The Marchingest, Playingest Band in the Land

Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 and the invention of the black marching band style

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Historical photo from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

In 1989, when the French government needed an act to represent American music for their 200th anniversary Bastille Day celebration marking French independence, did they choose Madonna? No. Michael Jackson? No. New Kids on the Block? Quintuple nope.

They chose Florida A&M University’s Marching 100—a university marching band.  Why?

Because there wasn’t anything, anywhere like The 100. Period. “They illustrated the essence of American music,” said the parade’s artistic director, Jean-Paul Goude, in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. And, at the parade, FAMU’s Marching 100 did not disappoint. Instead of a bright, healthy dose of traditional marching band fare, the Marching 100 delivered a non-stop set of James Brown, complete with high-stepping, complicated choreography and the old-school hip-swiveling swagger of the Rattlers’ signature marching style. The Parisians went bonkers.

In this YouTube video capturing the 1989 Good Morning America report on the event, you can see the representative Marching 100 rehearsing, touring the Louvre and even trying to teach their Parisian hosts to moonwalk. The end of the video shows a dress rehearsal of their performance.

The Miami Herald dubbed the Marching 100 “the marchingest, playingest band in the land.” CNN flat out announced them as “the best band in the entire universe.” And while there are scores of superb, unforgettable, unstoppable black marching bands from the rich heritage of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we want to shine a light on the Marching 100 in honor of the upcoming performance of DRUMLine Live, which celebrates the black marching band style we all know and love today—which happened to be invented right here in Florida thanks to FAMU’s legendary band director, Dr. William P. Foster.

I.    Dr. William P. Foster and a (Very Brief, Grossly Oversimplified) History* of the Black Marching Band

Of course, the story traces back to war, slavery and the pervasive fearful attitudes white folks had about black and brown people. By now, we know this theme well, especially as an audience of the performing arts in America, where the record shows that the influence and creative contributions of black people is a real American tale of victory in the face of adverse and often deadly circumstances.

So, the marching band story begins somewhere around 1738, when the Virginia legislature conscripted free people of color for the military; however, whites were scared of an uprising, so PoCs couldn’t have guns. What they could have, though, were instruments. They made a perfect drum and fife corps.

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1st Army Post Band in Souilly, France, 1918. (Photo from BBC’s Music in the Great War: Military Bands)

Trained in the military bands during the War of 1812, black musicians formed several all-black brass bands in some of the same cities that would birth American music: New Orleans, Philly, New York. These post-war military bands evolved to play social functions, too, and entered mainstream life as cotillion bands. As time and wars wore on, the status of the military band elevated, and ex-military band members served their communities in auxiliary bands that played at public events, for volunteer fire departments, at lodges and for holidays.

Brass bands took off like wildfire across the country, and arguably the most fertile ground for black musicians was New Orleans. Under African American leadership, the city formed benevolent societies in the 1880s whose many social events needed music and stellar musicianship. While the black brass band musical identity was taking shape, its rural counterpart, self-taught musicians heavily influenced by spirituals, jubilees and the human voice, began establishing itself throughout the South. These musicians’ “singing horns” mimicked the up-and-down field calls, growling and sliding of the human voice, and their style met the New Orleans style during the musician exodus northward in the early 20th century.

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Band leader Lt. James Reese Europe with the 369th Infantry Regiment aka the Harlem Hellfighters, 1919.

By the time WWI rolled around, the Harlem Hellfighters military band was arguably the best in the world, as it encapsulated what had been happening musically in the black community since the foundling drum and fife corps days.

Take this history and add the fact that, in an effort to create equitable post-Civil-War educational opportunities, the 1890 Land Grant Act helped start 17 black land-grant colleges in the South (and some border states) focusing on agricultural, mechanical and industrial education.

Hence, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Florida A&M University, or, FAMU. Bands played a small role on the campuses although the colleges boasted superior music programs. In time, veterans of the wars and those men who performed in marching bands like the Harlem Hellfighters found themselves in band director positions on the campuses of Tuskeegee University and Alabama A&M.

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Dr. William P. Foster, creator of the world famous FAMU Marching 100 band. (Photo: Victor R. Gaines)

In 1946, FAMU specifically wanted to put itself on the map. To do so, they would need a fine band. Better than Tuskeegee’s. They hired Dr. William P. Foster, a man renowned for his high ethical standards in life and in musicianship, and he took on the struggling FAMU band program. Although the university only had 16 band members and 17 mostly broken instruments, Dr. Foster pulled together a 45-piece marching band for the start of the fall 1946 term. It was the first of fifty-two years that Dr. Foster would serve as FAMU’s director of bands. 1946 marked the start of his “philosophy of life” approach, demanding excellence in musicianship, service, academics and personal achievement.

But 1947. That’s when the magic happened.

II.    Pageantry and Showmanship

In case you don’t know, HBCU football games are about the band. The half-time show is where it’s at and where you’ll see the high-stepping, cymbal-bowing, whistle-tooting razz-ma-tazz artistry of all that is the one-upping showmanship of the black marching band extravaganza.

It started with Dr. Foster’s simple decision to break from the traditional marching mold. In 1947, his second year as FAMU’s director of bands, he had them execute some dance steps to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” during the half-time show. Nobody had seen a marching band do such a thing. People went nuts; they loved it; the band loved it. Dr. Foster knew he was on to something big, something good. He started innovating, mixing drills, dance, precision and developing signature marching styles (everyone knows FAMU’s “death cadence” or “slow one sequence” that accelerates to 320 steps per minute).

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Once Dr. Foster and the FAMU band, coined the Marching 100 though they now exceed 400 members, broke the mold, there was no going back. Other HBCU marching bands took their cues, borrowing here and there from FAMU but eventually finding their own styles and signature moves, which added a different dimension to inter-collegiate competition. Touchdowns were one thing, but half-time shows—which Foster called “pageants” and the name stuck—were the real action on the field.

“The Marching 100 was, and still is, the identity of Florida A&M University,” says Straz Center Chief of Security Dan Mathis, who is a proud FAMU alum. “When people mentioned FAMU, the conversation was always about the band. The games were about the band. When the Florida Classic was still played here in Tampa Stadium, I dreamed as a kid about running out of the tunnel as a football player while the band played. Everyone looked forward to the half-time show. The half-time shows were epic against our in-state rival Bethune-Cookman University–the formations, the dance routines, the tuba section, and the dynamic drum majors.”

His favorite part? “The tubas!,” he laughs.

Dan says watch this video if you want to see some action from the Marching 100 tuba section:

The Straz Center’s marketing manager for the Patel Conservatory education programs, Stephanie Pemberton, was a drum major at Blake High School. Their band director, a FAMU grad and member of the Marching 100, gave her the legendary training that put FAMU on the map. “He originated Blake High School’s Marching Yellow Jackets to model after the Marching 100,” she says. “We did 90-degree high-step entrances and exits from the stadium as well as extensive dance numbers involving all musicians in the band. At this point of my musical career, I had already been playing for 10+ years—but this was a whole new experience in the world of entertaining. Our football team was lousy, but people came to the games to dance in the stands. It was so much fun. Even now, as a 36-year-old woman, I can still hold the ‘flamingo stand’ he made us do. And do. And do.”

III.    FAMU: Getting Personal in the Historical Context

Geri Kelly, who works as the community programs coordinator at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory, graduated from FAMU in 1968. “I can remember watching the band on the field at A&M when I was a child,” she says. “The pride and the excitement that the band generates is what convinced me to attend Florida A&M.  Although the academic program in theater was one of the strongest in Historically Black Colleges, I felt a sense of pride just to say I attended FAMU, the home of the Marching 100.  I can remember throughout my adult life, making the effort to be before the TV to see them perform at three Super Bowls, in parades for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and on 20/20 as the main guest.”

For Geri, like most HBCU students and alums, the point of the pageant, of the band, goes deeper than the showmanship or the celebrity. “It is about the culture and the history in music that they keep that sense of pride alive in most blacks, whether they attended FAMU or not.  My entire family have a strong sense of pride in the Marching 100, and most did not attend the school.  It is more than that . . . it’s a way of life. It’s our heritage” says Geri.

Black marching band dance, drum, music and precision execution combined with its reimagining of what a marching band could, should and would do grew into an aspect of black culture and identity that is a singular expression of African American sensibilities. Marching bands represent a cultural legacy and are symbols of an indomitable spirit of victory, handed down through the generations since the start of the HBCUs at the end of the Civil War. The evolution of the black marching band is an important thread of the story of blackness in America that is, viewed with a wide-angle lens, an important story in understanding America, too.

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Just a reminder that DRUMLine Live will be more fun with friends. Groups of 10 or more get a special discount, so if you’ve got lots of folks who want to go, call our Group Sales Office and get hooked up. 813.222.1016 or 813.222.1047 or email groups@strazcenter.org.

*historical information found in Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands, a UNC-Chapel Hill master’s thesis in folklore by William Dukes Lewis.