Devoted to music from childhood, he is even more devoted to providing “quality instruction, love, a family environment, and a home away from home for my kids.” His guidance also leads to many band scholarships for his students. Perry became proficient in playing all the woodwind instruments in his experience in marching band in I.C. Norcom High School and Norfolk State University and now teaches 65 band students a year to play the instruments of their choice, even if they have no previous experience. In this interview honoring his selection as a 2023 Capitol Hill Community Foundation honoree, Perry explains the difference between corps-style and high-stepping marching bands and shares his enjoyment of the creative process of putting together everything from half-time performances to musical programs for the White House Easter Egg Roll. When a Washington Post article publicized the fact that Eastern’s band had to fundraise for all its expenses—and that Perry had once sold his car to raise funds for the band—donations poured in, and in the words of the Post, “magic ensued.”
START OF INTERVIEW
DEUTSCH: Okay. This is Stephanie Deutsch and it is February 11, 2023, and I’m at 500 East Capitol Street NE with James Perry. And I’m so glad to have this chance to chat with you and find out about what brought you to Eastern [High School]. Why don’t you start by telling me where did you grow up?
PERRY: I grew up in a city called Portsmouth, Virginia. A little small city. You hear about Norfolk and you hear about Virginia Beach, and Portsmouth was just in the middle of all of that. We call it the Seven Cities. I grew up on a street with a lot of children. [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: That’s nice.
PERRY: So summers were very fun. You know, all the neighbors knew one another. Everyone was pretty close. We all went to the same elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. You know, it wasn’t like DC where you can kind of transfer. Your zoned school was where you went and that was it. So, it was enjoyable. I loved the time I had there. I always felt like it was a little slow for me, so … [Both laugh.]
DEUTSCH: Starting at an early age.
PERRY: Yeah. You know, it was like “Ahhh.” But I enjoyed just, like, being a k[id]. I had the opportunity to be a kid. And I think that’s what was most important. You know, I had the bike riding clubs. Then, of course, my mom was really heavily into church, so we were in church every Sunday, on Wednesday nights, sometimes second service. So we spent a lot of time in the sanctuary.
DEUTSCH: And I bet that was a lot of music.
PERRY: Oh, yes, oh, yes. I think for me that was the start. Just, you know, Sunday morning listening to the organist play and listening to the drummer come in and listening to all the different voices in the choir and how they all came together to make this big, beautiful sound.
DEUTSCH: Did your mom ... was she musical?
PERRY: She was not. She sung, you know. I mean, she didn’t sing on key [both laugh], but she’d sing. But she always played music. I remember Saturday mornings, you know, we would get up and clean up and music was on and …
DEUTSCH: Oh, just a minute. I want to get that down. What kind of music?
PERRY: She listened to a lot of R&B and a lot of gospel. Luther Vandross was one of her favorites. Freddie Jackson was one of her favorites. She loved the Mississippi Mass Choir, Reverend James Cleveland. Those were all …
DEUTSCH: That she’d listen to on the radio? Or …
PERRY: She had, like, cassettes and record players.
DEUTSCH: Back in the day. Records.
PERRY: The vinyls, yeah, the vinyls, man. That was the time.
DEUTSCH: Yeah, that was the time. My husband’s gone back. He’s reverting.
PERRY: Ah, yeah, yeah. I have a friend who’s collecting as well.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. So, Saturday mornings, cleaning up the house, listening to music.
PERRY: Listening to music ... you know, it kind of just made the time go by quicker. Just kind of us fellowshipping in that music and, you know, just getting through the day, getting through that morning. God knows, we didn’t want to clean up, but, you know. [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: So, [you] said, Luther Vandross, Reverend James …
DEUTSCH: And you mentioned one other.
PERRY: The Mississippi Mass Choir.
DEUTSCH: Mississippi—is that a well known …
PERRY: Choir? Mm-hmm. Yeah. Back when I was growing up they were very well known. The Mississippi Mass Choir, they used to put out these records and everybody just loved …
DEUTSCH: Mass, like the Catholic mass?
DEUTSCH: Yeah, yeah. Okay. So, you’re listening to music, you’re cleaning up. You had siblings, I guess?
PERRY: I have a sister, yes, that I grew up with. She is three years behind me. So, yeah. The music bug didn’t really catch her. She was more into sports. But, yeah.
DEUTSCH: Was your dad with the Navy? Was this a Navy community or …?
PERRY: So, yes. My dad was—yes, he’s retired Navy. And it was a Navy [community]. Norfolk Naval Shipyard and all of that stuff was there. So, yeah, he’s retired Navy. And my grandfather also was Navy. And I think I got my musical bug from him because, from what I was told, he played piano and violin.
PERRY: So, he was kind of well versed in music and was self-taught as well. So.
DEUTSCH: That’s interesting.
DEUTSCH: So, elementary school?
PERRY: Elementary school was a breeze. You know, I enjoyed it. Right around middle school is when I decided that I wanted to, you know, be in band. And we got to select our instruments. And I remember initially selecting drums, because everybody wanted to play drums.
DEUTSCH: Every boy wants to play the drums, yeah.
PERRY: You know, like, I mean, you wanted to be the cool guy. And my mom was like, “Yeah, no”. The drums were not going to work. So …
DEUTSCH: Was that because she just didn’t want the noise?
PERRY: I don’t think she wanted the noise and I think, you know, she was just like ...
DEUTSCH: “This isn’t serious”?
PERRY: We didn’t have a big home, you know. Like where were we going to store this drum?
DEUTSCH: She was too practical. [Laughs.]
PERRY: And I chose alto saxophone next. And, you know, that’s where I fell in love. I remember going to rent the horn. And I was just so … You know, they come out and they show you the instrument. And it was so shiny and had all these keys and, I mean, I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is just awesome!” [Interviewer laughs.]
And, you know, it just kind of came to me. Alto sax was just such a versatile instrument, you know. And back then, you had Kenny G. [American saxophonist and composer Kenneth Bruce Gorelick]. And, you know, you could just hear all these wonderful sounds that you could create with the horn. And I used to always try to emulate them and try to, you know, get that little sexy sound out of my horn. So I enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it. I took to it quickly. I had a great middle school band director that let us kind of be ... You know, [he] taught us the fundamentals but also gave us the opportunity to come up with our own ideas.
PERRY: And, you know, just [to] put our own two cents in. I think that was important and something that stuck with me. I remember us doing little talent shows in middle school. And we would, like, listen to the songs on the radio and we would play them, you know, and the kids would go crazy because we were, like, playing what’s new and hot. With the full band, we were playing Aladdin and Little Mermaid and things like that. [Interviewer laughs.] So, yeah, I think that’s when I really was, like, “I really enjoy this!” I enjoyed the creative process of learning music and listening to music and making it your own.
DEUTSCH: Mm. That’s good. So, middle school, then high school.
PERRY: Ah, yes. high school. So, woof, that was a culture shock!
PERRY: So, going to high school, I was going to I.C. Norcom. I.C. Norcom High School. Their marching band is known as the “Versatile 100.” And, you know, in Portsmouth, if you didn’t go to I.C. Norcom, you know, you were …
DEUTSCH: What was the name of the school? I.C. …
PERRY: I.C. Norcom.
DEUTSCH: N-O-R …
DEUTSCH: Okay. That was the high school.
PERRY: That was the high school to be at in Portsmouth and the band was just phenomenal. It had a rich history in being great, in being one of the largest high schools in the area, and just being exceptional at what they do. And I couldn’t wait to go there. And I remember summer band camp, showing up my first day. You know, you had to wear, like, a plain white T-shirt and black shorts, and you come in and it was this old wood shop room that they had converted into a band room. It was just like all this metal around. And they had these garage doors that would swing open. And there was no ventilation system in there whatsoever.
DEUTSCH: It was hot. [Laughs.]
PERRY: So they had those big old school fans just blowing. But I was just, like, super excited to be there until we started doing our conditioning and I thought I was going to, like, pass out. [Laughs.] You know.
PERRY: But it was just such a great time. My first band director was Mr. Donovan Wells, who is actually now the director at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
DEUTSCH: Really? And he’s now musical director?
PERRY: Mm-hmm. And he was a disciplinarian. That was his thing. Like, I mean, everything had to be right, down to the way you stand, down to the way you looked, down to the way you picked up the exact .... You know, how you pointed your toe when you marched. But it was those details, you know, that I think made us stand apart from the rest of the other bands.
We were in a very competitive area because a lot of the Virginia bands work very well. All of them could play. All of them had great style. They had something different with each program. So, when we went to these band competitions, it was extremely competitive and you never knew who was going to win because everyone was so strong.
DEUTSCH: Now, were the band competitions mostly black kids?
PERRY: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mostly black high stepping competitions. And you would find about maybe 10 to 12 bands at these competitions.
DEUTSCH: Now, when you say high stepping—help me understand that.
PERRY: So corps style bands, they do what we call a roll toe, which is basically your foot doesn’t leave the ground too much but you just heel-toe.
DEUTSCH: Oh, you kind of walk along like that.
PERRY: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. But high stepping is when you actually high knee lift.
DEUTSCH: And that’s just a style?
PERRY: Mm-hmm, it’s just a style.
DEUTSCH: And it’s more of a style that black bands do?
PERRY: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. But, you know, interestingly enough, you do have some of the Big 10 [sports conference] bands use that high step. Ohio State, Michigan, University of Southern Cal[ifornia]. So, you do have some …
DEUTSCH: Where did it originate? Do you know anything about the history of high stepping?
PERRY: I want to say—I’m not sure where it originated. That is a great question. [Both laugh.] I don’t know where …
DEUTSCH: A research project for one of your kids.
PERRY: Yeah, a research project for me, right? Where it originated. But I do know that, you know, black schools adopted that model.
DEUTSCH: Okay. So, you’d go to band competitions.
PERRY: Yeah, we’d go to band competitions. And, you know, we would compete. And it was just so fun because you just never knew who was going to win. And it was kind of a bragging rights thing, as well, you know.
DEUTSCH: Of course.
PERRY: Like, “We’re better than you, we got you guys at the last competition.” But, you know, it just created a camaraderie amongst the students as well. Because it was, “Oh, you march for that band?” “Yeah, I march for that band.” “Oh, yeah, I enjoyed you guys last week.” So you know, you got to learn new people and …
DEUTSCH: You all had something you shared.
PERRY: Absolutely, absolutely.
DEUTSCH: So, high school?
PERRY: High school. [Sighs, interviewer laughs.] I mean, I loved it. I loved it. I played saxophone my first two years. Then I tried out for drum major my junior year. And I became the drum major which was, you know, awesome because you lead the band at that point.
DEUTSCH: And this is such an ignorant question on my part. The drum major. I assume you have a drum.
PERRY: No. You have a baton.
DEUTSCH: Oh, okay.
PERRY: You have a baton. You pretty much lead the band.
DEUTSCH: So, you’re not playing anymore. You’re the leader.
PERRY: I’m not playing anymore
DEUTSCH: You’re like the conductor of the orchestra.
PERRY: Correct. [But] you do play. Like, I still played, like, in jazz band and concert band. But as far as the marching band component went, I didn’t play my horn. And it was cool because you got to pretty much run rehearsal. You were the man. Like, everybody knew you, you know. And it was, like, that position, you know, you couldn’t take it lightly because all …
DEUTSCH: It was responsibility.
PERRY: It was responsibility. All eyes were on you. You know, the director expected you to be an extension of himself. So, you know, if something was not going right with the program, he would come to you, you know. “What’s going on?” Like, “What’s happening?”
DEUTSCH: That was good training for adult life. [Laughs.]
PERRY: It was. It really was. It really was. So, I enjoyed it. You know, I had some great drum majors along my side that supported me. And, then, just even the alumni base at I.C. Norcom. Phenomenal. They would always come back. They would always talk about what the program meant, the history of the program and how important it is to continue that legacy. So, I definitely enjoyed it. And, then, you know, upon graduation, the sky was the limit. My director had set me up to be successful, you know. I was a pretty solid player. I don’t want to use the word great, but I was a pretty solid player, you know. I could read the music. I had great tone. My passion was there and, you know, I loved it. So I was looking at schools that I wanted to go to. My first choice was Florida A&M University. That was my—I mean FAMU was, like, you know, they were the model …
DEUTSCH: Believe it or not, I’ve been there.
DEUTSCH: Yes. [Laughs.]
PERRY: Yeah. FAMU was just, like, goodness gracious, I mean …
DEUTSCH: That was where you wanted to go?
PERRY: That was where I wanted to go. They had the biggest band. I mean, they just —the music was outstanding. The discipline was, you know, great. And I loved FAMU. I loved their style. And I remember seeing them my senior year. They happened to play Norfolk State. And they came to Norfolk State’s campus and, I mean, they just took over. Like, you know, you’re talking about 350-plus members.
DEUTSCH: Of the band?
PERRY: That was something that I’d never seen in my life. Yes.
PERRY: That’s a lot of band.
DEUTSCH: That is a lot of band.
PERRY: So, you know, just seeing that many people in uniform just blew me away. And just seeing the saxophone section—saxophones alone probably had about 50 to 60 people themselves. So, I was, like, “Yes, that is where I am going to school.” And that particular year I remember Norfolk State was actually going through a transition. So, their band wasn’t, you know, wasn’t remotely close to what FAMU was. So, I was, like, “Yep, I’m going to FAMU.”
DEUTSCH: “That’s where I’m going.” Okay.
PERRY: And, then, as we were setting up for auditions ... I did my auditions. Everything was fine. And, then, I remember Norfolk State’s band director came over and, you know, talked to me.
DEUTSCH: Oh, no. [Perry laughs.] Oh, no, I see what’s coming. I see what’s coming.
PERRY: And, you know, it was something about ... Although I had seen a lot of bands, there was something about Norfolk State that I always liked. You know, besides the fact that they had these cool Spartan helmets [interviewer laughs] that set them apart from the rest. But the approach to music was different and you could hear it in their playing.
DEUTSCH: Can you describe what the difference was?
PERRY: I think, you know, they had a unique sound and I think a big part of that was the way they arranged for the band, the voicing that they would give to certain instruments. It was just kind of unique.
DEUTSCH: You mean physically the way they stood or …
PERRY: The way they structured it. Like, you would hear the trumpets playing a line that just would kind of soar through the band. And, you know, [with] a lot of bands, sometimes the melody got lost, because everyone was trying to outplay one another in each section. But I think with Norfolk State that melody always resonated and you could sing along with the song, like, word for word. You’d, like, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe they hit that part.” And it was just like something amazing. And they would play these ballads that were so beautiful and the crowd would sing along.
And it was just like they created this atmosphere that just made you tune in. And, so, you know, talking to the director, even though they were a smaller band at the time ... He made me feel like, “Listen, if you make this decision to come here, I promise you, you won’t regret it.” And, you know, being close to home wasn’t a bad idea either.
DEUTSCH: Not a bad thing.
PERRY: You know, I’m a Mama’s boy. I’ll admit it. [Interviewer laughs.] So it wasn’t a bad idea. But when I got to that campus and …
DEUTSCH: So, you turned down …
PERRY: I did not go to FAM. I did not go to FAM.
DEUTSCH: Yeah, yeah, okay.
PERRY: I still love FAM to this day. I have a student there now actually. But I went to Norfolk State and, man, best decision ever. Like, I mean, Norfolk State University is just one of the premier programs in the nation. I mean, and we’re talking …
DEUTSCH: In music?
PERRY: In music. You know, the music department as a whole is just simply amazing.
DEUTSCH: Why is it that they are so strong? I mean, do they …
PERRY: A big part of it is the staff that they have there. I mean, you have people that really care about you being a true musician. And I think, you know, that’s what sets us apart from a lot of universities. Like, you can hear it in the playing. You can see it in the discipline. Like, there is just a level of excellence …
PERRY: … that is expected that is unmatched to me. And, you know, my summer band camp, meeting all these new faces from different places. I remember we had people from New Orleans, we had people from the Virgin Islands …
PERRY: … we had people from Detroit, Michigan. I had never met, you know, anyone outside of Virginia hardly, you know. [Laughs.] So, you know, just to meet new people and learn new cultures and come together for this one common goal ... It definitely was a process, you know. We had people that came from corps style bands, interestingly enough.
DEUTSCH: Corps style?
PERRY: Yeah, that heel-toe.
DEUTSCH: Yeah, okay.
PERRY: Like, people who had never done high stepping band.
DEUTSCH: Right, right. They had to learn it.
PERRY: So, now you had to teach. Yeah, you had to teach them how to do that high stepping model. So, that in itself was a process. But, you know, just working together actively for that common goal was simply—it was amazing. Like, I treasure it. I treasure those memories, you know. They’re very dear to my heart.
DEUTSCH: [Laughing.] Did you do anything academic while you were there?
PERRY: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean …
DEUTSCH: What were you studying?
PERRY: I was early childhood education major. But, interestingly enough, you know, I was supposed to be working with the little kids. [Laughs.] You know I had no idea that I would wind up on the high school level.
DEUTSCH: You were seeing yourself as like a …
PERRY: Like a pre-k[indergarten] …
DEUTSCH: Pre-k teacher?
PERRY: Yeah. Like a pre-k teacher. I loved the little ones. They definitely have energy. But I loved it. I loved how inquisitive they were and I just loved, like, their positive spirit most of the time. And that’s kind of how I view myself. I’m a very positive person and I like to surround myself with that kind of energy.
PERRY: Absolutely. So, you know …
DEUTSCH: You need to be cloned and put in every school in the country. [Both laugh.]
PERRY: Right. So, I wanted to be with the little ones. But, yeah, once I left Norfolk State University …
DEUTSCH: So, you graduated.
PERRY: Yeah. Left Norfolk State University and I was working in—where was I working? I was working in mental health, actually, at that point. Yeah, I was working in mental health. And I would, like, work in these homes and, you know, administer medicine and create plans for the residents of the home and, you know, hold activities and things like that. It was interesting, it was fun. You know, it was good money, at the time.
DEUTSCH: Was this in Norfolk?
PERRY: This was in Norfolk. Mm-hmm. And, then, I decided—I remember me and two of my best friends we were like, “Yeah, let’s get a place together.”
They always say, you know, “Be mindful of who you decide to live with.” [Laughs.] So, we got a place together. And I think there was, like, a small dispute about—and we hadn’t been there, like, a month literally—and there was a small dispute about—we saw a mouse. And one friend thought, you know, “This is just ridiculous! They should pay for the exterminator,” you know. And we were going back and forth with the landlord. And I was like, you know, “Listen, hey, I will pay for the exterminator. It’s not a big deal. Let’s just get it done.” And he was, like, “No, I just don’t feel comfortable living here anymore. The landlord doesn’t seem very responsive.” I was, like, “Okay.” So, at that point, I was, like, “Well, I’m not going back to my mother’s house.” I made it a mission ... When I left, I left. Not that I couldn’t go back. But, you know, once you’re out and you’re on your own, you kind of— you like that freedom. You don’t want to go back home.
PERRY: So, I said, “Well, I’m not going home.” I called my cousin John Gibson, who was a native Washingtonian, and I said, “Hey, you still have your spare room? I’m going to come up to DC.” He said, “Absolutely, it’s yours.”
DEUTSCH: What year are we now, about?
PERRY: Oh, this is 2005. Yes, this is 2005. I had $500 to my name. [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: Oh-hoo-hoo-hoo. You were brave.
PERRY: I got a U-haul, packed all my stuff up, and drove up in the wee hours of the night, and moved into my cousin John’s place.
DEUTSCH: And where did John live in DC?
PERRY: At the time he was in Capitol Heights, Maryland.
DEUTSCH: Out towards Prince George’s County?
PERRY: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, we were living there in his two-bedroom apartment and I started working for St. Coletta of Greater Washington …
DEUTSCH: Okay. We know St. Coletta’s [special education school in SE Washington].
PERRY: … working there as a teacher assistant. And that was, you know, that was fun. I loved it. I’m a small-win person. A lot of people go for the big wins but I can kind of—I get a high off of small wins because I feel like they’re just as important as the big wins. And I would work with these students and I would see, you know, the growth in them and I would see some of the plans of action that we implemented and how they would take some of that. So it was cool. And then I started—and this was, like, late 2005 going into 2006—and then I started volunteering with the Eastern [High School] band.
DEUTSCH: Uh-huh! Because St. Coletta’s, of course, is right next to Eastern practically.
PERRY: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And, at that point, I was working with the woodwinds, which consists of the piccolo section, the alto saxophone section, and the clarinet section. And I primarily was just, you know, doing some things with those because Eastern at that time was known for having a very big brassy sound. And, so, I said, “I could do some things with these woodwinds.” Because they could play, they were great players. But there were just some little things that, you know, could be tweaked to make them a little bit stronger.
And, at the time, Mr. [Douglas] Gilchrist was the band director. And he was transitioning to another position outside of the District at the time. And he said, “Well, have you ever considered being a band director?” [Both laugh.] “No, not really. I love it. I have a passion for it.” He said, “Well, you know, I think you’d be good at it. I think you should give it a shot. See what happens.”
PERRY: So, I interviewed for the position in late July of 2006. And, actually, it was me and another gentleman, Joshua May, who both interviewed. We both interviewed and they ended up hiring both of us. [Laughs.] So we were two young guys …
DEUTSCH: Sort of co-directors?
PERRY: We were co-directors, yep. And what was interesting, he actually went to my rival university, which was Hampton University. So we would always, you know, jaw back and forth about which school was better. But he was a outstanding musician and he was also a saxophone player, so we had that in common. And I have to give him credit because I learned a lot from him.
DEUTSCH: What had he been doing? Had he been with another high school or with another school?
PERRY: No. This was both our first time.
DEUTSCH: So it was new for both of you.
PERRY: Yeah, it was new for both of us. We were kind of navigating through this together. And, you know, he would teach me, show me things about arranging, and just about instrument maintenance and instrument repair. He was just a good guy. And the funniest guy. He could relate to the students on a level, like, I mean, they just understood him. He could, you know, joke back and forth with them. And you know, he would shut them up.
DEUTSCH: Because I’m sure if you are working in a high school, that’s a huge part of the job, relating to the kids.
PERRY: Absolutely. I think he did an exceptional job in doing that. So, I think—He had ambitions to become a lawyer.
PERRY: Yes. So he ended up leaving to go to law school. And, you know, it kind of phased itself out because I kind of started stepping up and doing more things as he, you know, started to figure out what his next path was going to be. And then I kind of just shot to the forefront. And we just started making beautiful music and started implementing things that I felt would take the program to another level. I think those first two years were kind of me just getting my feet wet. You know, just feeling things out and just seeing what worked. A lot of it was trial and error. Lord knows there was a lot of error! [Laughs.] But, you know, it was interesting and I think right around …
DEUTSCH: Who was the principal then? Was this when Rachel Skerritt was there?
PERRY: Skerritt hadn’t come yet. This was early. I think …
DEUTSCH: This was way back.
PERRY: Yeah. Jacqueline [Williams] was the principal at the time. And then we had Monica [Taylor]. We had gone through a few principals at that point. William Chiselom was the principal. And I think Skerritt didn’t come until .
DEUTSCH: So, at some point, you’re appointed director of the band?
PERRY: I’m appointed director of bands and at that point it’s just my show. You know, it’s like, “Okay, what do I want to do? How creative can I be? What do I see the program doing? What do I want my legacy to be? What do I want my stamp to be on this program?” And I think that was kind of important to me because, I think you want people to be, like, ‘Well, when Mr. Perry had the band, this was ...” You know. [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: “This was kind of his thing.”
PERRY: Mm-hmm. And, so, I just really focused in on the music. The music, that was the first, you know. So, what do I want this band to sound like? I think, like I said, Eastern had been known to have a big brass sound. But I wanted to kind of change that. And not that what they did was bad. It was great. Because Eastern had been a great program long before I got there. But I just wanted to do something a little different. So I challenged my students in the arrangements that we played, you know. I encouraged them to play more. I encouraged them to go above and beyond what they were used to playing. And also, because I’m a woodwind player, I wanted my woodwinds to be heard and to be more visible within the arrangements.
DEUTSCH: Wait. You say you’re a woodwind player.
PERRY: Mm-hmm. I’m a woodwind player, so I play all of the woodwinds––flute, alto saxophone, clarinet.
DEUTSCH: Okay. So, now, when you’re the band director do you also teach? I mean, do you have classes that you teach or is it all …
PERRY: We will have classes next year.
DEUTSCH: Next year?
PERRY: Now, when I first started, we had classes. And then, we didn’t, as Eastern phased out and then phased back in, we didn’t have classes.
PERRY: But next year Principal Miller has assured me that we will have two music classes for band, which I am ecstatic about. And I think it will just propel us to another level. But, yeah, so basically a lot of what we’ve been doing has only been after school. And, you know, to the students’ credit, they understand. We have to have Saturday rehearsals sometimes because, honestly, two and a half hours a day isn’t enough, you know, to get the product that we want. So, they’ll have to come in. Sometimes we come in from, like, 9:00 to 2:00 on Saturdays.
DEUTSCH: On Saturdays?
DEUTSCH: Now you said something the other day, when Nicky [Cymrot, president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation] and I were there––anyone can be in the band.
DEUTSCH: So, it’s not an auditioned thing?
PERRY: No, no. I think, you know, if you have the passion and the determination to be a part of something, who am I to say no to you exploring that opportunity? I’ve seen some outstanding musicians come through that band that never played an instrument in their life until they got to Eastern.
DEUTSCH: Wow. That is so incredible.
PERRY: So, you know, it’s just like if you have a culture of excellence, one of two things are going to happen. Either you’re going to rise to the occasion or you’re not. So, no. Anyone that comes up to me and says, “Hey, Mr. Perry, I want to be a part of the band.” “Absolutely.”
DEUTSCH: And, so, what if—I mean, they just are starting to play an instrument for the first time?
PERRY: They are starting playing an instrument for ... So, usually I’ll just bring them in and have them …
DEUTSCH: What do you start them on? What’s a good starter instrument?
PERRY: [Coughs.] Excuse me. It depends. It depends on what they want to play. Trumpet is pretty decent. Woodwinds are always good. We have a great lower brass instructor and trombone instructor. So I tend to send some students there as well.
I think what I tend to do is allow the student to observe the rehearsal. I’ll bring him in, you know, introduce him to the band, let him observe the rehearsal. And then I’ll show them the various instruments within the band. And say, “All right, so, you saw the rehearsal. What do you think? What do you see yourself playing?” And, then, based upon that …
Now they may say something that I don’t really see for them, you know. Maybe I’ll be, like, “Uh, I don’t know about that one. What do you think about this?” But if they are set on that particular instrument, then I give it a go. I just say, “Hey, if this doesn’t work out, then I think you’d be good on this.” And sometimes, you know, we’ve had students bounce around maybe three times, you know, before they get to the instrument that they really excel on or feel comfortable on, rather. But it’s a process. I will say that. It’s definitely a process. Lot of patience involved in it. [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: A lot of patience. Yeah. And you perform for football games, I guess.
PERRY: Yes, we perform for the football games. We have a pep band for the basketball games. And …
DEUTSCH: You have a what?
PERRY: Pep band. We call it pep band.
DEUTSCH: Pet band? Pep band?
DEUTSCH: For basketball.
PERRY: Mm-hmm. Of course, any school events that we’re asked to perform at, we perform at. We have our parades that are, you know, surrounding the city. And, you know, we do a little bit of everything.
DEUTSCH: Couple months ago someone called me up and asked me—I mean this was, like, on Friday night, and she said, “I’m organizing the Chinese New Year celebration and who should I call about the Eastern band?” And I said, “Well, it’s not me.” And I gave them your number. Did she call you?
PERRY: Oh yes. She did call me. It was so, like …
DEUTSCH: It was literally Friday.
PERRY: It was Friday night. That was my birthday weekend.
DEUTSCH: Oh, my god.
PERRY: Yeah. It was my birthday.
DEUTSCH: So you had a lot going on.
PERRY: So I was like, “I can’t.” You know. [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: “I’m really sorry. This is not happening.”
PERRY: You know, I would love to but it was so last minute and, then, you know, the thing with that, as much as I love to perform, there’s a lot of logistical things that go into it. We have to make sure …
DEUTSCH: Oh, yes. You have to get a bus.
PERRY: We have to get a bus. We have to make sure the building is open. We have to disseminate the information to the parents. So, it’s a lot that goes into that, so …
DEUTSCH: You can’t just pull it together.
PERRY: No. It’s difficult.
DEUTSCH: Maybe next year she’ll call a little earlier.
PERRY: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, we would love to it next year, you know, as long as we have the information. But, yeah, we were unable to do it.
DEUTSCH: So, is there sort of a policy on—I mean, you’ll perform for anyone who asks you?
PERRY: I’ll perform for anyone that asks for the most part as long as it makes sense. And, when I say “makes sense”, sometimes, you know, people ask us to do things that’s just not conducive for a marching band, you know. We can’t do that. [Laughs.] You know. But if we’re …
DEUTSCH: You mean perform for a party or …
PERRY: Well, we’ve actually performed for parties. We’ve done parties, we’ve done birthday parties, we’ve done weddings, we’ve done all kinds of things. So, it just depends. But, you know, marching through a horse stable [laughs] is, you know ... We can’t do anything like that. And, interestingly enough, we’ve been asked to do things like—You get all kinds of requests. So, sometimes you just have to sit back and laugh at them.
DEUTSCH: Now, you’ve had a few high profile things, haven’t you?
DEUTSCH: Were you in the inaugural parade?
PERRY: Now, the inaugural parade was not under my tenure.
DEUTSCH: That was before you. Yeah.
PERRY: That was before me. So, yeah, Eastern has done that but we’ve definitely had our fair share of —You know, we did something with Cory Booker.
DEUTSCH: Did you?
PERRY: Yeah, last year.
DEUTSCH: Oh, yeah, I can see that.
PERRY: That was phenomenal. We had a blast.
DEUTSCH: Well, what was it? An event here in DC?
PERRY: Yeah. It was an event—I want to say it was attached to Yale alumni. No, Stanford. Excuse me.
PERRY: Stanford alumni. And they had an event and it was so nice. And he spoke, you know, great. Came over and spoke to the kids.
DEUTSCH: Where was the event?
PERRY: It was at the Mandarin [Oriental] Hotel.
DEUTSCH: Oh, my. That sounds nice.
PERRY: Yes, it was beautiful. And, of course, we had the White House Easter Egg Roll last year as well. Phenomenal event. The kids had an absolute blast. Of course, it was raining, unfortunately, but still. I mean, what an experience to just …
DEUTSCH: Oh, my god. Goosebumps.
PERRY: … be on the lawn of the White House. They got to meet Russell Wilson and Ciara and all of these people, so they were ecstatic. Yeah, last year was a really good year for the band.
DEUTSCH: Well, and then you had this whole fundraising thing. [Note: On October 8, 2022, Capitol Hill neighbor and Washington Post writer Lizzie Johnson wrote a feature article on the band with the headline “A Broke Marching Band Parades on Capitol Hill to Practice. Magic Ensues.” In the article, the reporter noted that the Capitol Hill Community Foundation had donated $20,000 to the band and planned to raise more. Fueled by the article, readers contributed more than $150,000 to the Foundation for the band. See subsequent articles in the Washington Post, the Hill Rag, and other media.]
PERRY: Oh, yes. The fundraiser. Which, I mean, who knew? [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: How did that get started?
PERRY: So, initially, the first time we did it, it was just like—I think they were raising money for instruments. And I think the Capitol Hill Foundation …
DEUTSCH: Well, we’ve been giving some money …
PERRY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DEUTSCH: … for instruments sort of. Yeah.
PERRY: Yeah. And, then, they did a kickoff where they would—they were doing whatever was raised, the bank was going to match it.
PERRY: So, that was the initial kickoff. And, then, after that Washington Post story, it just took on a life of its own. And it’s crazy because I tell people all the time that story initially had nothing to do with money. Nothing.
DEUTSCH: It was just a story about the band.
PERRY: It was just a story about the band marching through the neighborhood, what it means to the community. And, then, as Lizzie [Johnson] dug deeper, she’s like, “Wait, what?” [Laughs.] I was like, ”Yeah, this is how we operate. This is how we get things done.” And she was like, “I have some questions about that.”
DEUTSCH: You told her that you needed instruments?
PERRY: Yeah, she asked about how do we do all of this, like, how do we operate? You know, how much funding do we get? And I said [that] we don’t get any funding.
DEUTSCH: Not enough. [Perry laughs]
PERRY: You know. I said, “Outside of what the community does, outside of what we do in our own fundraising, we have no budget line item. There is none each year.”
DEUTSCH: From the school?
PERRY: From the school.
DEUTSCH: That is extraordinary.
PERRY: Yeah. So, if you think about, you know, the amount of money that goes into a bus driver …
DEUTSCH: But your salary is paid by the school.
PERRY: My salary’s paid by the school. Mm-hmm, yeah.
DEUTSCH: And, so, then, the contributions just started rolling in.
PERRY: Whew! I had no clue. Really, I had no clue whatsoever. And Nicky reached out. She was, like, “Do you know what’s happening?” [Laughs.] I was like, “No, I don’t know what’s going on.”
DEUTSCH: “What is it?”
PERRY: [Laughs.] And she was just telling [me], “We are getting floored with donations for you guys. You know, I’ve had all kinds of people reaching out.”
DEUTSCH: I got calls.
DEUTSCH: I’m not even on the board any more but I got calls. I got a call from someone who said, “I’ve got a trumpet or a trombone or something that I want to donate.” [Laughs.]
PERRY: And, I mean, it was just exceptional, just—it was the outpouring of love. I mean, handwritten notes, you know––how often do we see that these days?
PERRY: You know, I just couldn’t—I was overwhelmed that from that story, just hearing the additional stories from people about what band meant to them. You know, what music meant to …
DEUTSCH: When they did it when they [were young]?
PERRY: Exactly. And, just, you know, just the encouraging words that I got from people. I mean, really, it was overwhelming but it was great also just to receive all of that love. So I was floored. I couldn’t believe it.
DEUTSCH: And, so, that money. Has it all gone into new instruments or is …?
PERRY: So, that money …
DEUTSCH: I mean, I’m sure part of it is sort of a reserve fund for …
PERRY: Yes. So, the initial, the major thing was uniforms.
DEUTSCH: Uniforms. Okay.
PERRY: So, we are actually—our prototype should be back, I want to say, by the beginning of March. So, we’re excited. We were trying to get our representative to send us a picture of it, but he was like, “No. I want you to see it in person.” So he’s going to drive it down here.
DEUTSCH: Oh, my gosh.
PERRY: And we’re going to look at the prototype and, you know, if it’s to our liking, then we will put the deposit down, production will start, and hopefully we’ll have those uniforms back by early September.
DEUTSCH: How many members are there in the band?
PERRY: Right now we have about 65 members total. I anticipate that probably ... because we’re getting new members, like, all the time now ... My goal is to get to 80 by the end of the year.
DEUTSCH: I bet you’ll reach it.
PERRY: [Laughs.] I hope so. I hope so. So, yeah, and outside of the uniforms then we’re going to begin the purchase of new instruments. I am actually looking at stuff this weekend. And I’m just trying to first prioritize exactly what is needed. I want to make sure that people that need the instruments get theirs first and then we can look at what we need to do next. And, then, of course, you have your travel budget for travel. We actually are going to a battle of the bands in Atlanta, Georgia, in the end of April. So, we are in the process of planning that trip. So of course, logistically we’re working on that––you know, hotels and busses and looking …
DEUTSCH: Do the kids have to contribute to that or how does that work?
PERRY: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Because we know some of our students struggle with paying things, what we try to do is do fundraisers to offset some of those costs. So, if we say a trip is going to be, you know, $300, then what we do and what we recently just did, we did a Double Good Popcorn sale. And, basically, that popcorn sale, we get half of whatever we sell. So, instead of that going into the general band fund, that will go directly to the balance of your trip. So if you sell $600 worth of popcorn, then your trip is paid for, essentially.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. Okay.
PERRY: If you sell, you know, $300, then half of your trip is paid for. So, yeah, we try to do things to offset the cost. We’re always looking at creative ways to do that.
DEUTSCH: And is that like a contest, the battle of the bands?
PERRY: Yes. That will be a contest. What they do is they pair bands together and they give you a criteria of [what] each round is—it might be, like, “Play your best 80s song or play a march, a Sousa march.” So, you know, you look at various rounds and then based on those rounds you get judged. Of course, the highest score of the day ... And then they break it down, too, by percussion, best percussion line, best dance line, you know. All of those things like that.
PERRY: So, it’s an opportunity, you know, to compete. It’s held at Six Flags, so after the event the kids get to go and ride some rides and have some fun.
PERRY: So, you know, we always try to do something where the kids—and that goes back to my “kids being kids” [philosophy]—where they can be kids, you know. A lot of times, our students are, you know, babysitting and they have all of these additional responsibilities, and when they come with us we just want them to have no worries, no cares. Just have fun.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. That’s great. So, do you have any plans for the future? I mean, are you—sounds like you’re very happy where you are.
PERRY: I’m not leaving Eastern for a while! [Laughs.] You know. I always say that when I get to a point where the program is stagnant and we’re not reaching a level of excellence, we’re not upholding the legacy of the program, then it will be my time to move on. Right now I’m still kicking butt, so … [Both laugh.] So, I can stay, you know.
DEUTSCH: I’m not going to quote you on that. [Perry laughs.]
PERRY: And I enjoy it. I still love the creative process of putting halftime shows together, putting competition shows together, seeing what music, you know, goes well together, and putting out a great product. And as long as I continue to do that, then I’ll still be here. So I have a lot of years left.
DEUTSCH: You sure do.
PERRY: The kids always ask. You know, they’re like, “Mr. Perry, when will you retire?” Like, “Uh, no time soon.” [Laughs.]
DEUTSCH: No time soon. I mean, as long as you’re having fun and being given the freedom to …
PERRY: Yeah. And, you know, what I can say, you know, for the most part, Eastern is—I mean the school itself is very supportive of the program overall. The teachers, the administration. You know, they show a lot of love to the program and they understand what it means to the school and what it means to ...
DEUTSCH: And it seems like it’s also a school that’s just kind of solidified itself in the last few years. It’s really kind of in a good place, I think.
PERRY: It’s in a good place. Yeah. It’s in a good place. And I think, you know, with Principal Miller on board, I think, you know …
DEUTSCH: Of course, we loved Sah Brown [former principal of Eastern High School].
PERRY: Yeah. Listen, I worked with Sah Brown. It’s crazy because at one time I was working at Roosevelt [High School] and Eastern.
DEUTSCH: Oh, gosh.
PERRY: So, I was at Roosevelt during the day, drive over to Eastern in the afternoon, run the band program.
DEUTSCH: I bet that was tiring.
PERRY: Oh, my goodness. It was exhausting. And I did that for maybe five years. And that was when I first met Sah Brown. He was doing his principal fellowship program at the time. And, so, I had been working with him forever. And, then, when he got Eastern, I was, like, “You better get me over to Eastern full time.” [Both laugh.]
DEUTSCH: And he did.
PERRY: And he made good on his word. He got me over there. So, I am definitely grateful to him for that. But, yeah, Mr. Brown was a great guy, a great principal.
DEUTSCH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Really, really enjoyed him. Is there anything I should have asked you about that I didn’t?
PERRY: Uh. Hmm.
DEUTSCH: How about all that church music? Are you still a church goer?
PERRY: Not as much as I used to. I still love gospel music, I still listen to it. To this day. And interestingly enough, that clean-up model has stuck with me. When I get up and clean up [both laugh], I put on my music.
DEUTSCH: You crank up the music.
PERRY: And so that is—I mean, it’s embedded in me.
DEUTSCH: Do you live around here?
PERRY: I live on Maryland Avenue.
DEUTSCH: Really? So, you’re on the Hill.
PERRY: Mm-hmm. Yep. I walk to work. Which is a blessing. [Laughs.]
PERRY: Which is a blessing.
DEUTSCH: That’s like the Capitol Hill ideal.
PERRY: I love it. I love it. I love it. And you know, being a part of the community is also a motivator because you feel connected to these kids. Like, you’re part of these kids’process. You’re part of, you know, molding them into the young women and men they become. So, I take great pride in that. We don’t take it lightly. And, you know, that’s why that scholarship part is just so important. Just insuring that …
DEUTSCH: Helping the kids get scholarships?
PERRY: Get scholarships. And, you know, experience something—even if you choose to come back to DC, experience something outside of DC. Go somewhere, you know. We’ve had the pleasure of having some of our kids go to Mississippi, Louisiana, we have one at FAMU right now, North Carolina A&T, Tennessee State University, Prairie View A&M University in Texas. You can’t be nothing but proud to see these students go on and do these amazing things. So, yeah. That’s the end game.
DEUTSCH: And I assume that being in the band puts them in a strong position when they apply to college.
PERRY: Absolutely. Because we have a network of directors that we deal with at these various universities. And we’re able to say, “Hey, you know, this is a good kid. This is a good solid kid. They’ll be great for your program.” And because they know, you know, our work, then they trust our word. So, they give those students scholarships.
DEUTSCH: Wow. That’s great.
PERRY: Yes, it is. It’s a blessing.
DEUTSCH: That’s great. And any of them come back and see you when they’re home from college?
b: Oh, yes. They all come back. [Laughs.] They all come back. You know, they come back and, you know, they have their little college swag on, you know. They’re showing off and telling me stories about things that they’ve experienced on campus. So, you know, it’s a good time at that point. You can kind of just shoot the breeze with them because they’re grown now.
DEUTSCH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PERRY: So, just to see them grow and just to hear some of the stories, it’s rewarding. It really is. I love it.
DEUTSCH: Anything else?
PERRY: I just want, you know, Eastern to continue to be a comprehensive music program that provides quality instruction, love, a family environment, and I want it to be a home away from home. And, as long as we continue to do that, I think we’ll be fine.
DEUTSCH: That’s really nice. Does Eastern still have a choir?
PERRY: Yes. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Mr. Bonds is over the choir. Yep, they still have a choir.
DEUTSCH: Yeah. Okay. I think that’s good.
END OF INTERVIEW
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
James Perry Interview, February 11, 2023