East, West High pep bands to reunite at alumni game

On his circuitous stroll through life, Danny Ward’s center point has been the saxophone.

From his living room to high schools to hotels to movie sets to country clubs, the 65-year-old strides with a sax slung over his shoulder.

“It’s kind of like music and bands bring people together, make friendships,” said Ward, a 1963 West High grad who played in the school’s pep band and was a director his senior year. “If you become a band member, you will get to know people who will keep you out of trouble. You’ll form tight-knit friendships.”

Ward, now a resident of Whidbey Island, grew up in Bremerton and first played the sax at age 12. He is coming home for the East-West alumni basketball game as the event’s music coordinator.

The saxophonist has convinced about 15 former East and West High pep band members, all of whom graduated between 1960 and 1966, to dust off their instruments and play during the game.

Their planned playlist includes “Tequila,” “Louie Louie,” “Watermelon Man” the Bremerton fight song “Anchors Aweigh.” With less than a month until the game, the band includes four drummers and trumpet players apiece, trombone and french horn players and, of course, saxophonists.

“I’m getting real good feedback,” Ward said. “It’s going to rekindle so many memories.”

Former cheerleaders also are returning for the game and will be on the sideline to support their respective teams, comprised of former basketball players who ranging in age from 50 to about 70.

The objective of the game is to revive, at least for a night, the school spirit and camaraderie that shaped Bremerton when it was a two-school town.

“Having Danny put this all together, given what he’s accomplished throughout his music career, really adds to the importance of the event,” BSAA Executive Director Jim Portune said. “A basketball game isn’t a basketball game without music. Having music takes the experience up three notches.”

Ward, who plays solo as well as with his self-titled band Danny Ward and Reality, credits both his successes and the strong music tradition in Bremerton to former West High band director Bill Bissell, who died in 2001.

Bissell, who directed the University of Washington marching band for 24 years following his stint in Bremerton and is credited for inventing “The Wave,” taught Ward and his classmates the importance of sportsmanship and school spirit.

During basketball games, Ward remembers, Bissell insisted the West High band play the oppositions’ fight song as a show of respect.

“He was such a gung-ho guy He was the music man of Bremerton,” Ward said. “It was amazing what he did for the school. The halftime shows, the effort he put in, it was all amazing.”

Under Bissell’s guidance, the West High band marched in the Rose Parade; played for ships and tugboats coming in and out of port in Bremerton; and traveled to UW at least once a year to perform during halftime of a basketball game.

In addition to athletics, the music program dominated the landscape of West High. Ward remembers there being about 40 pep band members. There also was a jazz band, an orchestra, a massive drill team and an ensemble cast.

“We couldn’t have had it better,” Ward said. “The music program was gigantic.”

It was through Bissell’s music program Ward developed an affinity for the saxophone. He’s been playing ever since, landing a role in “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1982 and playing at the Rainbow Room in New York City in 2008.

He performs weekly across Western Washington, primarily on Whidbey Island.

“If I hadn’t had music, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I was a pretty wild kid,” Ward said. “It kept a lot of us out of trouble.”

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