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Bill Maxwell

FAMU marching band leader was inspiration to thousands of young blacks

The time was the mid 1950s, the Jim Crow era. The place was a recently plowed field in the black community of Crescent City, Fla. About a dozen black boys, including me, were pretending to be members of the famous Florida A&M University Marching 100 band.

I was the only boy with a real instrument, a beat-up bugle I had dug out of the landfill during one of our regular forays in search of discarded treasures. I had taught myself to play several tunes.

Robert Long ingeniously strapped a foot tub to his waist for a drum. The other boys carried sticks that they played by mimicking the sounds of various brass instruments. Joe Bush, the tallest and skinniest among us, sported a bamboo pole that he waved in the air. He was our drum major, high-stepping through the dust we kicked up as we paraded where weeks before there had been cornstalks. We marched and played our make-believe instruments until we were sweaty and exhausted.

My grandfather used to joke that we were "a sight to behold." We wanted to be like the members of the Marching 100. We were not unique or weird. Throughout Florida during this period, thousands of black children were inspired by the legend of the FAMU band, along with the university's great football team, the Rattlers under coach Jake Gaither.

All of us had at least one teacher who was a FAMU graduate. They were our mentors and role models, and they never missed a chance to praise the Marching 100. They often used their own money and vehicles to drive us to games to see the band perform.

William P. Foster, who began his music career by learning to play the clarinet at age 12, came to FAMU in 1946 and began creating the Marching 100. Although most of us had never laid eyes on the man, we affectionately called him "Doc Foster" because that is the name our teachers used. We felt familiar with him.

For us, his can-do life story was as inspiring as his band's performances. At the University of Kansas during the late 1930s, Foster was prevented from joining the marching band because he was black. When he graduated in 1941, he told the dean of music that he wanted to direct a band. The dean told him that there were "no jobs for colored conductors."

Foster said he took the dean's warning as a challenge, and he vowed at that moment to create his own band. Within a few years of his arrival at FAMU, he transformed the band's military style into a high-energy package, with members marching 360 steps per minute in some performances. He introduced contemporary music and modernized the band's uniform, making the blazing green and orange recognizable worldwide. By most accounts, the Marching 100 is the most imitated marching band in the United States, and it is credited with changing high school and college football halftime shows.

Foster's legacy goes beyond his public awards and prizes. Among blacks who knew him, he will be remembered for changing lives and molding character. During the 52 years he directed the band, many of his students went on to careers as professional performers and band directors. One of the best-known was jazz saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley.

Foster's influence went beyond music. When announcing the director's death last month, FAMU president James Ammons said: "I can attest to the fact that what Dr. Foster created was magical. It was the marching band at an Orange Blossom Classic in Miami that sparked my interest in attending FAMU. The band was dynamic, larger than life and something I wanted to have access to even though I was not a musician."

Doc. Foster, who died on Aug. 28 at age 91, had that same influence on thousands of other young blacks.

FAMU marching band leader was inspiration to thousands of young blacks 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 6:53pm]
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