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Catonsville Highschool Steel Band

Percussionist Jim Wharton, who grew up in Catonsville and had graduated from Catonsville High School in the class of 1969, was enjoying a summer trip to Ocean City in 1989 after his second year as chair of the music department. One evening, while dining with his wife, he heard the most beguiling music emanating from the back deck of the restaurant. It was the Baltimore Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band. It was the first time Wharton had heard live steel band music, and he was rapt. He had seen and heard a steel band before on the Ed Sullivan show, but never live. (Years later he would realize that the second act on that show after the headlining Pan Trinibago Allstars— “This little band with a bunch of white kids playing”—were some of the earliest American students of steel pan originator Elie Manette, Andy and Jeff Narell, sons of a New York City social worker who had learned how steel drums were defusing gang warfare in Trinidad and brought Manette to New York to address gang problems through music. Andy Narell is one of the most famous jazz pannists today, having worked with a long list of world- class musicians, from Aretha Franklin to Taj Mahal. Both Manette and Narell would have direct contacts with the CHS steel band project; but that is getting ahead of the story.) In Ocean City, “I was just mesmerized. I had no idea what the instruments even looked like,” he relates. The arranger for the group was named “Tosca”—all steel band arrangers have nicknames—who showed Wharton the instruments, and immediately recognized a fellow musician. Tosca struck a deal with Wharton: “If you help me arrange orchestral music for steel drums, I’ll teach you about calypso.” Such were the happenstance beginnings of what would become one of the hallmark musical groups at the center of music culture in Catonsville.

Wharton has focused on getting major pannists to come and perform with the CHS Band, and he has succeeded with many. “I could take the kids to Kings Dominion and play for a panel of judges, and come back with a bunch of trophies, but I’d much rather spend that money to bring guest artists here,” he explains. "For example, DeVon Stewart, the only one ever to win all three of the major band competitions in Trinidad—small, medium and large, was the guest artist at WVU in 2019. Next thing you know, “He wants to come to Catonsville. So we line him up!” says Wharton. The opportunity to mingle with stars of the steel band world is an extraordinary experience for CHS students. Guest players typically come in and work for a week with the students, doing intensive rehearsals prior to a joint performance.

[image: 1999 CHS Steel Band National Aquarium concert poster]

[image: 1999 CHS Steel Band National Aquarium concert poster]

The CHS Band is not a typical “school band,” but more like a professional performing group. Before the pandemic, they were doing around 30 gigs per year, including local television appearances. The Catonsville community is incredibly proud of its excellent niche performance group. “The support from the community in non-pandemic years is extraordinary,” says Wharton. “We get one of the largest crowds at Lurman—800 people or more.”

"I will keep going to that dentist for as long as possible. I feel I owe that dentist so much—had that day not happened, this would be completely different."


I've felt like I didn't miss a beat. Having been a student, and now as director, it has a lot of the same feel." What Jim created is a band that police themselves. What I mean by that is that they can tell when there's a mistake, and they're calling out the other sections—in a fun way.


There's definitely this tone of setting an example where you want to have perfection, and it’s a very difficult thing to achieve. Especially in music... In the school world, we can have 90%, but one mistake from every person is going to create such a horrible performance that we really are striving for that perfection every time." The culture we've created is that students want to get together outside of the pretty strenuous hours we put in... They're asking 'Can we get together more'?"


Students today are aware of the culture and the history of the steel band music. "The students aren't just playing music without knowing where it's come from, what it's gone through."

Hamilton’s future vision is to make the steel band part of the curriculum (something BCPS has started to do, as more schools have started their own programs). Also looking for ways to expand pan playing outside the school walls, with a summer camp open to members of the community.


Another notable product of the steel band is Andy Stack, percussionist with the indie rock band Wye Oak. In an interview on the Music is My Life Podcast, Stack described the indelible influence of the experience on his musical career:


"I went to this public high school outside Baltimore that had a steel drum band. We did these carnival tunes—these big extravagant arrangements, which sometimes are really, really tough, really challenging. To actually learn some of these big legit panorama tunes that they would do in Trinidad would be the big project of the band for the year. So we would work that up and I definitely learned a lot from that. It’s not in terms of an aesthetic or style that stuck with me, but it definitely got me going on theory. The drum I played itself was the soprano voice, the lead voice of the band. The instrument is laid out in the circle of fifths. It’s like when you look at a graphical representation of the circle of fifths, That’s just the drum [laughs]. So you have this really valuable insight into how stuff goes together just from playing this instrument. Even to this day I still reference that shape when I’m thinking of stuff. The other thing about that was that we would play 30 or 40 concerts a year. We would do all these field trips and play at elementary schools, old folks’ homes, different school district events. It was like a proper gigging band that I was in for like the four years of high school. That was super valuable. I still have a steel drum. I’ve even played it on some recordings.”

The following April, Wharton was attending a National Music Educators Conference (now the National Association for Music Education) meeting in Washington DC, and the focus was on multiculturalism and world music. A steel band from Washington High School, in Washington, Pennsylvania performed, and Wharton’s interest in the music deepened. Attending the concert was Ellie Mannette, one of the Trinidadian fathers of the modern steel drum. At that time, Mannette was an artist in residence at West Virgina University. He had started a steel drum program at WVU with Mantle Hood, the renowned ethnomusicologist who was a visiting professor there at the time. (Hood had founded the now-defunct Ethnomusicology Department at UMBC, where he taught from 1980-1996; he also founded the Institute for Ethnomusicology at UCLA). Phil Solomon, also an renowned instrument maker was had also traveled to the conference, from Guyana. 


Upon his return, Wharton undertook to write a modest grant proposal to Baltimore County Public Schools. A three-thousand dollar grant would be enough to purchase a starter set of pans. Wharton was awarded the grant, but one can’t simply walk into the local music store and buy quality steel drums. All of the instruments are hand made, generally to order. The process is a long one of beating down the head of an oil barrel and meticulously hammering both sides of the metal to tune the notes. Wharton put in an order with Solomon for four tenor bass drums (made from three quarters of a 55-gallon oil drum), a set of guitar pans in the tenor voice (made from a half barrel ½ barrell, tenor voice), two drums in the alto voice (so-called “double seconds”), and two lead pans. It took Solomon a year and a half to complete the order. To avoid shipping costs, Wharton drove back and forth to Pittsburgh multiple times to bring the large instruments back to CHS.


When he finally showed the drums to the kids in the orchestra, they were wowed. “It was an easy sell for the kids. I said ‘We’re going to start rehearsing after school, one or two days a week—who’s interested?’ Well, hands went up all over the place.” The extracurricular program with a dozen or so students for the five or six positions in the band (including a drum kit player), so they would trade off on instruments. With ample rehearsal, they were able to get 2 tunes together for the spring concert—one group doing one song each. May of 1992. The kids wore Hawaiian shirts—they played “Maryanne” and “Shake Señora.” Wharton becomes animated recalling it. “And the audience goes berserk!” he enthuses. The audience was standing and screaming, and they wanted an encore—but the band only knew those two songs, so the students played them again, in reverse. After that, it was easy to recruit students into the band the next year.


The popularity of the band made it necessary to get more instruments, so as to get the band up to the size of the Washington High School band (instead of two lead players, six lead players, four double seconds, four double tenors, six triples, and multiple basses). Fundraisers enabled them to do this, piece by piece. “At this time, I’m still a novice,” says Wharton. “I don’t know how to play a lead pan. And the kids are so bright, and so open to new things, they would pick it up very quickly.” Wharton describes himself as very much a director—the students really took over as the musicians.

[image: Andy Stack of Wye Oak rehearsing with CHS Steel Band, Baltimore Sun, 18 April 2012]

In 1995, Wharton learned of Ellie Mannette’s week-long steel drum summer workshop held in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was eager not only to learn how to play the instruments better, but to learn the history of steel drums, whose origins were in gang warfare in Trinidad and Tobago. This history, when juxtaposed to the lives of suburban Baltimore students who continue to enthusiastically take up the instrument at CHS, makes the phenomenon just that more remarkable. Wharton makes sure that he conveys this history to the students as part of his instruction and band direction.


In Wharton’s description, the history is rooted in two multicultural nations, composed of ethnic elements from the native “Trinis” to the servants and enslaved people brought by a long series of colonial occupiers—the Spanish, the French, the British. The British brought not only enslaved Africans, but indentured servants from India and China. Africans brought with them their talking drums, but in the late 1800’s the British rulers banned them. Concerned about about rebellion, the British eventually banned all musical instruments other than their own. Gangs then began to improvising their own instruments. Tamboo Bamboo—thick bamboo stalks that are rhythmically pounded on the ground while being beaten with a stick, initially used to summon illegal gatherings —was a precursor to steel drum. Other drums were improvised with the Brits’ discarded biscuit and tea tins. One early drum innovator, Winston “Spree” Simon, noticed that after playing his drum he’d put a dent into it, and so he went to beat it back into place from the other side. What resulted, however, was a small “bubble” in the metal. When struck, it emitted a tone. He started experimenting, adding more “bubbles” and tones to his biscuit tin. The dent changed the tone. These low-toned drums were originally referred to as “ping-pongs.”


Ellie Manette was one of the most resourceful early instrument improvisers. Wharton tells the story of how the steel pans eventually became made of oil drums:


"Ellie would talk about experimenting with the bigger buckets and pans, eventually getting to the oil pans. He’d talk about being with two or three of his buddies, and they’d go to the naval depot, and they would see a sentry at the end of a beach right where the barbed wire fence would go out into the water. And they would see the sentry go by, and the spotlight would come out and then they’d swim out to the end of the barbed wire in the ocean. When the sentry would pass by again, they would swim in, grab a barrel, and then take that barrel, swim out, pushing it with their noses. They would steal barrels from the United States navy—so we really have to thank the United States Navy for contributing to the development of this magnificent instrument."


When Manette was ultimately caught pilfering oil drums, he was brought before the base commander, Col. Franz Grisham, expecting to be thrown in the brig. Instead, the commander told him, says Wharton, “I want you to teach my sailors how to play those drums.” Wharton laughs heartily. And so began the USN Steel Band. Manette continued experimenting, building on the previous instruments invented by Spree Simon, which had convex bubbles. Manette reversed the bubbles, making them concave, which is where the modern steelpan began. He also was the first to add rubber to the ends of the pan sticks. The new design heightened the overtone series.


Gangs using these instruments had their own identity. As tamboo bamboo troupes began evolving into steel bands, gang rivalries began to take form not only in violent conflict, but in band competitions. Seeing that musical conflict could possibly defuse other forms of conflict, the government this time decided to give money to the gangs for instruments, if they’d desist from internecine warfare. In the early and mid 1950’s, these bands began to develop organized competitions. This eventually led to Panorama—a annual national competition in Trinidad. As competition became more intense in this period, the music became more complex, and groups also developed more pan voices. Wharton describes the complex voicing structure that evolved for bands of various sizes. “You have single tenor, or lead pan; the double tenor (which plays melody an octave lower or “strums” accompaniment—hence the name “guitar” pan); then double seconds, which are pitched lower—the real alto voice—generally playing the 3rd and 7th of the chord; in the tenor voice, the triple drums play the root and the 5th; the bass line is carried on two types of bass drum: the tenor bass—also called “cellos” consisting of 4 drums—or the six basses—each pan with just 3 notes.” The elaborate instrumentation and tone structures seem almost arcane, but Wharton gets quite animated discussing them as he sits in the CHS pan room. “I’m getting chills talking about this—the first modern drum was developed in 1946, and we’ve got Ellie’s picture right on the wall!” he says, pointing. To this day, players and builders compete to make the best newest instruments. When he was first putting the band together, Wharton made a mistake—buying Phil Solomon double seconds, a design that many find hard to play. “When we would go the Manette festival, the great players would come up to us and say ‘What are these? These are pans from space!’ we can’t play them.” The steel pan wars, it seems, are still going on.


In his trip to West Virginia in 1995, Wharton first learned of Mannette’s “West Virginia Tuning Project,” which taught WVU students to make and tune steel pans. (Today the best tuners in the world are in Morgantown.) Wharton attended Mannettes summer workshop for a week to learn history of the pans, and how to create a program in HS. At first, Wharton was put in the intermediate band. Nevertheless, he was able to work, as a novice, with top players in the world, such as Andy Narell, Jeff Narell, Jimmy Layden, and Ray Holman. “I’m just this novice, and I’m having drinks and dinners with these guys, and hearing stories from the creators. I get misty eyed talking about it. What’s happening is that my world and my knowledge is opening up here, and I can bring it back to the kids.”


1996 marked the the 50th anniversary of Manette making the first modern pan, and Wharton once again attended the WVU workshop. That year, one of the guests was Ken “Professor” Fillmore, or “Pro”—the rock star of pan playing, who has toured with the likes of George Benson and Jimmy Buffet. By then Wharton moved to the top-level band on bass. “ I was a percussionist, I could play tympani, so it was a pretty easy switch to play bass pan. And, because I’m a music educator—all of the music in Trinidad by the panbands is learned by rote; there is amazing tonal memory, but they don’t read music at all—so while I’m learning this music, I’m transcribing all the parts, so I can take the music for my bands to play.” In return, Wharton would call the composer and let them publish his arrangements.


After attending the workshop for two years, Wharton had been excitedly describing it to his students, who began to ask, “Well, can we go?” So over the years, the students started going. “Four kids to a hotel room,” explains Wharton, “but they get to meet some of the great players. It’s the equivalent of picking up the cello in high school, and going to summer camp with Yo-yo Ma.” Wharton’s former student and now colleague, Andrew Hamilton, now continues the tradition of attending Manette’s summer workshops, bringing student pannists with him.


As the CHS steel band improved and became more widely known around the area, it began getting many invitations to play at churches, retirement communities, public events, and festivals. For these, says Wharton, “I can’t charge a fee, but I can ask for a donation. So it gets to the point where I can stop selling the fruit and pizza fundraisers. Now the band is self- supporting and brings revenue to the department as well.”


One performance in particular stays with Wharton. On April 22, 1999, the band was playing at the Inner Harbor amphitheater—a noon time concert. Two days prior had been the Columbine shooting.


"While we were playing that day, as we finished, a gentleman walks up. He has tears in his eyes, and he says, My name is Tom McHugh, I’m an English teacher at Kent County High School. And I could just not go into school today. I couldn’t face my kids because of what happened at Columbine. I saw your band and I started to cry. Because here are kids doing something really good, bringing a lot of joy to a lot of people. And then he says, ‘I line up the music performing groups for the Rock Hall Fall fest in Rock Hall, Maryland. Would you be our featured group next year?’"


Ever since, The CHS Steel Band has been the premier group for the festival. Through McHugh’s connections, the band also became a regular highlighter at the Berks County [Pennsylvania] Jazz Fest.

Most towns have music teachers, but few can boast a man of the stature of Les Luco, a Peabody Conservatory-trained multi-instrumentalist who turned down the chance to be a major orchestral conductor to teach Catonsville elementary school children. From a musical perspective, few people touched more Catonsville residents’ lives—as a teacher, as a conductor, as a band leader, in his work with local theater, as a mentor and model of decency, spanning more than half a century. His beginnings were far humbler than one might expect for a man whose talent and influence reached so far. Leslie Luco was born and raised in Pigtown, in Southwest Baltimore. His father worked at Bethlehem Steel—he’d gone to work there in fact at the age of thirteen. He completed the seventh grade; his mother had completed the third grade. There was no musical background in the family. Luco’s mentor was his high school band director, Warren W. Shelley at Southern High School in Baltimore City. (The school no longer exists; the building is now a senior living home in Federal Hill.)


Luco had started playing clarinet in the seventh grade, before high school. His beginning was somewhat inauspicious: “To be perfectly honest, I took the clarinet because it was seventh period at the end of the day one day a week, and that’s when I had English. I took the clarinet to get out of English. That’s a fact. But I loved it. And I practiced and I practiced and I practiced.” Shelley would go to the lower school to teach and scout students for his high school orchestra and band. Luco ended up playing in the high school concert band. Shelley was so impressed with Luco’s talents and drive that he loaned him his personal clarinet to play. “I think, having thought about it later in my life, that he saw something that he liked,” muses Luco. In the ninth grade, Luco had to choose a curriculum, so he asked the guidance counselor what he could do to have the least amount of homework. “She thought about that,” recalls Luco, and she said, ‘business education.’ I said how does that work? Well, she said, They have typing, and they can’t make you buy a typewriter. The adding and subtracting machines—they can’t make you buy those.” Luco perked up. He knew he could do all the simple business math off the top of his head. “So I thought, This is for me.” The choice enabled him to focus on what he considered his real homework: practicing his clarinet one to two hours a night. “I knew what I wanted to do when I was fourteen.” Liking what he saw, Shelley gave Luco a perpetual pass to come to the band room to practice during his free time.


As time went, he auditioned for a scholarship offered by a wealthy benefactor for high school students of fewer means to study with Peabody teachers. Luco’s first audition was when he was in the ninth grade. He wasn’t accepted, but he kept at it. “I was kind of bullheaded that way. Nothing defeated me.” The second try was the charm, and he won a half-hour per week session for two years with the first clarinetist of the Baltimore Symphony. He subsequently was awarded a full tuition scholarship to attend Peabody for his bachelor’s degree. Luco was in heaven. There were no other subjects to study. It was all music, all the time. “If you tried, you couldn’t escape from it. I studied trumpet with Harold Rehrig, who was the third trumpet with the Philadelphia orchestra. I studied percussion with Dr William Sebastian Hart, who was the tympanist in the Baltimore symphony.” And he continued study with his private teacher, Ignatius “Iggy” Gennusa, principal clarinetist with the Baltimore symphony, who had taught him two years prior to conservatory, all four years at conservatory, and four more years towards his later master’s degree at Peabody.


Another formative musical experience began while Luco was in high school, and carried into his conservatory years.

“I had an experience that anyone who is thinking about going into music should have had but might not have. A very good friend of mine who was in the Southern Band—he was the first chair clarinet player; I was first chair, second clarinet—he worked at the Lyric Theater. Now in those days. the Lyric was it. That was it. There was no Meyerhof, there was no this concert hall, that concert hall. The lyric theater was everything. He called me one day, he said, How’d you like to get a job as an usher? And I said, I’d love it. So you talk about listening to music! As an 11th grader, I started working at the Lyric theater six nights and Sunday matinee. Everything came to the Lyric. I heard the Bolshoi Ballet. I saw the ballet. I saw and heard the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. I saw Walter Beeler conduct. I saw—you name the people, I saw and heard every single one of them. And when I finished my responsibilities I would go up the side and there was this a space on the right side looking down on the stage where I could see and hear everything. I watched for six years—two years in high school and four years at the Peabody. The best conductors in the world, six nights a week and Sunday matinees. Made two dollars and fifty cents a night.”


Luco ended up focusing on music education. It was challenging, because his background had been so focused on music that other areas needed to earn a mid-Atlantic teaching certification were hard, particularly the requirement for a second language. And his move to education was not because he lacked elite-level skills. “The director of the Conservatory picked out two of us from his conducting class,” recalls Luco. “He’d studied at the Paris Conservatory under Madam Boulanger, and he was fantastic. And he picked out at two of us—[renowned conductor] Murry Sidlin was the other one, and myself. And he wanted us to go to Italy to study conducting. Murry went; I didn't. I knew that I wanted to teach, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to teach children. I also had this lady that I've been married to for 58 years, and I wasn't going to leave her for a year to go to Italy! I was offered the opportunity to become a serious orchestral conductor. But along the way have used that skill and that ability to do some really neat things.”


As a student teacher, he ended up back at Southern High, working alongside Warren Shelley. He also student taught at Catonsville Junior High School, where he was impressed the quality and ability of the children coming through the school. On graduation he was offered a job in Baltimore City school system, but Luco was taken with the county program. So he met with Tom Lawrence, the director of music for BCPS—himself long time a Catonsville resident, music teacher at CHS, and music director at Catonsville Presbyterian Church—and Luco was offered two jobs, one at Catonsville Elementary, the other at Arbutus Elementary. “I took it in a heartbeat,” he says, even though he’d never taught students that young. They couldn’t start until fourth grade—“So if you were playing clarinet, your fingers didn’t go in the hole,” he laughs.

Music Teachers I: Leslie Luco

“I knew that I wanted to be in Baltimore County. Baltimore County was exploding. They were building five to ten schools a year.” Catonsville Elementary had 1,000 students, according to Luco, and the construction of Hillcrest Elementary was on the near horizon. (It was built in 1962). Luco relates how he approached his job in a way that grew a formerly small, specialized program into something far bigger and more encompassing. Luco reflects at length:


“It was just a magical experience, that’s the best way I could put it, a dream come true for me as a 22-year-old just coming out of school. I inherited a program from and elitist type of person--and that's not bad. What I mean by that is that he only wanted to start on the instruments the topflight children that he found. He interviewed and auditioned them about what they wanted to do, and so I didn't have many students. So when I went into that school, I went to every 4th grade class. There were five 4th grade classes with over thirty students each! And I put on a little one man show in each room. I played the flute, I played the clarinet, I played the trumpet, I played the trombone, I played the violin. I put on this little one man show, and then I asked the children if anybody would like to try to learn how to play one of those instruments. And I’d just write down their names and what instruments they’d like to try, and then I would contact their teacher. I recruited that year over 100 children. Not an elitist program!


I took every single child who felt like they wanted to try. And that's all I asked them to do—was try. I don't know where it came from, I honestly don't, except perhaps I was endowed without knowing it with an understanding of the childlike mind. I just understood children in a way that a lot of people just can't begin to understand themselves, and so I had all these students. And my second year I recruited another hundred, third year another hundred. I was at Catonsville Elementary School for 20 years. That means that I started on instruments close to two thousand children—all of whom did not continue.

But I never told them—not once—not once did I ever tell them that they didn't have the ability to do it. It's self-discovery. It's like a boy trying out for a baseball team and his eye-hand coordination is no good. He knows it. You don't have to tell children what they can't do. They know exactly what they can't do. And then when you tell them, all you're doing is insulting them. Anybody who thinks that a 9-year-old can't be insulted doesn't understand children. See, that's the key: you have to know how to talk with them.


And the music store with which I worked to supply these children with instruments--I insisted that they do a rent-to-buy program. Now if you understand what that means it's very simple. If your son wants to play the trumpet and you pay a monthly rent, you're renting to buy. If you choose to buy, you can turn it back in at any time you want to. On the other hand, if a student keeps the instrument and pays the rent, at such time as they reach the price of the instrument, its theirs. And unless the music store that I dealt with agreed to that, I wouldn't have anything do with them.”

He also worked out an instrument replacement program:


“I know children and they have accidents. Oh I had a little girl one time left her clarinet sitting at the bus stop. Oh, it was so devastating to her! Her parents took her back, but it was gone. And the music store gave her another one, because that was my arrangement with them. I had a boy who dropped his trumpet down a flight of steps. He’d come to the steps and told his mother to listen to what he could do, and he dropped it down a flight—I mean it was beat to death. They took it back to repair it and gave him another one.”


Over the years, Luco has repeatedly run into former students, now adults. (One of Luco’s students was Jim Wharton, music director and steel band founder at Catonsville High School.)


“It's very rewarding. I’m talking about what you might call a normal, average person. I'm not talking about somebody who is going into music as a career and has made a life of it. I'm talking about Mr. and Mrs. Joe Normal, and I look at them and it's almost impossible to remember names. Almost impossible. But I can look at the person and I'll say Flute! And they'll smile and they'll say, How on earth did you remember that? Because they're now 50 years old! I was 22, and my first students were ten years old. Now I'm 81, they're 70! So I have students who are 70, 60, 50, 40, and I see them at the Giant in Catonsville, I see them at the park, I see them here and I see them there. And I'll look right at them, and I'll say Trombone! And they'll say, That's amazing! You remember that you taught me the trombone 35 years ago! I’ll say, It’s like it was yesterday. As mundane as it might sound, I truly loved my students.”


Although it may seem that conducting small children is a long way from the level of conducting taught at Peabody, or what he witnessed at the Lyric, Luco says that it’s really not so different:


“Fundamentally and basically it is the same, in the sense that the conductor has to stay steady, not change the meter, the beat, and bring in the people who enter at a certain time correctly. The six years of watching these great, magnificent, top-level conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Sir Walter Beeler, Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra—he was amazing—short squat little guy, never used a baton, used his bare hands. And when he would start the Beethoven--Da-da-da dah--he hid his hands from the audience. He kept them in front of his chest, and he didn't want the audience to know when those first few notes were to begin… Little things like that… I watched Leonard Bernstein conduct what we all know as Lone Ranger theme--you know, the William Tell Overture—he actually held both hands above his head like he was riding a horse, and when he got to that spot he just he was like he had reins in his hands. And so you pick up all these little nuances of conducting.


“You can't just beat time. That's of no help to anyone. That’s a metronome. you're not helping anybody. You must have the music in you, even though it's elementary school--and then you portray it through your arms and your hands and your emotions and your entrances and everything that you do.”


Anyone who talks with Luco about his teaching will immediately sense a genuine and deep level of commitment to the vocation, and to the students.


“I would do everything that I could to showcase these children, with no thought—it never entered my mind, never honest to gracious—it never entered my mind once that they can do what they're doing because of me. I started them. They didn't even have to open the case many times. They opened it upside down and it dropped on the floor. And so consequently this little band that I had, who sounded wonderful--I took them to nursing homes, I took them to shut in homes. It's hard for me to remember. Anybody who wanted a performing group to come and play for their residents, we went. Because I didn't feel the least bit worried that they would embarrass themselves. Their behavior was magnificent, just magnificent, and they understood because I didn't take anything for granted or by chance. We talked about good manners, gracious behavior. I didn't just teach them how to play instruments. I tried to teach them how to be decent people.”


His elementary school work wasn’t all Luco did musically in the community. For thirty years, he also conducted Amhránaí Na Gaeilge, the Baltimore-based Irish Men’s Chorale, one of the largest men’s Irish choral groups in the country. (The chorale includes many members from Catonsville). He has been a guest conductor and adjudicator for many years around the state for all-county student orchestras. The all-star students were often a challenge.


“Of course, the biggest job is convincing them on the first rehearsal that you know what you’re doing. Because when they're that good they have a tendency to be slightly arrogant. And they want to be able to let you have it if they can. Well, I never gave him that chance, because I never went ever to a job like that ill-prepared. One of the skills of orchestral conducting that you can't teach is reading a score with sixteen musical lines in it. By the time you move your hands four times you're into the next measure there are 16 lines—first, second, third clarinet; first, second, third trumpet, first, second trombone, first, second violin, viola, cello, and so on and you have to know every entrance. And when somebody is playing a wrong note you hear it, you stop, and of course some people will say, Well what note was I playing wrong? And you tell them bang just like that and they go, Oh. 'Cause they knew it. They were just seeing if you did.”


For many years, Luco also worked with the Catonsville Little Theater. “That's what it was called but it wasn't so little,” he quips. In a 1969 production of “The Fantasticks,” Luco left the conductor’s piano and took to the stage himself when the male lead couldn’t fulfill the demands of the part. Wrote one critic, “The play is cleverly designed in that the narrator, alias El Gallo, performed by Leslie Luco, not only reveals the story as it unfolds but artfully manipulates and motivates the animated puppetry of the others involved. Mr. Luco brought not only a fine voice and natural stage presence to the role, but obviously influenced and enveloped the others into an aura of professionalism drawn from his talents and experience as an accomplished musical director.”

Grant Menefee likes to say that he grew up on one side of UMBC and settled down on the other. So his roots in the Catonsville area are deep. It wouldn’t be until many years later that this drum phenom realized that Arbutus, where he was born, is home to the tomb of the legendary Chick Webb (1905-1939), the African American swing and jazz band leader and drummer who was arguably the first truly modern drummer, paving the way for titans such as Gene Krupa, Louis Bellson, and Buddy Rich (Webb is buried in Arbutus Memorial Park, on Sulphur Spring Road.) He’s visited the grave, and it’s something he reflects on from time to time.


Menefee got his start playing drums at the age of 9, then in the school band at Landsdowne High School. His first paying gig, at 14, was in a cover band playing a pool party at Rolling Road Golf Club. Growing up, Menefee was a music omnivore, especially when it came to drummers:


"I was listening to everything, The whole gamut. All the horn bands—Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Danny Seraphine from those guys, of course. John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, that was huge. And also, Jazz--Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, all those guys. So I was lucky, I had teachers in school that would tell me, Listen to this guy. Listen to this guy. And I did. It was great. It was a very fertile music time."


It was a fertile musical time, and Catonsville was a fertile place as well. He remembers Catonsville’s two major music stores, Bill’s Music House and what was then Nelson Knode’s Music, as epicenters of his younger years.


"Going back to when I was a kid, the only store around was Bill’s, so that kind of became a meeting place and you know, as a kid, you go in there, you hang out, talk to the managers, get to know them. At that time, the two managers were Jim Mays and Lou Campagnoli, and they were great guys. They were nice to us kids, and they’d give us advice. I still talk to them. You’d meet other players too. You know we didn’t have the Internet back then, so to communicate you, you go to the music store. You also had Nelson Knode’s, which covered more band instruments. I knew that family because I went to school with Emery. He and I have been friends, known each other since we were like 12 years old. Yeah, and we're still pretty close."


Among Menefee’s early teachers was a Peabody percussion department chair Chuck Memphis, with whom Menefee did private study. “He was just fantastic. Just changed my life. You know, kicked my *** Believe me. He was good. He prepped me for Berkeley really well.” This background was solid enough indeed to get Menefee into Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, where he thrived, graduating in five semesters (one semester spent out intensely traveling and gigging for professional experience).


“When I was going there it was a little easier to get in--the dropout rate was really high, because these people just couldn't hang with that. At a place like Berklee, you’re transcribing from the time you step in there until the time you leave. Ear training is a really integral part of it. was lucky because I had my guy from Peabody prepping me for that. I didn't want to leave--it was a great environment. I was just up there about a year and a half ago and I was hanging out with the professors and we're all colleagues now.”


Menefee moved back to Catonsville in 1988, where he rented studio space for a couple years at Bill’s Music House until he built the studio in his present home, where he and his wife still live. In the 33 years that he’s been teaching from his home studio, many of his students have gone on to prominence in the drumming world, playing with such varied touring bands as Periphery, The Mars Volta, Queens of the Stoneage, Jay Z, and Avril Lavigne, and the studio bands for TV’s “The Voice” and “Britain's Got Talent.” His roster of former students includes many well-known professional drummers, such as Jon Theodore, Matt Halpern, Nate Morton, Mike Reid, Bill Bachman, and Evan Taubenfeld. In addition to teaching, Menefee regularly plays with several area jazz bands to keep his performance chops fresh. And he’s passed his love of drumming to his son John, a Nashville studio and touring drummer who has worked with a number of prominent acts, including Rascal Flatts. Menefee also did some adjunct teaching, but the university environment was not for him. “You just get holed up. [The university faculty] were just a different breed. They didn’t listen to me in meetings. But you know now, looking back, I’ve taught way more famous students than them. You just get holed up. You son’t see the real world. You’ve got to be able to teach these students—you're sending them out into the real world, right?”


When asked about Catonsville as “Music City Maryland,” Menefee chuckles:


"I actually got into that discussion with a couple of my students recently. You know, they were kind of laughing that they call it “Music City,” but I said to them, Look, if you go to other communities outside of here, you don't really see the amount of music you see here. I hear all these local musicians. Some say 'I'm not that good ‘--but you know what? That's not the important thing. The important thing is they're doing it."

Music Teachers II: Grant Menefee, Drum Guru

[image: Grant Menefee in his home studio, Catonsville, Maryland, August 2021]

[image: Jim Wharton conducts CHS Steel Band, Baltimore Sun, 13 October 2000]

[image: Luco’s 1962 Graduating Class, Peabody Conservatory,]

[image: Luco and Catonsville Elementary School Band, 1967. Source: Catonsville Teachers Who Made Difference Facebook Group]

[image: Les Luco, “Bells are Ringing” program, Catonsville Little Theater, 1972]

[image: Les Luco and unnamed actress rehearsing for “The Fantasticks”1969]

In 2013, when Wharton retired as a full-time teacher and department chair, he stated that he wanted to still be able to work with the pan band, which he does. His successor-to-be is Andrew Hamilton—CHS steel band class of 2005. There are pictures of Hamilton in the pan room where he now teaches. “He’s a musical genius,” says Wharton. “He must have a photographic memory, and a photographic tonal memory, and he’s got perfect pitch.” They are now listed as co-directors, but Hamilton is the de-facto director. “This was all meant to be,” concludes Wharton. “He had been teaching in Prince George’s County, and was in Catonsville to see the dentist when he decided to stop in and say hi. No, I told him, ‘You’re here to apply for this job!’ It really was providence.”

Hamilton started as a Freshman in 2001, and played through his graduation. He then attended Towson University to study music education, graduating in 2009. He later continued to perform with Wharton, in groups like the Catonsville Steel Septet. A classical composer, he has also created a piece for orchestra and steel ensemble, played with Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, and played before the BSO's season opening gala, where cellist Yo Yo Ma played with a number of community groups, doing variations on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." In short, there were opportunities that allowed Hamilton to remain around the steel drums until he was able to return as a teacher in 2013. Hamilton, retelling how a visit to his old hometown dentist had led him into the current job, adds,

[image: CHS Steel Band 25th Anniversary Collage]

Percussionist Jim Wharton, who grew up in Catonsville and had graduated from Catonsville High School in the class of 1969, was enjoying a summer trip to Ocean City in 1989 after his second year as chair of the music department. One evening, while dining with his wife, he heard the most beguiling music emanating from the back deck of the restaurant. It was the Baltimore Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band. It was the first time Wharton had heard live steel band music, and he was rapt. He had seen and heard a steel band before on the Ed Sullivan show, but never live. (Years later he would realize that the second act on that show after the headlining Pan Trinibago Allstars— “This little band with a bunch of white kids playing”—were some of the earliest American students of steel pan originator Elie Manette, Andy and Jeff Narell, sons of a New York City social worker who had learned how steel drums were defusing gang warfare in Trinidad and brought Manette to New York to address gang problems through music. Andy Narell is one of the most famous jazz pannists today, having worked with a long list of world- class musicians, from Aretha Franklin to Taj Mahal. Both Manette and Narell would have direct contacts with the CHS steel band project; but that is getting ahead of the story.) In Ocean City, “I was just mesmerized. I had no idea what the instruments even looked like,” he relates. The arranger for the group was named “Tosca”—all steel band arrangers have nicknames—who showed Wharton the instruments, and immediately recognized a fellow musician. Tosca struck a deal with Wharton: “If you help me arrange orchestral music for steel drums, I’ll teach you about calypso.” Such were the happenstance beginnings of what would become one of the hallmark musical groups at the center of music culture in Catonsville.

[image: CHS Steel Band 25th Anniversary Collage]

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