Walt Whitman High School Stage BandPosted: March 7, 2012
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.