INDIANAPOLIS (Nov. 14) — This is the third of a series of 35 stories about high school marching bands that performed at the Bands of America Grand National Championships on Thursday through Saturday, November 12–14, 2015.
Just being in the audience during Centerville Jazz Band’s performance at the Bands of America Grand National Championships transported marching band fans to a party during the opulence of the 1920s—a dance party not unlike one Jay Gatsby would have had at his Long Island mansion in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about the American Dream, The Great Gatsby—and filled the stadium with sounds from the era and images from the movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio as the titular dreamer.
Centerville’s show, led on the field by drum majors Maggie O’Neill, Kayleigh Rocha, and Catherine Smith, was tied to the novel and to the movie in so many ways that the connections may have escaped most in the audience on account of the party-like exterior presented on the field. For example, the band represented a “green light,” which, in Fitzgerald’s novel, is Daisy and a metaphor for all things unattainable, with a flute soloist on the end of a dock structure.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. … And one fine morning — —
The beauty of the flute solo and the metaphoric reaching toward the “light” by the whole band so speaks to the eye, ear, and heart, that the connection of the field show to Fitzgerald’s novel is masked by a highly effective musical and visual diversion.
But the cross-curricular understanding is there nonetheless. The Centerville Jazz Band even extends the boat metaphor, used throughout the book. From the end:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
So although we strive to move forward, we’ll always look backward to the past, imitating what we can’t recapture. To make this connection, the band uses music: Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a tad anachronistic in a show about Gatsby, but as the theme looks to the past to squeeze the folly out of it, the song fits right in with the boat metaphor. Works of art, especially those that cram great jazz and a dance party in a few minutes of our day, can gloss over minor details like what year something happened.
“We’re not tying to solve the meaning of life in an eight-minute marching band show; we’re not trying to do that,” said Brandon Barrometti, who directs the 185-member marching band, referring to some of the literally loose but musically effective programming in his band’s show and comparing his design with the themes in many of the other shows here. “We’re trying to have a good time and trying to get the audience to enjoy what we’re doing.
“That’s something that we’re proud of: People really enjoyed our show. They would stop us behind the scenes or while they were out watching other bands, and come up to our kids and say, ‘I really loved your show. It was unique.’ We felt like we had a good buzz about us, and lots of people were saying lots of positive things. So we feel good about that.”
A great thing, yes, but a ‘national’ championship it is not
The novel speaks to many people. Some American lit experts count it among the greatest American novels. It is, however, in the high school domain, another novel students should probably read at some point.
The Grand National Championships here offer three days of wall-to-wall marching band performances and “positive life-changing experiences through music,” to use Music For All’s summary of its first 40 years.
It’s the biggest marching band show in America. It is, however, also in the high school domain, not a “national championship,” because too many bands—such as L.D. Bell in Texas or Tarpon Springs in Florida, which was named Grand National champion last year—are excluded, either by choice or by their inability to pay for the trip or travel to Indianapolis.
The idea of a true, tournament-style “national champion” is as elusive to us, though, as the American Dream was to Gatsby. Bands and the educators who direct them have so many unique goals for educating students that comparisons are sometimes meaningless.
And then there’s the expense of traveling to whatever head-to-head competition would be needed. Even Centerville, which is only about two hours away near Dayton, Ohio, had a budget of more than $200,000 for the trip.
“I’ve always said to my kids and to my parents as well, being at Grand Nationals is something we participate in because it’s convenient for us to participate in. If this were held in Texas or California, you can guarantee we wouldn’t be going every year,” Mr Barrometti said.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
This “green breast of the new world” Fitzgerald writes about, the virgin land, is the promise of a future full of exciting possibilities. He uses this phrase, as he uses “Great” in the title, essentially to mock the dream. Organizations and great writers alike use language like “green breast” and “national champion” to refer to that hope in a fruitful future and a new dream.
But Music For All uses the exaggerated speech in a different way: instead of mocking what the adjective “national” describes, the organization is trying to elevate the music-filled experiences it provides. And that communication mission fails.
Fitzgerald accomplishes his literary goal by juxtaposing natural beauty with its destruction in building Gatsby’s house. I’m reminded of President Richard M Nixon, who said as he stepped down, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
Fitzgerald isn’t using “green breast of the new world” to describe Nixon’s mountain; he’s using it in opposition to the valley: the corruption that grinds down the American Dream, the slavery, the conquering of Native Americans. He even uses verbs like “pander” to show the folly in our hope that we can attain the unattainable.
For a “transitory enchanted moment,” though, band students and their communities hold their breath, call this a “national championship,” and delight in that folly. Mass communication can lead to that kind of reaction. But the term neither describes the contest nor provides a good metaphor. If Bands of America is the highest mountain in high school marching—more than 13,000 students came here this weekend—and if it helps to change lives, there’s no good reason to use exaggerated speech.
Seeking what was only possible in the past
“One of the reasons bands that used to come to Grand Nationals don’t do that anymore is that the cost of just keeping up with the changes that have happened in marching band programs over the years is overwhelming,” Mr Barrometti said. “If you didn’t stay on top of that from the very beginning—if you didn’t build your electronics, or you didn’t get into the props—you find yourself on the outside looking in. It’s way more difficult to build from the ground up if you don’t have any of those things to start off with.”
The reason it’s so difficult is that it costs so much money, like the opulence in Gatsby, and schools that don’t provide that money a little at a time find themselves looking at a bill they can’t pay just to stay current. The Centerville Jazz Band was named Grand National champion in 1992, came in third in 1993, and this year didn’t make the finals. The band has won more regional contests than most bands in America, but Grand Nationals drifts further away despite the educational value brought to the show by its director and his colleagues.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Perhaps a “national championship,” like “old wealth,” is elusive and can never be achieved. Certainly Fitzgerald suggests Gatsby’s worldly success was a failure in the big picture. He also suggests that the simple pursuit of the dream corrupts both people born into it, like Daisy, who floats away as on a boat, and those who struggle to get it.
But even as Centerville injects a little jazz into a great work of literature without trying to solve the meaning of life in eight minutes and still produces some great entertainment that brings joy to thousands of people every time they perform, and even as Gatsby throws fantastic parties (“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, Q-Tip, and GoonRock), Fitzgerald seems impressed with the will of Americans to persevere in their pursuits. We skim over the reality that the American Dream is a scam or that this weekend isn’t a national championship and continue, as Americans and schoolkids, to reach toward the flute soloist and to pursue the green light.
Voxitatis is grateful to the Music For All organization, particularly to Eric Martin, president and CEO, and to Kathryn Reinhardt, marketing coordinator, for their assistance in developing this series of stories and for their hospitality while we were in Indianapolis covering what is, by far, the largest high school marching band event in the US.