The football season was already six weeks old and Newark’s Weequahic High School marching band had yet to play a note at a game.
Darryl Taylor, the assistant band director, knew he couldn’t keep them practicing in the band room, but they weren’t ready to take the field.
“They wanted to play and I can’t blame them,” he says.
But it’s tough to perform with duct tape and superglue holding the instruments together. And it’s embarrassing when there are not enough uniforms to go around – if you want to call faded orange hoodie sweatshirts and brown sweatpants, a “uniform.”
He was about to lose Nadiyyah Smith, 16, who wanted to give up the clarinet and leave the band after five years.
“It hurt to come every day and not do nothing,” she says.
Tahlil Curry, a 17-year-old a drum and tuba player, had thoughts of fleeing, too, with six years invested.
But they couldn’t walk away from what Taylor has brought to Indian nation for the past 28 years.
“We’re not just a band,” Curry says. “We’re a family.”
Taylor, 45, is the true superglue and duct tape keeping this cash-strapped clan together. He’s a die-hard alumnus and band member, whose presence has done more for these students than any song they could ever play.
“Darryl is like that guy and father figure to help us with our problems,” says Jeremiah Downing, 16, who plays drums. “We can talk to Darryl about anything.”
The students appreciate his loyalty –and his honesty even more. They understand there’s no money for uniforms after funding for the band ended years ago.
It wasn’t their fault, Taylor says, that they wound up with sweat shirts and sweat pants after the official uniforms fell apart. Between the athletic and music departments, Taylor says, the uniforms didn’t get cleaned. He and the band director, Michael Page, tried to pick up the slack but it proved to be too expensive.
“Even though we have sweat pants and stuff, Darryl always tells us to make the band sound like something,” Curry says.
They do that – for two hours or more every day after school – in the band room, practicing new material and Weequahic standards that Taylor learned when he was a student. Taylor graduated in 1987, but he stuck around to help then-band director Otis Brown, who had taught him how to read music, play every instrument and lead a band.
When Brown retired in the mid-1990s, Taylor stayed on, while serving as a Newark police officer for 13 years. He left the force in 2011, but continued with the band, believing this is what he should be doing with his life.
“I pretty much do it because I see a lot of what I needed as a young man growing up,” Taylor says. “You need that strong person in your life to keep you on the right path.”
If he’s not listening to students or bending their ear with advice, Taylor has fun with them, but he’s not shy when it comes to discipline. If you play a note past the end of a song, that means pushups. Taylor is not exempt from pushups, either, because he cares in so many ways.
He’s choreographed many dance routines, which surprised the girls in the band when he showed them the moves. “He’s really good,” says Kendra Council, 17.
After practice, Taylor spends money to feed band members or drive them home, even if they live around the corner from school. Not even a surgically repaired right knee will stop him from keeping these kids close.
“They know they can’t get into trouble because I’ll throw them out of here,” he says. “I monitor them when they’re not in the band and when they’re not in school.”
In fact, there’s an entire group looking out for the students. They include Page; Taylor’s son, Darryl Jr.; and Taylor’s brother, Jamal Littles. They all pitch in to guide the kids to behave as ladies, gentlemen and musicians.
Page came on board well after Taylor, and quickly saw the order and rapport he had established.
“Why reinvent the wheel?” he asks rhetorically.
The band is a mixed lot, with 70 percent of its members coming from charter schools that don’t have a band. The rest are Weequahic students – a small group because of the school’s low enrollment and because many kids still think it’s not cool to participate.
So Taylor has been recruiting members early, going into the elementary schools and hoping they’ll stay. Nyla David, 11, joined this year and her mother, Ann David, says the band has been a godsend. Mediocre grades are now A’s and Nyla considers the band members her big brothers and sisters.
It’s game seven on the football schedule and the band is warming up. Taylor and Page have scraped up enough money to repair instruments and pay for half of the dancers’ outfits and shoes.
Finally, they are actually going to perform at a game – at home. The band members march into Untermann Field, smiling, playing and singing a favorite school song after filing into the stands.
“So hard, so hard, so hard to be an Indian.”
Not this night. This was easy. This was all about pride.