Quiet force fuels flamboyant band

Modest couple started Westsiders 4 decades ago as outlet for kids

November 17, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The lure of big-city life led Jeff Pitts from a tiny North Carolina town to Baltimore.

But when he got here in 1952, he didn't find the recreational outlets for youths he expected in a big city. So after Pitts and his wife, the former Dorothy Smith, had five children, they took it upon themselves to provide a solid recreational venue for neighborhood kids.

Though neither of them had training in instrumental music, they founded what has become one of the city's largest and most popular groups, the Baltimore Westsiders. Nearly 40 years later, the couple remains the seldom-seen force behind one of the region's most flamboyant marching bands.

When the band performs today in the city's Thanksgiving parade (beginning at 11 a.m. at Pratt and Eutaw streets) and later ushers in Santa Claus at Reisterstown Road Plaza, the Pittses will be there cheering on a fourth generation of high-steppers.

"The Westsiders became kind of a major institution in public celebrations in the '80s and '90s in Baltimore," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who often called on the band to perform at city functions. "They had a huge and loyal following. Because of the nature of their performance, they were both literally and figuratively show-stoppers.

"In a parade, they would march, and then after a set period of time, they would stop and dance, and that would literally shut down the whole parade until they finished their number."

Known for their nimble drummers, foot-tapping dancers and flashy red-and-white uniforms, they've awed even adult fans, who fondly recall going to parades with their parents, angling for the best spot to stand and watch the band members saunter by.

Some of those adults now take their kids to experience the excitement of the group, which performs locally in the Preakness, Christmas and Thanksgiving parades, among others, and has entertained in New Orleans, Chicago and Atlanta.

What began as a means of preventing kids from going astray has evolved into a popular tradition.

At 71 and 66, respectively, Jeff and Dorothy Pitts don't manage the band anymore. Their daughter and former band member, Corlis Greene, 44, took the reins in 1998. But they attend Tuesday and Thursday rehearsals in Calverton Middle School's cafeteria to watch the kids and to help sell chips and sodas to raise money for band equipment.

"The Pittses are good people," said Marshalette Holmes, 28, a former band member whose son, Larren Henson, 4, is a Tiny Toon, the group's youngest marchers.

"They have determination and courage to keep such an organization running. I was part of this band when I was 14, 15 and 16. ... I couldn't wait until my son was old enough to join."

The cost to join is $100, which covers registration, dues, insurance and band jackets. Membership renewal is $50 annually. The band has been the biggest focus of the Pittses' life. But Jeff Pitts has done more than create the band to help improve life in Winchester, where they've lived since 1953.

He devoted more than 30 years to area Boy Scout troops, and he helped coach Little League teams. In the early 1970s, Pitts was president of the Winchester Improvement Association, a position he resumed this year.

"I think he tries to do his best and seems to be pretty efficient at contacting the right people to get things done in the neighborhood," said association vice president Robert Blackwell. "He tries to get trash collected, empty houses boarded up, grass and weeds cut at unoccupied houses, and he tries to make sure the streets are safe. ... He really cares about the neighborhood."

But it's no secret that the Westsiders have been Pitts' biggest contribution to the city -- even though he and his wife relinquished control a few years ago.

"They're getting older, and they wanted to step out of the limelight a little bit," their daughter said. "I told them, for people that are retired, you sure don't stay away. But it's the only thing they basically have to do. They're my support. Anything I need or anything I'm not sure of, they're right there."

Greene's four children, ages 12 to 24, are band members. Her granddaughter, Deja Oliver, 4, participates in the Tiny Toons, bringing to four the number of generations affiliated with the Westsiders. Those who aren't related to the Pitts have benefited, too.

"Mr. Pitts is like a grandfather to me," said Tavon Carroll, 17, an Edmondson High School graduate and band member for five years. "We call him grandfather because he's always there for us."

Carroll, who plays the bass drum, said the band has helped shape his life.

"It helps me a lot," he said. "You meet new friends every year. It teaches a lot about discipline. In the neighborhood where we live at ... if we weren't in the band, we'd probably be out there selling drugs."

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