At age 3, William P. Foster stood on a footstool, lifted a tiny tree branch shoulder high and conducted an imaginary ban in his grandfather’s living room.
Snare drum s snapped a crisp cadence. Trumpets and trombones blared brassy replies. Clarinets and flutes poured out notes like a cool breeze.
It was summer in Kansas City, KS, in the early 1920s. In his mind, young William heard the notes and witnessed the musician’s high-step into formation. Foster says he never forgot that vision.
In later years, his bands would not be imaginary, they would be imaginative. Foster would go on to become one of the most honored men in music education. He led three generations of band members, win countless awards, held nearly every major position in the band conduction profession, and created one of the most powerful marching bands in the world.
Kansas City Kansas: The Early Years
As we’ve already learned, William P. Foster’s love for bands came early. At age 12, he began his musical career by learning to play the clarinet. He had worked at a drug store, washed cars, cut lawns, and delivered newspapers, to squirrel away enough money to by his first instrument. However, when he took lessons at a local conservatory, he learned his instrument was obsolete, but he wasn’t deterred.
By the time Foster was 18, he had mastered the clarinet, violin, cello, and coronet. At Sumner High School, his band director – recognizing his talent – named him student-director of the marching band and symphonic orchestra during his junior and senior years. He even directed an all-city Black band.
“It didn’t take me long to pick up anything musical,” Foster said. “I was musically inclined from the get-go. However, I still had to work hard.”
He and his wife, Mary Ann, met while he was at Kansas University and she was in high school. They married on Aug. 8, 1939, and later had two boys, William Patrick, Jr. and Anthony.
“I knew he was a little different from most kids coming up,” Mary Ann Foster recalled. “You could tell one day he was going to do something. You just didn’t know what.”
An Education: The University of Kansas
His sister furnished him with a new clarinet when he came to Kansas University on a scholarship. His plans were to play for the KU Marching Band.
“A friend of mine and I both had new instruments,” Remembered Foster. “We came to KU early so we could practice for auditions. I remember that night before auditions were to be held, we both went to the stadium and practiced on the field until midnight.
“The next morning, we were confident that we were prepared, because confidentially, we both were excellent musicians. Both of us felt good about our individual auditions. But we started getting worried when we didn’t hear the results.
“To make a long story short, we didn’t make the band because we were Black.”
But he conceded, “Maybe it made me stronger. You have to remember that in 1937 through 1941 when I was at KU, segregation everywhere was very hardcore.”
In 1941 when he graduated with his degree in music education from KU, Foster knew he would have to create his own career. He was told there would be no jobs opening up for Black conductors in America.
This created one of the burning desired in his life: to develop a band as fine or finer than any band composed of White students. To this end, Dr. Foster succeeded.
“I knew I would have to go to a Black school and would have to develop my own organization,” said Foster.
Foster went on to teach at Fort Valley State College in Georgia and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He arrived a Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in spring 1946. The World War II year hadn’t been kind to the band program which had dwindled to only 16 members.
Foster began recruiting. By that fall, he had a 45 member band that included famous saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, and his brother Nat, who would also become a well-known musician.
Trappings of the organization were relatively meager then.
“When we started off, we wore our own trousers and shirts. The only thing we had that the school purchased was a white cross belt. We wore it over our blue Sunday suits.”
While other bands marched to the strict military scores typical of John Philip Sousa, Foster’s band treaded all over the musical spectrum—including hip tunes like Count Basie’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” At the same time, Foster pushed his students to march faster, lift their knees higher and throw in a few dance steps for good measure.
A typical band marched 124 to 128 steps a minute. But as the audience became more receptive to the quick tempo, Foster pushed the Marching 100 to go faster until it reached 320 steps a minute. He then contrasted the quick pace with a “death cadence” of 16 steps a minute.
He always came up with ideas when he was at home in bed flat on his back with his eyes closed, either just before he was about to fall asleep or at dawn when he awoke. He’d hurry into the office and work the designs out on a mall board with inch-high plastic and metal figurines: an eagle flapping its wings, a hypodermic needle plunging in and producing the word “ow.”
Foster’s movement design spawned a whole new vocabulary. The movement of instruments along with stylized shifting of the torso is called “instrumental upper-body flash.” FAMU’s marching band program has been deemed responsible for “not less than 30 innovations or first performances” of techniques which have become standard operating procedure for many high school and collegiate marching band programs nationally.
Although the dance element came onto the football field with Dr. Foster’s own original choreography of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” it took a giant leap in 1962 when FAMU dance professor Beverly Barber choreographed the band’s dance routine to the gospel-flavored music from the movie “Walk on the Wild Side,” which had featured the singer Brook Benton and also had a hit version by jazz organist Jimmy Smith. (Lou Reed's 1972 song is a different composition.)
Dr. Foster Recalled,
"It was my feeling that we needed a professional to really help us create steps and routines. Then we found there was too much emphasis on dance steps and not enough on instrument and leg movement that could be seen from the stands, so we initiated the Dance Routine Committee.”
The five student members of the committee spent about six weeks each May and early June scouting out the most popular dance steps among African-American youth. Then, with faculty members, they began to work out steps and music for the fall. As a result, another one of Dr. Foster’s pageantry concepts – relevance – was institutionalized.
The FAMU band played all kinds of repertoire but spent more time than most bands on music from the pop world, music that band members can dance to.
Through relentless devotion to an application of his own homespun philosophy, Foster nurtured the FAMU Marching 100 (he refused to change the band's nickname even after they became a music force 300 strong.) Under his direction, he estimated the group was seen by more than 5 billion spectators in both live and televised performances.
Consider some of the Marching 100’s appearances – from its 1963 national TV debut at Orange Bowl Stadium in Miami, to segments on 60 Minutes and Walt Disney World, to the greatest honor of all – being invited to represent the United States in the July 1989 French Bicentennial celebration. And there have been dozens of other high-profile appearances in between, all recognizing the dynamism of the organization Foster built during his 52 years at FAMU.
Two national soft drinks, Coca-Cola (19740 and Welch’s Grape Drink (1979) utilized the talents of the FAMU band for television commercials. With so much exposure, the band earned the name “American’s Band, and Foster certainly was American’s band director.
For 10 years, between 1979 and 1989, Foster and his A&M staff, conducted the McDonald’s All-American High School Band. His leadership was recognized in the band’s receipt of the 1985 Sudler Trophy, the “Heisman Trophy of the marching-band world, awarded by the John Philip Sousa Foundation. Foster’s list of guest conducting, clinician and adjudication credits filled several pages.
On July 31, 1998, Foster officially retired.
The Rattler Band program under Dr. Foster became so disciplined and original that it spawned imitators not only at other Black colleges but also at predominantly White ones.
As Foster high stepped into history, so many of his lessons endured. The man many call “Doc” or “The Law” had groomed more than 100 other band directors and music teachers in Florida alone.
“He has a large legacy with a lot of people, who will give him credit for their success,” said Kenneth G. Bloomquist, director of bands at Michigan State University for 24 years until he retired in 1994.
“History will be very kind to Bill Foster, because he’s done so much for bands and for people who are in the band world.”
William P. Foster died in Tallahassee on Aug. 28, 2010. He was 91.
- The quotes in this article come from several archived interviews with Dr. Foster and from his biography, “The Man Behind the Baton.”