Band director carries on tradition

“The highest quality of character,” shouted a room full of band students at the command of their director.

Among the students were many hoping to perform at the Atlanta Classic, a rite of passage to be an official member. Thus, their response was as quick and sharp as the next: “perfection in musicianship.”

The room was clean and brightly lit with book bags and instrument cases lining the perimeter, while every eye looked toward the podium. It was obvious that leadership and respect was the glue keeping the 400 members together.

“Precision in Marching.” One of the few paintings decorating the rehearsal room was a portrait of the late William P. Foster, the father of the Florida A&M Marching “100” Band. Foster left a lasting impression of excellence on the university, a quality that the current band director, Julian E. White, also requires of himself.

“No two men are alike,” head drum major Ahmad Newbold said as he considered the contributions of both Foster and White. “He’s his own man. Dr. White has done a tremendous job of continuing the legacy of the Marching 100. He took the band from where Dr. Foster left it, and just took it to another level. And the expectations have never changed; it’s always through the roof.”

White also shares the same admiration for his students. They have given him many moments to be proud of, including their performances at the Grammys, Super Bowl, Honda Battle of the Bands, presidential inauguration and for the American Bandmasters Association. But none compare to their performance at Foster’s funeral, he said.

“The band played Foster’s favorite piece, ‘Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral'” White said. “Band members from all years came. It was like a grand reunion. When we played that piece, we had the band on stage, we had the wind ensemble – about 45 people – and then we had the other 350 members in the balcony.

“At the end of the piece we played, everybody came and played, and an electricity came over in the auditorium that I have never seen before. Everybody stood up, everybody cried, everybody applauded and it was a rare aesthetic experience. Everybody felt proud to be a part of the Florida A&M band, and I felt so proud being the director.”

White, a distinguished professor of music, earned his master’s degree in music education from the University of Illinois and doctorate from Florida State University after first receiving his bachelor’s degree at FAMU.

He played with the Marching “100” Band as a student. But even as a boy, White was part of the band family. He recalls riding on the band’s bus to the Gator Bowl when his older brother was a member, and listening to recordings of their music as a boy.

Later he aspired to become a professional flautist. However, destiny, he said, opened up a teaching position at Northwestern Junior-Senior High in his hometown of Jacksonville. This position ignited his passion for teaching and led him back to his alma mater as associate band director, and now band director and chair of the Music Department.

“He’s a workaholic,” said Newbold, a senior music education student from Miami. “He’ll be the first one here and the last one to leave. When you don’t see him, he’s always doing something for the band. I don’t know how he does it, but he comes in each in every day with a burst of energy.”

Newbold feels blessed to be part of the Band. He describes his 12th-grade audition as a miracle. During the audition, he shared with White that he had applied to and was accepted to several HBCUs, but he was still eagerly waiting to hear form FAMU.

“That was a Friday afternoon,” Newbold said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I will get you in.’ Then Monday morning or Monday afternoon I get a letter in the mail saying I’ve been accepted to FAMU after he just told me 48 hours ago that he was going to get me in. I was like wow, this man can work wonders.”

White is also an active father, said Dennine White, his wife and flute professor at FAMU. Not only does their 6-year-old son keep him busy with homework, soccer and flag football games and being a homeroom parent at his school, he also has a vested interest in his students, she said.

“He talks all the time about his 425 kids that he has to take care of,” Mrs. White said. “When we travel and when we leave at night he’ll have his walkie-talkie and microphone, and when he does that all nine buses can hear what he’s doing.

“He’ll sing them to sleep, and he’ll sing this ‘Rise, Shine, Give God Glory,’ in the morning to wake them up. And he does that same kind of thing at home with our son. So it’s just that kind of a relationship that he has with the band students.”

White wants his children to be free to express themselves and make choices in life that will satisfy them, he said.

“That’s the same kind of goal that I have for members of the band, because I consider all of them my children,” White said. “I take the time to talk to them to let them know that I am concerned about their personal and academic welfare.”

Tawheedah Abdullah, the alto sax section leader and a senior music education student, said that White expects members to carry themselves in the best way possible and doesn’t tolerate any misrepresentation. Although he is stern, White also has “an uncanny sense of humor,” she said.

“We have a phrase in the Marching 100,” said Abdullah, sharing a moment where his humor surfaced. “We say, ‘It doesn’t rain on the 100.’ That means when we practice and it starts raining, we still practice. When we have a show and it starts raining, we still go through with the show.

“So its raining, it’s storming and there’s puddles everywhere. And the dancers have to get on the ground, a lot. Everybody is scared to get on the ground. So Dr. White says, ‘It’s just water’ and he actually sits in one of the puddles, and it’s like up to his knees, showing that if he does it, everyone in the band should be able to do it too.

“He’s someone that represents the stairwell effect of leadership. He really shows people that if you work hard and do what you have to do, then you will be recognized.”

Cory Williams, a former band member and senior fine arts student from Fort Lauderdale, said that if White wasn’t a musician, he would still be an artist, because of his persistence and ability to create something out of nothing.

“Dr. White influences people through his music,” Williams said. “That’s what artists do through their artwork. He does it through his instruments. The 100 has held this caliber for a long time, because our tradition has been passed down. They take what they do to the umpteenth power. Even though times are different, when I came up it was all about musicianship and persistence.”

White said that the band is looking forward to performing and providing the FAMU spirit for the student body this homecoming. The Marching “100” Band will perform at the homecoming parade and the pre-game and half-time show of the homecoming game. Charlie Wilson, an R&B soul singer, will join the band to perform the “Star Spangled Banner.”