got in the truck, moved forward and then backed up right over the bass. When he opened the case (which was trashed) the bass was fine. In fact, it was in tune.

stage band - 1981

Walt Whitman Stage Band, 1981

It wasn’t until I scanned in this photo from the 1981 yearbook and looked at myself up close that I noticed I’m actually goofing around, bowing the bass that Dave Montague is holding.

M Lerner

Your humble author

When I was a senior, I think I was the only bass player in the group. Two things to note about the 1982 stage band photo: My songwriting partner at the time, Dan Eilenberg, scrawled “Tilbrook and Difford in high school” and circled us. And I’m pretty sure that “Pandy Fubin,” listed as being the 8th person in the back row (which only has 7 people in it), was not a real person.

Walt Whitman Stage Band, 1982

Walt Whitman Stage Band, 1982

It’s remarkable that, at least for the three years I was in it, the stage band was entirely male. Bass players must have been in short supply in Montgomery County, because in my senior year I passed an audition and became the bass player for the countywide stage band as well. Most of the kids in the group were really good, and really into jazz. I remember being totally outgunned by everybody there, literally sweating through my clothes in fear of being found a fraud. One of the best trumpet players there was a girl who had only one hand. And I remember thinking, wow: she’s a girl.

Loads of people who played with me in the stage band will pop up elsewhere on this blog, among them Dan Eilenberg, Sam Jannotta, Billy Simms, Adam Gibbons, Dave Robinowitz, and Jon Lipson.

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22 Comments on “Walt Whitman High School Stage Band”

  1. Steve Mark says:

    I’m a big fan of “Every Band I’ve Ever Been In.” Very enjoyable.

  2. Michael Causey says:

    A good read. I await Railroad History.

  3. Mark Lerner says:

    I actually have a pretty bad memory, so one of the reasons I’m doing this blog is to confront my patchy recollections with incontrovertible evidence in the form of photos, tapes, etc. So I should point out that it appears I was wrong about being the only bassist in 1982. The fellow in the 1982 photo directly under the “D” in “Difford” is a kid named Andy Stoller, who was a year or two younger than me. I actually gave him a couple of bass lessons at my house, unless that was someone else. But I’m pretty sure it was him.* Google tells me he has gone on to be Tracy Chapman’s longtime bassist. Lots of kids from the stage band went on to musical careers, but I will leave it to avid Googlers to dig up any of that information they desire.

    * I’ve now been told it wasn’t him.

  4. Mark Amft says:

    Got you beat: I was never in jazz band but I haunted my high school’s electronic music studio, which was run by the jazz band teacher. Surprisingly to me, only a handful of students were interested in using it. I was paired up with a drummer and we made “musique concrete” with contact mics, percussion, two TEAC reel to reels and an EML Synthi AKS. The teacher entered our compositions in a state-wide competition and we won first place in the “Electronic Music” category…but I think we might have been the only entry in that category. This would have been in 1976.

  5. Mark Lerner says:

    So avant-garde!

    Interesting to see that I played jazz in high school and went on to play slowed-down hillbilly music. You played electronic music and went on to rub a Fanta bottle with a stick. High school: it makes you who you are.

  6. Jon Hillis says:

    Mark, wow! Had to read this one. I gave up trying to explain to people how good this band actually was for a high school band. I played in the county band the same year (only the second semester – and I was not the girl with one hand) and went on the play lead trumpet for Penn State Statesmen stage band my freshman year. The WWHS band was better than both in my opinion. Do you have any recordings from Junior or Senior years? I don’t recall making any.

  7. Mark Lerner says:

    Hi, Jon!

    I don’t think we made any recordings after my 10th grade year. But, yes, I think the stage band was pretty good, and really extraordinary for a high school group. (My son’s a drummer and has played with his high school jazz band for 4 years; he was pretty impressed with the record when he heard me transferring the files.)

    I think it helped that the band was an actual class, not an afterschool thing once or twice a week, so we worked on this stuff every day. And the school was pretty huge, so there was a large pool of talent from which to draw. But ultimately it’s a testament to Ron Dobberstein. I’ve had a few workshop experiences trying to teach (design and music) to high school kids, and my hat is off to all the teachers out there who actually do get something across to their students.

  8. Dan Eilenberg says:

    I had to chuckle out loud at the “Clam!” insert on Track 1 above. Hysterical.

    That’s so weird that the credits on back of LP are handwritten. Also odd, on the label the composers are listed alongside each track except for “Lucretia MacEvil” where it credits the arranger of the tune. Why no love for BS&T frontman David Clayton-Thomas?

    My favorite part of stage band was getting to hear (almost) first thing in the morning daily improvisation by precociously gifted soloists like Mike Gannon on alto sax and Tim Armacost on tenor. A great way to begin an otherwise dull school day. I would also mention pianist Pete Sprague but his talent was superseded by his dickishness.

    Lastly, if a musician’s success is gauged by how many people hear you play then likely Andy Stoller is the most successful musician that has been or will be listed on this blog. That’s him playing bass on Tracey Chapman’s ersatz blues hit “Give Me One Reason,” heard by millions the world over. Somewhat ironic in that we collectively (and somewhat arrogantly) ignored him, partly because he was three years behind us and partly because we didn’t think much of his playing. We generally thought more of his older sister Gail for completely different reasons.

  9. Andy Stoller says:

    Wow. What a trip reading through all of this. Lots of memories. I came upon this site through a series of Facebook links. A nice find indeed.

    Are you by chance in contact with Matt Shortridge? I lost contact quite a while ago. Also David Robinowitz? I had the good fortune of jamming with Mike Stern a few weeks back, and David’s name came up.

    Hope you are well. I am doing great. So is Gail. 😉

  10. Jeff Andrews says:

    I just stumbled onto this too. Hi everyone. Though not a stage band member I feel like this is something of Talent Show alumni association too. So, I’ll butt in. To Andy’s question above, I did exchange notes with David Robinowitz a few years ago. I recall he is a physician in San Francisco.

    Does anyone know how to find Billy Simms? I have something I’d like to relay to him.

  11. Catherine K says:

    Wow! Came across this thanks to Google. Cool to hear the clip and get some history on the music program at Whitman. I was in the jazz ensemble from ’93 to ’96. Did you know that an alumni concert is being put together for June 22, 2013? Just look up the Facebook event page: Walt Whitman Music Alumni Concert. Pass the word on to other alumni.

  12. Heather says:

    I just happened across this post by googling my Uncle – Ron Dobberstein. Thank you so much for mentioning him and Walt Whitman. You brought back memories for me that otherwise might have been long forgotten. He was a great guy and very passionate about music . . . and highly energetic!

  13. Dobb was my dad…he loved all you guys and talked about ya’ll all the time. Heather just posted on my fb page and it got me thinking too. I just IM’d with Tim Armacost on fb. The names I really remember are Mike Gannon, Tim Armacost, Sam Janotta (who I thought was adorable, but I was a nerd back then – Hey Sam, are you single now? LOL!), Mark Learner, Brian Patterson, Dave O’Neal, and a drum major I can’t remember right now. Dad died New Year’s eve 2005…it was really crazy. He was here in FL visiting me for the holidays with the family, like they always did. We were at Busch Gardens. My 2 boys, who were younger then, about 4 & 7 yrs. I think, were having a ball with dad. We all had such a great day, laughing and reminiscing, eating, sharing bites of food, etc…point being it was a really great visit. We said goodbyes and gave hugs as dad and my stepmom and half-sister and half-brother were heading out to buy “herring” dad’s favorite German New Year’s Eve delicacy, he also said it was supposed to bring good luck in the following year. 05 had been a rough year and the last thing he said was here’s hoping next year is better than last. About 10 minutes later my half-sister Stephanie called on my cell SCREAMING & CRYING, dad had collapsed exiting the park. We were on the other side of the park and ran like hell with a stroller to get there, praying all the way…anyway, as we know how this ends, he died shortly thereafter. My priest told me and I thought he was nuts at the time but now I get it…what a beautiful story and testimony to his life and spending his last day at an amusement park laughing with family. And that is what our best memories are of him, laughing…
    Here’s my contact info if anyone wants to get in touch:
    Facebook: http://facebook.com/gibson.karla
    LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/karlagibson/
    Website: http://www.kookipooki.webs.com
    Twitter: https://twitter.com/karla_gibson
    Email: karla_gibson@verizon.net

    • Mark Lerner says:

      Hi Karla!

      I think you must have been a year or two ahead of me in school?

      Thank you for sharing that story. It’s incredibly rough to lose a parent, but I think your priest had a point. He had the kind of last day anyone would wish for, having a great time with his family.

      Sam Jannotta is still infuriatingly adorable. He is not, alas, single.

      I will be writing about your dad again: I still haven’t gotten to the marching band…

      • hey Mark , I thought I was younger than ya’ll, but maybe not, lol?! I graduated from Holy Cross in ’83, my sister Monika graduated in ’81 from HCA too. We all still tell “dad/dobb” stories all the time?! And regarding the “spittle” we used to say at home…”don’t get dad all riled up he will start ‘foaming at the mouth'” in jest, of course, we couldn’t have loved him more ❤

  14. Jeff Lerner says:

    What an interesting read… I’m late to this, but thank you Mark Lerner (everyone always asked if we were related!) for posting this stuff! I played in this band in my Junior and Senior years at Whitman (1980, 1981). I was 2nd trumpet on the record, and played lead the following year along with Steve Bolze (towering over me to the right). Steve and I shared the lead parts particularly the more challenging stuff, giving each other room to breathe and taking turns on the more difficult riffs. I (similarly to you Mark) remember feeling like I was out of my league most of the time, I knew that Steve was far better than me, and I often felt surprised that I was allowed to play at all, given my lack of music-reading skills. I remember at some of the competitions (in which we routinely excelled) when we had sight-reading competitions in which we were given the music, and then had to perform the chart like 15 minutes later. Steve would play the stuff for me, and once I heard it I could muddle through. I have fond memories of playing in Dobb’s Jazz band, perhaps less so of playing in the Marching band. The talent in the Jazz band was outstanding, and I remember in my Senior year, we were not allowed to compete in one of the competitions because we’d won it so many times before! The organizers wanted to give other bands the opportunity to win, so we performed on stage but not as part of the competition. With talent like Tim Armacost, Pete Sprague, Joel MacDonald, Rory McCleod, Steve Bolze, John Hillis, Rich Twigg, Scott Rabin and Alan Yellowitz, it’s no wonder we were so highly regarded! My memory is also a little rough around the edges so feel free to correct me on any of this!

    As for that Vinyl recording — There were typed liner notes (mimeographed?!?) for that — which I will now have to go find. I still have at least 2 pressings.

    I went on to play with Bill Potts at the Montgomery College Jazz Ensemble, a band which was filled with insanely talented folks as well, and although I didn’t realize it until much later, Bill Potts was one of my heros from the Jazz College of Musical Knowledge (credit that line to Bill). It was here that I had perhaps my most memorable regret in life. Bill Potts nearly begged me to play in his band again the following year (I think that would have been 1985 or so) and I turned him down. I have essentially stopped playing the trumpet ever since. Thank you again for posting this! — Jeff Lerner

    • Mark Lerner says:

      Jeff! Be sure to check out the entry on the Pyle Jr. High School band, where I admit to a childish resentment of you because you had the same last name as me.

      I think this may be a rare case of evidence that I have grown up…

      Thanks for writing!


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