Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Origins Of High Step Style Marching (Historically Black Colleges & Universities Marching Bands)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about the early history of Historically Black Colleges And Universities' high step show style marching bands.

This post is divided into two sections: "Early Influences On High Step Marching Styles" and "William P. Foster's Influence On High Stepping Marching Styles"

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to William P. Foster and all those unknown and known who contributed to the development of the high step style of marching bands. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

A Brief History of African American Marching Bands

Excerpted from:
Lewis, William Dukes. Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands. Thesis (M.A., Folklore) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003. ... Thesis is available at UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries

"The earliest marching bands in America were most likely the fifers, drummers, trumpeters, and pipers of Colonial-era militias. Like their European predecessors, these bands functioned to regulate daily life in military camps, give signals or pass orders in battle, and boost the morale of soldiers during wartime (White 1944: 9). Each company had at least one drummer and fifer (Southern 1983: 43). Historians Al Right and Stanley Newcomb maintain that when the Continental Congress drafted the bill forming the United States Marine Corps in 1775, the bill “also provided for a Marine Band consisting of one drum major, one fife major, and 32 drums and fifes” (1970: 65)...

[Editor of The Music Of Black Americans: A History Eileen] Southern argues that the numerous black musicians who composed the military bands of the early nineteenth century “undoubtedly acquired their training—as well as access to instruments—during the War of 1812” (1983: 67). To bolster her assertion, she refers to the myriad all-black brass bands that emerged soon after the war ended, especially in the cities of New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York, and in sections of New England (1983: 67). One such band was led by Francis “Frank” Johnson, who Carolyn Bryant describes as “a talented Negro band leader and composer” whose band “performed as a military band, played concert engagements, and provided music at many fashionable balls” (1975: 10). Johnson was purportedly born in the West Indies around 1792 and migrated to the United States in 1809, where he settled in Philadelphia (Southern 1983: 108)....

By the time the Civil War had begun in 1861, new brass instruments were being used universally among the military bands that were beginning to thrive in America. Southern emphasizes that in the Union Army, “one of the first acts of the white commanding officers of Negro regiments was to procure instruments and music instructors for the formation of bands” (1983: 207). Through parades and other public performances, these bands helped recruit other black men to join the Union Army. According to Southern, by the war’s conclusion in 1865 “more than 185,000 black men had been inducted into the army as the ‘United States Colored Troops’” (1983: 205). Each of the black regiments had its own band (Southern 1983: 207)....

Many black regimental bands were disbanded soon after the Civil War. Although some of these ex-bandsmen certainly stayed on to form the first black units to be organized into the United States Regular Army, others attached themselves to civilian bands or toured with road shows (Southern 1983: 255). By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, marching bands had become thoroughly integrated into American society. Music historian William Schaefer affirms that during this time bands of well-trained ex-military musicians were found in almost every town and village in America. These bands were playing for political rallies, circuses, minstrel and medicine shows, carnivals, picnics, dances, athletic contests, reunions, seasonal parades, serenade fairs, and holiday gatherings. Schaefer maintains, “every military troop, quasimilitary drill team, volunteer fire squad, lodge, or social club had its auxiliary band to swell holiday pageantry” (1977: 8).

From about 1830 until 1900 minstrelsy reigned as one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States. First-rate bands frequently toured with minstrel troupes and vaudeville companies (Southern 1983: 255). “Although troupes composed of black entertainers date back to the 1840s,” argues Southern, “it was not until 1865 that the first permanent black minstrel troupes were formed” (1983: 229)... Among those that began their careers as minstrel performers were “‘Father of the Blues’ W.C. Handy, vaudevillian Tom Fletcher, musical comedy and ragtime composer Ernest Hogan, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bert Williams, and Bessie Smith” (Malone 1996: 54).

W.C. Handy joined the Mahara Minstrels as a cornetist in 1896, and in time he was appointed as the director of the troupe’s forty-two musicians. Minstrel shows were held in the evenings; therefore, troupes would bait the public’s interest in the afternoons by staging elaborate parades through the downtowns of the towns in which they were performing. The minstrel band strutted along and provided the procession with its spirited marching tunes (Handy 1947: 35-38)....

According to Jacqui Malone, “by the last decade of the nineteenth century there were approximately ten thousand bands in the United States, many of them marching bands” (1996: 137). This time period—between 1880 and 1910—is considered by many to be the “golden age of the brass band in America” (Schafer 1977: 2).

Due to the general popularity of brass bands, the widespread availability of black military-trained musicians, and an overabundance of cheap military wind instruments in the post-Civil War period, the marching band tradition also flourished in African American communities. Many African American benevolent societies and organizations formed bands to help raise money for their own causes....

The city of New Orleans became a hotbed of fine black brass bands during the post-Civil War period. Part of the reason these bands (among other African American art forms) proliferated in New Orleans is because of the city’s African American leadership....

In June 1916, Colonel William Hayward organized an all-black National Guard unit in New York. Hayward was serving as public service commissioner for New York City at the time and was familiar with the black leaders and communities of the city, especially the ever-growing Harlem district. Thus, the 15th Infantry Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard came into existence. Having “no rifles, ammunition, uniforms, armory to drill in, headquarters for recruitments, or troops,” Hayward began pursuing ways to recruit and raise funds to support his regiment (Badger 1995: 141). Biographer Reid Badger writes, “Colonel Hayward understood from the first that successful recruiting depended in large part on showmanship, and that meant parades and uniforms, and the stirring music of a military brass band” (1995: 142). Consequently, Hayward charged Lieutenant James Reese Europe, whom he knew had a reputation as one of the most talented dance orchestra leaders in New York, with the task of organizing an army band of the same caliber as his famed Clef Club and Temp Club groups (Badger 1995: 143; Southern 1983: 350).

Having recruited a large group of talented black bandsmen, including drum major/famed songwriter Noble Sissle, Lieutenant Europe and his 369th Infantry “Hellfighters” band gained tremendous fame throughout France for their syncopated rhythms and jazz-spirited versions of written standards; they were even invited to play in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in 1918 (Malone 1996: 143). Jacqui Malone writes, “While white-American soldiers of World War I ardently strove to march like well-oiled war machines, like battle-ready robots, James Reese Europe’s black bandsmen of the 369th Regiment stepped to the beat of a different drummer” (1990: 59). Dance historians John Szwed and Morton Marks assert that the African American drill sergeants of World War I, such as Lt. Europe, introduced melody and foot-stomping syncopation into military cadence-counting, which permanently altered the standard European marching call that had existed for centuries (1988: 32)."...

"William Patrick Foster (August 25, 1919 – August 28, 2010), also known as The Law and The Maestro, was the director of the noted Florida A&M University Marching "100". He served as the band's director from 1946[1] to his retirement in 2001. His innovations revolutionized college marching band technique and the perceptions of the collegiate band. Foster was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, the National Association for Distinguished Band Conductors Hall of Fame, the Florida Music Educators Association Hall of Fame and the Afro-American Hall of Fame among others. He also served as the president of the American Bandmasters Association and was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Bill Clinton. Foster wrote the book titled The Man Behind the Baton.[2]...

The Marching "100"
The original FAMU Band was organized in 1892 under the leadership of P.A. Van Weller. At that time, the school was still known as the State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students. When Foster became the director of bands in 1946, the school was known as the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes.[4] Foster brought over 30 new techniques to the band, which have now become standard procedure for high school and college bands nationwide.[1][2]...

At FAMU, Foster began redefining band pageantry with a showy style—rapid tempos, high-stepping, dancing, etc., which was eschewed by some band directors who continued to cling to more staid military tradition and its emphasis on correct carriage and marching precision.

Foster has been credited with developing at least 30 new marching band techniques, including the double-time marching step of 240 steps per minute or four steps per second, and the triple-time marching step of 360 steps per minute, the death-slow cadence of 20 steps per minute or one step every three seconds, and memorization of all music played in stands, parades, pre-game and halftime shows."....


An article on the history of HBCU marching bands
Discussion in 'The Band Board' started by PsychoJag, Dec 19, 2003.

[from] The Band Plays On By Michael Hurd

(Excerpted from A Different Drummer, originally published in BVQ Magazine Winter 2000 issue.)

Click here for more information.
[Note: The first link is no longer active. The second links is for Huffington Post’s Black Voices section, but not an article on this subject.]

"Let's see, there were fans and two teams. The teams played two 45-minute halves. Must have been a break in there for halftime. But, hey, wait a minute. No bands! A black college game with no bands! How could that be? Every black college football fan knows you can't have a game without the bands. That's what the fans really come to see (sorry coaches!).

Indeed, to say that Biddle (Now J.C. Smith) and Livingstone quietly kicked off the rich history of black college football is an understatement in more ways than one. There were no marching bands high-steppin' and struttin' onto the field, but then they were absent at the other college football games of that era, too. In fact, very few schools had marching bands before the 1920s.

Imagine that. Back then, when you went to a football game, well, you went to a football game. Now, and really for the last 50 years or so, going to a black college football game means you get a nice dose of blocking and tackling displays, but it's that party and concert for "five quarters" that really keeps you near your seat - near it, but not always in it.

The formal term for what most contemporary marching bands do at halftime is "pageantry." More accurately, it is "showmanship," and no one can put on a show like a black college band, musical athletes marching to the beat of, Lord yes(!), a different, funkier drummer.

The bands' collective style evolved by happenstance at a Florida A&M University (FAMU) practice in 1946. "Our first dance routine, I don't know how or why it came about," says Dr. William Foster, FAMU's band director emeritus, widely acknowledged as the precipitator of black college band showmanship and author of "Band Pageantry, A Guide for the Marching Band."

It was to the tune of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' We were just doing steps and high-knee lifts, and people thought that was the greatest thing on earth. Later, I had a physical education teacher (Beverly Barber) to help with the choreography, putting the steps to music.

"I didn't know what I was doing, but it drew in the audience. The band members hadn't seen anything like it before and they thought highly of me, so they thought it was all right. And very shortly afterwards, other bands started doing it."

The elapsed time was more likely about as long as it took band directors to get their groups onto the nearest practice field.

Foster's break with tradition was a fanfare that trumpeted the changing of the guard in marching band style and forever changed the look, feel and emotion associated with halftime performances. The block, militaristic, corps style - borrrrrrring! - immediately became second fiddle to Foster's upbeat, high-energy shows and, by the '60s, bands such as Grambling, Southern and Tennessee State in addition to Florida A&M began to garner national attention....

Black historian Sterling Stuckey and music historians connect black college band showmanship to influences from 13th-century West Africa and the Egun masqueraders of the Yoruba tribe, who would play musical instruments and dance in funeral processions. Other historians point to black drill sergeants during World War I who introduced both melody and foot-stomping syncopation into their cadence counting, permanently altering the standard, Western marching call.

But let's go back to the spring of 1941 and the University of Kansas.

"I don't know what possessed me to go to the dean's office, but I was there and he asked me what I wanted to do," recalled FAMU's Foster, who graduated from Kansas that year with a music degree. "I told him I wanted to be a conductor, but he said, 'You should rethink that. There are no jobs for colored conductors.' And he was right! So I wanted to develop a band that would be better than any white band in the country."

That's a done deal today, though that notion is void where other black college bands are concerned, unless you're looking for an argument.

The process took Foster through Lincoln High School in Springfield, Mo., Fort Valley State and Tuskegee before he landed at FAMU in 1946 to being what would be a 52-year career. At FAMU, he began redefining band pageantry with a showy style - rapid tempos, high-stepping, dancing, etc., that was eschewed by some band directors who continued to cling to more staid military tradition and its emphasis on correct carriage and marching precision.

"Dr. Foster is a creator, an innovator and probably the most widely known and respected band director in the world," said Dr. John M. Long, chairman of the prestigious National Band Association Hall of Fame, upon Foster's induction in 1998.

"Bill Foster was the first director I saw do the fast step," says Dr. Isaac Greggs, director of Southern's "Human Jukebox." "I was in school the first time I saw it (in 1948) and I thought it was outstanding. It created great excitement. I had never seen anything like that. Some bands were playing symphonic numbers. Frank Greer at Tennessee State, that's what they'd do because it was a big thing to sound like a symphony, then go into a figuration. Most of the (band) books were coming out with the same things, but that fast-stepping, that was Bill Foster at Florida A&M."...
Selected comments from that article:
PsychoJag, Dec 19, 2003
"Good Article and interesting read. LOL@Doc Greggs. I tell ya that man is funny as hell. Always a good interview with him. Doc Foster was/is the man. I remember Doc telling us about how they(SU) went to FAMU in 48 and got wiped out. He said FAMU came in doing that death march and then that rattler(fast march) kicking up so much dust that it settled on top of SU. He vowed if he ever became band director at SU that would never happen again. I think Pop Dupless is who used to be at JSU was in the band with Doc at the time told the same story.

Anyway that's some good history.

Chi-Tone, Dec 21, 2003
"Wonderful article. It teaches us where we truly come from and also whose shoulders we stand on. Such people as Dr. Foster, Dr. Greggs and the late Conrad Hutchinson."

C-Murder, Dec 22, 2003 #7
"i think this article should be give out to all band members as homework and then tested on the content...i say this because the most important thing in the world is history. without history you wouldn't know where you come from so ho do you know where you are going. it will also be good because it is good to know the pioneers of the things that we can directly relate to and to the things that we love.....i never knew the history of our style of marching and it kind of made me sit back and imagine what was going on when it all jumped off..........:) :) ...i'm feeling all warm inside:lmao: :lmao: :lmao: i want to say thanks to fam and su , because ya'll are our history.....much love"...

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  1. "High step" marching is part of the continuum of African American percussive movement arts. That continuum also includes (religious) shouts, numerous social dances, including tap dancing, many African American children's ring (circle) games & line games, military cadence marching, and distinctive "holy dancing" (also known as "feeling the spirit", "getting happy", "praise dancing").

    It's my position that African American originated high step marching greatly influenced these later African American originated percussive movement arts: Black Greek lettered fraternity & sorority stepping, stomp and shake cheerleading, foot stomping cheers, and majorette dance lines (j-setting).

    I believe that it's significant that stomp and shake cheerleading, foot stomping cheers, and majorette dance lines (j-setting) all began in the late 1960s/early to mid 1970s. As documented in Elizabeth C. Fine's book Soulstepping : African American Step Shows, what is now known as stepping may have began as early as 1925 at Howard University. [p.45] However, the referent "stepping" for that BGLO (Black Greek lettered organizations) movement art began to be used in the 1960s and 1970s, and stepping appears to have taken on many of its current forms and grew in popularity among BGLOs in those decades.

    Visit for the pancocojams post "When Did Historically Black Greek Letter Fraternity & Sorority Stepping Begin?"

    1. The Prince Hall Shriners' "riding" (camel walk) strut is another example of an African American group percussive movement art.

      I'm not sure when the Prince Hall Shriners began doing the strut that they refer to as "riding".

      Click for information about and videos of the camel walk dance and videos of the Prince Hall Shriners' camel walk strut.

  2. OUTSTANDING and more appreciation than my / our SKILLS SET can adequately CONVEY !!! Mr. WILLIAM FOSTER is another ICON from our area, who is mentioned in this article and for that allow me / us to just say THANK YOU so much for posting this "KNOWLEDGE SHARE".
    Marvin S. Robinson, II
    QUINDARO RUINS / Underground Railroad- Exercise 2017

    1. You're welcome Marvin S. Robinson,II.

      I appreciate your comment.