William P. Foster, who revolutionized the once-staid world of collegiate marching bands as the founder and longtime director of the high-stepping, crowd-wowing Marching 100 band of Florida A&M University, died Saturday [Aug 29, 2010] in Tallahassee, Fla. He was 91.
Robert E. Klein/Associated Press Florida A&Ms Marching 100 at the 2005 Super Bowl. The group has more than 400 members and a worldwide following. His death was announced by the university.
When Dr. Foster arrived at the historically black Florida A&M campus in Tallahassee in 1946, football halftime shows around the nation generally offered a rendition of the home teams fight song and a smattering of John Philip Sousa marches.
Dr. Foster introduced shows that infused black popular culture into his routines, blending contemporary music, often jazz or rock, with imaginative choreography, his green-and-orange uniformed band members carrying their instruments at a 45-degree angle, legs bent to the same angle.
College and high school marching bands around the nation drew on the Florida A&M style.
Its gotten to the point where I cant remember the last time I saw a halftime show that featured traditional marches, Fred Tillis, emeritus director of the University of Massachusetts fine arts department, told The Florida Times-Union in 1998.
Dr. Foster said there was a psychology to running a band.
People want to hear the songs they hear on the radio; it gives them an immediate relationship with you, he told The New York Times in July 1989, when the Marching 100 headed to Paris, having been selected by the French government to represent the United States with renditions of James Brown at the parade marking the French Revolutions bicentennial. And then theres the energy. Lots of energy in playing and marching. Dazzle them with it. Energy.
Sometimes his band moved at a step every three seconds or so, what he called the death cadence or death march, then zoomed to six steps a second.
It didnt exactly march.
It slides, slithers, swivels, rotates, shakes, rocks and rolls, as Dr. Foster once put it. It leaps to the sky, does triple twists, and drops to earth without a flaw, without missing either a beat or a step. It often became an animation show, simulating palm trees with branches swaying or an eagle flapping its wings.
Dr. Foster became known on campus as the Law, for what could be an intimidating presence, but he began with only 16 bandsmen in 1946. He soon called his musicians the Marching 100 because he envisioned reaching that number at some point.
The Marching 100 has grown to 400 or so musicians, drum majors and flag-bearers. It has played at the Super Bowl, presidential inaugurations and the Grammy Awards and in nationally televised commercials.
William Patrick Foster was born in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 25, 1919. He played the clarinet as a youngster and studied music at the University of Kansas. He hoped to become a conductor, but, as he recalled, a dean told him no musical companies would hire a black for that role.
That was when I decided that I would develop a black band that was equal to, or finer than, any white band in the country, he told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1998.
He got students and parents to round up used instruments at his first job, music director for the ill-funded and segregated Lincoln High School in Springfield, Mo., then moved to the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he built a band.
His Florida A&M band first gained recognition on a limited scale by playing numbers like Alexanders Ragtime Band in the Orange Blossom Classic, when the Rattlers would face another historically black school at Miamis Orange Bowl. By the 1960s, as segregation began to bend, the band played at the Orange Bowl game itself and ultimately emerged as a scintillating presence with a wide audience.
Dr. Foster received a bachelors degree from Kansas in 1941 and a masters degree from Wayne State in 1950, both with a concentration in music, and a doctor of education degree from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1955.
He was the author of the memoir The Man Behind the Baton and Band Pageantry: A Guide for the Marching Band.
He retired as the Florida A&M band director in 1998.
He is survived by his sons Anthony and William Jr. and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife, Mary Ann, died in 2007.
When Dr. Foster arrived at Florida A&M, he looked to innovative performances as a way of building its music department. His protégés included the renowned jazz musicians Cannonball Adderley, on the saxophone, and his brother, Nat, on the trumpet and cornet.
Everything he did was new, Nat Adderley once told The St. Petersburg Times. No one had ever seen anything like it.