Marching 100: 70 years of out of this world precision

Photo Credit Nallah Brown

Florida A&M University’s The Marching 100 has lived by the same words for the last 70 years: “Highest quality of character, achievement in academics, attainment in leadership, perfection in musicianship, precision in marching, dedication to service.”

These words go far beyond a motto; they serve to guide thoughts and rule actions.

At FAMU’s 2016 homecoming football game on Saturday, the Marching 100 will celebrate their 70th anniversary and the legacy of their founder, the late William P. Foster.

On June 1, 1946, Foster founded and became the Director of Bands of the distinguished marching band, which then had only 16 members. He would go on to revolutionize the art of the marching band with the upbeat, funky, over-the-top style that “The 100” is notorious for.

Fifty-two years, 34 nationally-televised performances, three films, three commercials and 200 halftime shows later, Foster retired and passed the torch to his former student, Julian E. White.

White taught high school before coming to FAMU. Most of his students were financially challenged.

“If they weren’t in band, they’d be in the streets and be in trouble,” he said.

White developed a teaching philosophy focused on encouraging young black men. He believed that his teaching style helped young men stay committed to excellence beyond band practice.

“If your students don’t have respect and believe in you, then your teaching won’t be effectively adhered to.”

That same philosophy is the one he carried with him to the university, and immediately saw the impact of positive instruction on black males—one that has led to the matriculation of thousands of his students in almost every field, putting black men in roles they normally wouldn’t have a chance to be in.

“FAMU’s music program is a highly touted factory for producing quality educators that exude leadership, musicianship, professionalism and dedication. We mimic what we see and learn from the music faculty and staff at FAMU,” said alumnus Ellis Gainey, head drum major from 1992-1994.

White held the position for 15 years. He then retired after the 2011 hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.

“I think that (Champion’s death) created an awareness of the effects that hazing can have on an organization and even on an institution,” White said.

Although Foster passed away in August 2010, his students and Marching 100 members say his legacy lives on. His influence instilled drive, pride and a hunger for excellence in generations upon generations of “hundred” student-musicians.
“The band is moving forward. The quality of performance is good and I’m proud to see that and proud to see the university move forward,” White said.

Mahlik Sealy, third-year FAMU music industry student and trumpet section leader, said Foster’s legacy taught him there’s a boundary that needs to be pushed.

“He has taught me to push the boundary of musicianship,” Sealy said. “This year especially, I really feel the pride of the Marching 100. You put on that uniform like a military officer. That kind of pride.”

Foster’s and White’s teaching and conducting methods live on as well.

White said band members have every reason to hold their heads up high and say, “I’m so glad. I’m from FAMU!”

Shelby R. Chipman, director of marching and pep bands at FAMU, made a conscious effort to incorporate White’s and Foster’s teaching style with his own.

“Many of the practices and philosophies I believe in as a conductor with the band and the orchestra is a direct attribute of what I was able to learn and study under Dr. Foster one-on-one, as well as in the rehearsals we had in concert band and marching band,” Chipman said. “Of course, I also learned quite a bit from his mentee, Dr. Julian E. White.” 

Foster and White’s students have gone on to become prestigious band teachers at high school and college levels, teachers, and lawyers. But most importantly, Chipman said Foster was adored by many because of his musicianship.

“When Dr. Foster would conduct the band, he just garnered everyone’s attention because he had an impeccable language in terms of his vocabulary,” Chipman said. “Then, of course, his level of musicianship is something that everyone marveled because he was just a perfectionist. He knew what type of sound he wanted from the FAMU band.”

Chipman was a student and band member in the 1980s. Between the band he played in, and the band he now directs, he said both had outstanding musicians.

“In the ‘80s … it was a different time. We wore short-shorts,” he said, with a smile. “In terms of the expectations, and the level of musicianship, and the hard work ethic, we’re still maintaining the standard.”

Foster’s boundary-pushing legacy has created worldwide reach for The Marching 100. Every homecoming weekend, band alumni from around the globe find their way back to the Hill to pay homage to Foster, and reminisce on good times on the field.

“Former band members are coming from as far as China and Dubai to be a part of the 70th celebration,” said Kimberly Evans, vice president of the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association Inc. “It's not just Tallahassee. People from all over the world want to see what the band will do next.”

Though the band has been tight-lipped in regard to any surprises for Saturday, Sealy revealed that the performance will pay tribute to past 100 members.

“This show will be a combination of all the greatness from the last 70 years. It’s all coming together on the field,” Sealy said.

President of the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association Inc. Tiffany Sholtz, said that planning for the anniversary performance was an ongoing effort to include honors to influential people.

“It's not simply entertainment for the band members and staff,” Sholtz said. “There's a meaning behind everything. Every song selected is to pay tribute to someone.”

Lavontay Brightwell, member of The Hundred, predicts a warm response from the audience.

“The homecoming performance will be out of this world. You’re not going to expect anything. You’re going to have a good time,” Brightwell said.

Chipman allowed the band a three-week preparatory period to perfect the sounds and formations of the homecoming halftime show. The last week is being used to polish the highly anticipated show.

“We’re getting into the heart of it with the drill and all the picture animation formations,” Chipman said. And without giving too much away, Chipman wants everyone to know: “Get there early, because you don’t want to miss it.”