Born in Kansas City, Kansas, William P. Foster started playing the clarinet at 12 years old and continued to play through high school. By the time he was 17, he was directing an all-city band in Kansas City. While attending the University of Kansas in the late 1930s, segregation prevented him from participating in the marching band. Foster held his “head high” and “worked toward the next achievement,” he told the Wichita Eagle in 2006.
Dr. Foster dreamed of being a band director but was told “there were no jobs for colored conductors,” Foster told Florida’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1998. Those discouraging words pushed him to create his own band. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in music education, he earned a master’s in 1950 from Wayne State University in Detroit and a doctorate in 1955 from the Teachers College at Columbia University.
In 1946 he founded the Florida A&M Marching 100 band and over the next 50 years turned it into one of the best college bands in the nation. He helped revolutionize marching-band style and introduced shows that infused Black popular culture with contemporary music, often jazz or rock, and imaginative choreography.
College and high school marching bands around the nation drew on the iconic Florida A&M style. “Dr. Foster had an indelible impact on college marching bands,” Frank Wickes, the longtime director of Louisiana State University’s marching band, told The New York Times. He retired as the Florida A&M band director in 1998.
Dr. Foster was the author of the memoir “The Man Behind the Baton” and “Band Pageantry: A Guide for the Marching Band.” He died in 2010 at the age of 91.
Dr. Foster’s legacy continues today in college and high school marching band halftime shows, in the many music educators he continues to inspire, and in the alumni of his Marching 100 band. The Music Education Alliance – Music for All, the National Band Association, and the Collegiate Band Directors National Association – created the annually-awarded Dr. William P. Foster Award of Excellence in his honor.