The History of School Bands at ESCHSDespite national trends against arts education, the East Side Band Project has nurtured several generations of student bands. In 2009, Tom Mullen and James Joughin started ESBP (then a modest afterschool program known simply as "rock band" under the resident University Settlement Beacon program. A stable of "workhorse" gear, consisting of Squiers, Epiphones, a Pearl student model drum kit, Peavey amps, a Yamaha keyboard, and a small stereo PA system was put together on a shoestring budget of $5,000. East Side student musicians formed a set of bands that rehearsed in our storage room. The rehearsals culminated in performances at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
With James' departure in 2012, the project entered a second generation. A new band, consisting entirely of middle school students, was brought together under the guidance of Peter da Cruz, history teacher, and Tom Mullen, assistant principal. The band members had little to no prior musical training, and almost none of them owned instruments. But they were passionate and committed. In time, they would take on the moniker "Custer's Last Band," inspired by a history lesson on Manifest Destiny. From the outset, It was made clear that band members would not just learn parts but learn musicianship, including theory, notation, dogged tenacity, and professionalism. Soon they were fortunate enough to be visited and critiqued by Melvin Gibbs of the Black Rock Coalition.
In September of 2012 it was discovered that the eastern wall of our school had detached from the building. The news made local headlines as we were evacuated to PS1, an elementary school in Chinatown. These were trying times. Working in depressing conditions and without the support of our host school, band members were indefatigable in moving and storing equipment, practicing late despite longer commutes, and practicing in a dingy classroom that was shared by three teachers and neglected by custodial staff. Despite these and other obstacles, Custer's Last Band had learned 6 songs and recorded a demo by February, when we finally returned to East Side.
Our other band, the East Side Accidents (named after the separation of our eastern wall), faced an uphill battle from the start. While our middle schoolers were relocated to Chinatown, our high schoolers had been relocated to the windowless Norman Thomas High School in Murray Hill. This school's culture was profoundly different from our own. There, band members passed through metal detectors each morning. They even had their guitars confiscated when the silica gel dehumidifier packets inside were mistaken by school safety agents as "drugs." Despite heavily demoralizing conditions, the East Side Accidents convened twice a week in Chinatown. Growing to include three guitarists, three singers, a bassist, drummer, two percussionists, and a flautist, the East Side Accidents learned 7 songs in exile, and even came in on a holiday to record a demo when we returned to our regular rehearsal space.
The effort, passion, and musicianship shown by school band students throughout our time in exile was extraordinary, and was displayed live for the first time on a cold evening in February, when the bands performed 40 minute sets in the school cafeteria as the centerpiece of our homecoming celebration. Another performance followed that Spring, at the Nuyorican Poet's cafe, where the bands showcased new and updated material. Other performances followed for Beacon functions and the graduation ceremony. Custer's Last Band, based on a growing reputation, was even invited to perform at a multicultural festival at another school in the neighborhood, an invitation they gladly accepted. The Band's recordings circulated widely among students and staff, and were received warmly by listeners. These recordings were of such quality that they are even carried in local record shops.
In a 2013 article for Al Jazeera, Tom Maxwell of the Squirrel Nut Zippers reflects upon a summer spent counseling at a band camp. Maxwell writes: "There are times in rock camp when you quickly find yourself in situations above your pay grade. A sobbing girl, telling you of her dominating mother. A detached boy, who blurts out the trauma of his father's recent death. There are walkouts and shouting disagreements over trivialities... [band]'s not really about music at all. It's about learning to get along, to communicate, to ask for what you want, and how to be graceful when you don't get it. It's about practicing the sacred and frustrating dance of the familial. And, like all families and bands, it's about creating something from nothing."
It couldn't have been put more eloquently. Throughout its second generation, the Band Project at East Side experienced routine breakdowns and new lows. Shortly before a debut performance, a singer was removed from the program due to parental misgivings. A drummer had to sneak into the building to make a crucial recording session after suddenly coming down with pinkeye. A bassist persevered through a nosebleed to nail a final take of Oye Como Va, only to collapse when the take was done. He later called the band director from home with a 105 degree fever, asking what he should do considering he had no medical insurance. A lead singer was frequently assigned to detention during rehearsal times, and had to be liberated each time through painstaking negotiations with teachers and deans. A guitarist was nearly arrested in Tompkins Square Park on the day of the Nuyorican performance, but released when he told the police his bandmates were counting on him to show up with his guitar. And after federal budget cuts to our sponsor, University Settlement Beacon, the band director chose to donate time and equipment out of pocket rather than let the program terminate.
Yet by the end of June 2013, band had become a leading institution in the creative life of the school. Band members clamored for a summer band program, and new prospectives lined up to audition. The project has grown to include 4 bands. Charli V. & the Meat Inspectors, an almost all-female band, and Tim & Rosa, named after mysterious graffiti discovered in the basement where they rehearse, held their Debut performances on November 1, 2013, to awed audiences at a Parents' Association fundraiser.
On February 24, 2014, the East Side Band Project held its biggest event to date, a two-hour concert at The Bowery Electric. All four bands performed to a packed house that included Richard Manitoba of legendary New York punk band The Dictators. A highly demanded second Bowery appearance in June packed the house, marking the final appearance of Custer's Last Band, The Meat Inspectors, Tim & Rosa, and the East Side Accidents, and bringing the second generation of ESBP to a close.
Reborn in September of 2014, ESBP brought on Jahzeel Montes, a highly respected guitarist and music educator, as co-director. Also the founder of Internal Creations, a not-for-profit classical guitar education program, Jahzeel has toured Europe with his nylon 6-string and packed underground venues with his overdriven PRS Custom 24. The third generation of ESBP was founded on four new bands: Fish Don't Drown, an all female rock and pop quintet led by prodigal ten-year-old drummer Ilanna; Vixens Return, which reunited Kat and Sharon along with CLB veterans; The Reckless Idols, which preserved the core trio formerly known as Tim & Rosa, and Gingerwolf, in which Kat led a quintet of talented 9th graders.
In May of 2015, ESBP reached new heights. It started with The Reckless Idols, who recorded a pro-studio EP with the lauded audio engineer and local punk maverick Jesse Cannon. With 6 original songs clocking in at 25 minutes of killer-no-filler, this stunning debut has awed crowds at listening parties and is poised to make waves at its late summer launch.
On May 22nd ESBP took the stage at the legendary underground venue Cake Shop NYC for our biggest event yet. Attended by hundreds, all five bands performed blazing sets, as well as Kat's high-gain femcore side project. The Reckless Idols closed the show to mark Allan's graduation before yileding the stage to Yo La Tengo. Yes, really. But this wasn't the end. As Allan steps up to college, The Reckless Idols are taking their post-ESBP career all over the New York punk scene; you can follow their Facebook page for updates and events.
September of 2015 saw great changes for ESBP. As Allan went off to college and Kat moved upstate, Phoenix became our official drum coach, bringing the program up to three staff members. Ben and Yas moved to guitar behind Sharon and stellar new talent Miri, who, along with Tomer, Prince, and Lily, formed the high gain combo Orthodox. Zach grabbed a guitar and stepped up to the mic, joining new talents Enrique, Joseph, and Ruben - our first violinist - along with Kyizom and Prince to form The Jaywalkers. (You can call them “Luke Jaywalker” - it drives them crazy!) Fish Donít Drown soldiers on with ukelele lover Sasha on strings, while Jahsent was joined by newcomers Kevin, Ethan, and ten-year-old prodigal rocker and master chef contender Jesse Gunn to form the speed punk influenced Unthankful Gunn. The first ESBP release of our fifth year, our Ramones Tribute EP, featured each bandís interpretation of a classic Ramones song and sold out in less than three hours.
To keep up with this yearís killer lineup and everything else in the works, please follow the ESBP Facebook page.