Strike Up the Band

After 25 Years, Time Marches On for the D.C. Different Drummers

Music aficionado or not, chances are most GLBT Washingtonians have had a least a brush with the D.C. Different Drummers during the band’s 25 years. Certainly anyone who has seen a Capital Pride Parade over the past decade recalls the man in the big white hat (also known as a ”busby”) who leads the DCDD marching band along the parade route.

”First comes the banner,” explains Ed Wilson, who’s been leading the DCDD Pride contingent without interruption since 1991. ”Next comes the color guard. Then come the flag boys, known as the ‘flagettes.’ I usually step out in front of the banner. There is a directing drum major — he does the turns for the band, the stops and starts. I’m a performing drum major. I’m showy, and I control the forward movement.”

As the ”performing drum major,” Wilson may have the face — or at least the big hat — that the local gay community most identifies with the DCDD. It’s a role he looks forward to every year, making an hours-long commute from his native southeastern Pennsylvania.



DCDD’s Scott Barker

Like many Different Drummers, Wilson’s involvement with bands began at an early age. His babysitter, a drum major with the local high school band, passed the time teaching the 6-year-old Wilson how to twirl the baton. Before he knew it, he’d been drafted into the high schools marching band as their ”little red devil” mascot.

”My grandmother made this devil outfit,” Wilson recalls. ”On the football field, I marched out in front with the twirlers, twirling a baton. I did hand springs and cartwheels and back flips. I think I might’ve stolen the show.

”That went on till I reached junior high school in the early ’70s. The band director had lost his drum major — he’d graduated,” says Wilson, explaining that he attended a combined junior-senior high school. ”The director made me the drum major in 8th grade. That really stepped on a lot of toes. He always had good drum majors. In retrospect, they were probably all gay.”

Though Wilson and his busby may be to the Capital Pride Parade what pearls and cardigans are to the Junior League, the D.C. Different Drummers can sit or swing as well as they march. Along with the marching band — recognized as DCDD’s original incarnation 25 years ago — today the group offers a symphonic band, a swing band, a pep band, and a number of smaller ensembles.

”Certainly the marching is our most visible band,” says K. Scott Barker, DCDD’s artistic director. ”We’re trying to get a higher profile for the symphonic band. I think it’s the city’s best-kept musical secret.”

Along with the bands, which include some straight performers, DCDD also includes a cadre of ”band aides,” the aptly named volunteer support staff who, among other tasks, keep Wilson and his marchers hydrated through the Capital Pride Parade.

This weekend, the Different Drummers will mark the group’s 25th anniversary with two concerts. On Friday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 12, the DCDD Capitol Pride Symphonic Band will present a program entitled A Place for Us.

”[The title is] taken from West Side Story,” Barker says. ”D.C. Different Drummers has provided ‘a place for us.”’ The show will include a look back at America immediately prior to DCDD’s creation in 1980, including glimpses of anti-gay icon Anita Bryant and the assassination of gay civil-rights pioneer Harvey Milk.

”We’ll do a reflection with video and music,” says Barker. ”Then we’ll do a variety of works — reflections of the symphonic band, reflections or our history. And we’ll have sing-a-long portion — a Sound of Music tribute so the Broadway queens will get a chance to sing. There will be a few surprises as well.”

Make Some Music

Among the other gay-related events in the American mix of the late ’70s, one played a pivotal part in the creation of D.C. Different Drummers.

”The band was really founded by Michael Rutherford,” says Mary Bahr, a founding member. ”There was the [National] March on Washington [for Lesbian and Gay Rights] in ’79. There were two bands there — from Houston and Los Angeles, I believe. Michael said, ‘If they can have bands, why can’t we?”’

So Rutherford, a tuba player, placed an ad to recruit likeminded musicians from the local gay community. Approximately 10 people showed up to the first meeting in February 1980.

”It was on the top floor of Louie’s,” Bahr recalls, referring to the three-story gay complex that once stood across the street from the FBI headquarters on 9th Street. ”We shared the floor with the drag queens. We brought our instruments.”

A trumpet player since the fourth grade, Bahr says the fledgling group created a contest, allowing members of the community to suggest a name for the band, with the winner to be awarded his or her own concert. But Bahr says she has no memory of the newly-christened D.C. Different Drummers ever playing such a concert.

”[Joining the band] was the best thing in the world,” says Bahr. ”I was a little scared. It was the first organization I got involved with after moving to Washington in the LGBT community.”

Since Rutherford called that first meeting, DCDD has been offering a musical home to area musicians of all sexual orientations and skill levels. Auditions are not required to join. Barker admits that making music with musicians both expert and novice has its challenges, but also emphasizes the advantages achieved by mixing experience with enthusiasm.



Mary Bahr

”I like the fact that we’re non-auditioning,” Barker says. ”It’s important we have a band that’s welcoming to all musicians. Yes, we have musicians at a higher skill level. But you put them next to someone who hasn’t played in years, and their enthusiasm just infects everybody. That’s a plus for the person who never stopped playing.

”By and large, they’re a pretty self-motivated group,” he continues. ”People really buy into the idea of being as good as they can be.”

When Barker started in ’98, DCDD was ”a smaller and more casual” organization. ”The culture was a little more ‘Let’s get together on Monday and play.’ I’m more goal-driven. I wanted to raise the bar of our performances. D.C. Swing! was the most vibrant ensemble at the time. I wanted to raise the symphonic and marching band performances. Basically, I tried to throw more challenging music at the group and ran more disciplined rehearsals. We still maintain an atmosphere of fun — while putting on the best concerts we’re capable of.”

Stan Goff, president of DCDD and a saxophone player, sings a similar tune. After all, he spent years in Dallas singing with the gay men’s group Turtle Creek Chorale, ignoring his sax for years before moving to Washington in 2000.

”I really was always first and foremost an instrument player, but there really wasn’t a gay band in Dallas,” says Goff. ”A friend invited me to the D.C. Different Drummers 20th anniversary concert. I was blown away by the quality. I joined for the very next concert and haven’t looked back. It’s been a wonderful trip. I hadn’t picked up my horn in 12 years. That’s not uncommon. People find out about DCDD and it’s like a door has reopened. It’s really exciting to see someone who is more marginal sign up, and just see the light go on as they really practice and start improving.”

Like Goff, C.J. Liotta followed an indirect path to playing with the Different Drummers. He responded to a call for singers needed to accompany the symphonic band on a piece honoring the AIDS Quilt.

”I grew up where community bands were these rinky-dink things,” says Liotta. ”Hearing Different Drummers, I was immediately impressed by how good the band was.”

Liotta’s engagement as DCDD guest-singer quickly morphed into drum major with the marching band and flautist with the symphonic band. ”As soon as they hear you play an instrument, it’s ‘So, you want to join the band?’ I was at the next rehearsal. It didn’t take much convincing.”

Banding Together

Aside from the talent, Liotta says he was also impressed by the Different Drummers’ social cohesion. Whether the DCDD is an expression of music or one of community is a difficult distinction to make.

”It’s really a balancing act,” Goff reckons. ”You can’t have one without the other.”

The community aspect of the group was put to the test within just a couple of years of forming, says Bahr. She remembers the storm clouds gathering over her newfound friends.

”HIV’s first foray into band life came when volunteers with Whitman-Walker Clinic came to one of our rehearsals,” Bahr says, unclear of the exact date, but offering a guess of 1982. ”They asked the women to leave, and they started education for the men. Unfortunately, we didn’t know as much then. There was a lot of sexual activity. We lost an awful lot of people.”

At the time, Bahr was president of the Different Drummers, a post she held for roughly a decade. She had no idea that the responsibility for holding the group together in the midst of a nightmare would fall to her.

”In the band’s early years, our best friends were each other,” say Bahr. ”A lot of the support surrounding folks passing away rested on the shoulders of each other…. A lot of it fell on me. You just persevere. There was a core group of women that were supporting the band from the beginning. As new women came in, we recruited them to help out, to make a network to hold everything together. I can’t speak for all the old members, but I think it really took a toll on everyone.”

Bahr is haunted by a memory of setting strict rules for rehearsal attendance in preparation for a Hollywood Bowl concert in which members of DCDD were asked to participate. In the earliest years of AIDS, she didn’t realize that many of her musicians were simply too ill to meet her attendance requirements.

”I didn’t realize until too late that some of the fellas couldn’t be there because they were sick,” she laments. ”I didn’t find out till just before the concert. I felt really guilty about that. I wasn’t really getting it.”

Still, Bahr managed to keep the Different Drummers together. She stepped down in the early ’90s, taking a break for graduate school, as well as to recover from the emotional toll of the epidemic. Returning about five years later, Bahr says she was pleased by what she found: ”The band survived. There were lots of new folks. They had healthier lifestyles. There had been a lot of drinking and drugging in the earlier years.”

And HIV be damned, Bahr can still look to her DCDD memories as some of her happiest. Her first DCDD performance before a large audience, marching in New York’s pride parade a quarter century ago, stands out.

”It was exhilarating,” she says. ”The first time we marched in New York, I’d never felt that way before. That was pure pride…. I really think that high points continue, and are more frequent these days under Scott.”

As Barker is helping to foster DCDD’s signature sense of camaraderie, he is also benefiting from it.

”When I first joined in the late ’80s, I was closeted at work,” says Barker. ”When I would walk through those doors at rehearsal, the closet doors came down. We’ve been a great instrument for helping people with the coming out process, and helping their families come to terms.

”We also have a lot of fun. We brought back band camp. We go every fall to an arts camp in southern New Jersey. That’s enhanced the group. We’re more tight-knight.”

Goff says that the sense of family in the group is important.

”Even our straight members come to appreciate that. We’re about working hard and at the same time creating our own community. And supporting the gay community at large, as well.”

The sense of community DCDD offers may have been instilled by Rutherford at the very beginning. The tone he set for the group was a friendly one.

”He wasn’t a taskmaster,” says Bahr. ”He was a people person. He had a spirit of leading people. He had that charisma. He was happy. You might say high on life. And that rubbed off.”


DCDD at the 2005 Capital Pride Parade

Tomorrow’s Music

As the D.C. Different Drummers mark the group’s 25th anniversary with A Place for Us, they’ll be tapping into their talent, community and history. Barker, for example, will be performing a tuba solo as an homage to fellow tuba player Rutherford, who died in 1997.

While considering how far they’ve come with 25 years under their collective belt, there is still the future to think about. Goff, as caretaker of the administrative side of things, offers that the annual group’s budget has risen recently from $10,000 to $40,000.

”That’s not much for some organizations, but for us it’s light years,” he says, adding that he believes DCDD is moving into the future fiscally sound. ”For any organization, it’s just important to have a strong financial footing. That has been my No. 1 goal.”

While Goff is not certain if he’ll seek to be re-elected as DCDD president, citing an obligation to his ”band widow” partner, Barker says he hopes to remain artistic director as long as the DCDD wants him.

”I’ll stay as long as they let me, and as long as I can provide artistic stimulation” Barker pledges. ”If I get stale, they need to replace me. As long as I can spur their creativity, I hope they’ll keep me around.”

And as long as he is around, Barker will have a couple of goals in mind. He would like to raise the profile of the symphonic band — one of the three largest GLBT bands in the country, and the only strictly community band in the district — and use DCDD to build bridges between the gay and mainstream communities.

”How do we come out of our community and take our music to non-gay communities?” asks Barker. ”Any gay and lesbian music group is ideally situated to be ambassadors. Right now, that’s not being heard in the ‘red states.’ I’m trying to find non-gay parades we can march in. We need to be marching in Richmond, in Williamsburg. We’re looking at taking the symphonic band to a mainstream music festival in Connecticut. I think we’re leading the way in terms of that. Not that others aren’t doing it, but I see that as our central mission. It’s not enough to do a concert in Dupont Circle. We need to do a concert out in the hinterlands.

”I think we’re leading the way in both preserving the community culture through music, as well as taking the next step to where the gay and lesbian music community needs to go.”

Goff offers a stab at what the group’s role might be in 2030.



More about DC’s Different Drummers

”With us, audiences get a big piece of heart,” he says. ”It’s that heart that really helps set us apart…. I would like to think there will always be something special about being gay, that we’ll always have something special to give to the community at large. There are so many great ways we can positively impact our city, our community at large, by making great music and bringing our brand of heart. There will always be a place for that.”

Regardless of whatever designs the current DCDD leadership and other members may have on the future, Bahr seems satisfied that this quarter-century evolution has in no way diminished Rutherford’s original sentiment.

”The underlying thread is the community organization where folks of many different talents come together. That’s not changed.”

And what does Bahr think Rutherford and other founders who have passed away might think of today’s Different Drummers?

”They would be ecstatic. They really would be.”

D.C. Different Drummers Capitol Pride Symphonic Band performs A Place for Us on Friday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 12, at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, 1820 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at www.dcdd.org ($15 donation) or at the door ($18 donation).

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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