LeaderWilliam P. Foster

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While studying music at the University of Kansas, Foster’s goal was to be a conductor. No way, a dean told him: Negroes can’t lead orchestras. But he got jobs as a director at a high school, then the Tuskegee Institute, and finally (in 1946) at Florida A&M, where he had 16 musicians to form into a marching band. At the time, college sports bands were pretty boring: the school’s “fight song” was the highlight of halftime shows.

But Foster had a different vision in mind. He called the band the “Marching 100”, because he hoped the band would get that big. Foster said there was “a psychology to running a band,” and blended upbeat contemporary music with choreographed moves. “And then there’s the energy,” he said. “Lots of energy in playing and marching. Dazzle them with it. Energy.” And more than marching: “It slides, slithers, swivels, rotates, shakes, rocks and rolls. It leaps to the sky, does triple twists, and drops to earth without a flaw, without missing either a beat or a step.” Audiences ate it up, and just about every school in the nation started to change, following Foster’s lead. And the Marching 100 grew to about 400 performers, and has been invited to perform at the Super Bowl, presidential inaugurations, the Grammy Awards, and in TV commercials. He retired from the school in 1998, but the band still has a national reputation. Dr. Foster died August 28 at 91.

From This is True for 29 August 2010