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Frank Foster

by Bob Bernotas

Frank Foster-saxophonist and musical director of the Count Basie orchestra-is an interviewer's dream. Candid and articulate, he doesn't even need an opening question. Just push the record button and ...
"I was born," he begins, in his deep, resonant voice, "in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1928-they tell me-September 23." A good day for tenor saxophonists, it's also John Coltrane's birthday. "That's the only thing in life I brag about-sharing a birthday with John Coltrane. He happened to be two years my senior. If I had been born the same year, I probably wouldn't even be able to walk with both feet on the ground."
Although Foster's family was not particularly musical, they did stimulate his early interest in music. "My mother used to take me to the summer opera," he recalls. "They had an opera pavilion at the Cincinnati Zoo, believe it or not, and I saw all the major operas before I was 10. And she also took me to symphony concerts, the Cincinnati Symphony. My brother was six years my senior, and he started me listening to the right thing at about age eight, bands like Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, and Duke Ellington."

Foster began playing the clarinet when was 11 and two years later took up the alto saxophone. In just a year was gigging with local groups. By the time he was a senior in high school, Foster was leading his own 12-piece band and writing all the arrangements. He went on to attend Wilberforce University, near Dayton, and played with the renowned Wilberforce Collegians. "I did about 95 percent of the arranging for this group, for three years," he notes. "I played lead alto the first couple of years and then the final year I played tenor. That was about when I made the switch from alto to tenor, in the late '40s."

In the summer of 1949, trumpeter Snooky Young, an alumnus of the Lunceford and Basie bands, heard Foster and hired the promising youngster for a six-week engagement in Detroit. "It is true, I kind of discovered Frank," Young recounts proudly, "but he was gonna be discovered anyway. He was a great player, so I was just lucky when I got him to play in my band at that time."
Foster was captivated by the Detroit scene. "I saw what a great musical mecca Detroit was," he remembers, "one of the best stopping off points on the way to New York. Detroit had such musicians as the Jones Brothers-Thad, Hank, and Elvin-Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Doug Watkins, Paul Chambers, Sonny Red. The list is endless." The gig with Young was nearly over and Foster wanted to stay in Detroit. Luck-bad luck-gave him a reason.

He had gotten into the habit of leaving his horns at the club overnight. One night, he showed up for work and discovered that all of them-his alto, tenor, and clarinet-had been stolen. At first he was devastated, but the mind of a young musician often works in odd ways, and Foster realized he could to take advantage of this tragedy. "I used the fact that my instruments had been stolen as an excuse to remain there-to `track them down,'" he admits, with a sly grin. Foster stayed in Detroit for nearly two years, gigging around the city with Burrell, Flanagan, Harris, and other young Detroit lions. He never did find those missing horns.

He was having a ball, but it finally had to end. "After dodging the draft for maybe a year or so," Foster laughs, "changing my address back to Cincinnati, then back to Detroit, they finally caught up with me, and in April of 1951, I left to go to the Army." He did his basic training in California, and, on one weekend leave, discovered San Francisco's surprisingly lively jazz scene.

"I ran into a place called Jimbo's Bop City-all the jazz musicians used to come through there. The jam sessions lasted from before midnight until six or seven in the morning. Then after that everybody would go around the corner to another place called Jackson's Nook, which was like a family restaurant with a piano in the corner. We'd jam there until maybe ten or twelve noon!

"When I first went into Bop City," he continues, "Dexter Gordon was playing there. I walked in with a U.S. Army uniform and a silver-plated tenor saxophone, which was rather tarnished. A lot of people looked at me and thought, `Who's he, and why?' I asked someone if it would be possible to sit in, and they started asking me who did I know and who had I played with. I hadn't really played with anybody, but I'd known someone who had known Sonny Stitt, so I lied and said that I had played with Sonny Stitt.

"They introduced me to Dexter and said, `This guy in the Army uniform, he says that he's played with Sonny Stitt.' And Dexter said, `Well, OK. Want to sit in?' He asked me what I wanted to play, and I said `Cherokee.' He said, `Oh yeah? What tempo?' And I indicated that I'd like to play it in a very fast tempo. So they struck out on `Cherokee' in a very fast tempo and I managed to keep up with Dexter. From that point on, I was welcomed into the fold and known all around San Francisco as `the Soldier Boy.'"

Almost every weekend after that Foster could be found jamming at Bop City. "One negative experience I had," he looks back with a grin, "was when there was an edition of Jazz at the Philharmonic appearing in San Francisco. I don't know who all the people were, all I know was that Pres, Lester Young, was one of the participants. Very often when the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert was over, quite a few of the musicians would come down to Bop City to listen to the jam sessions, and maybe even participate, if they felt like it.
"This one night, somebody told me that Lester Young was in the audience, and so being young-I was about 22-and being very enthusiastic, I tried to play everything I knew inside of every four measures. Trying to impress Pres, you know. Later on I asked somebody, `What did he think?' And they told me that Lester Young said, `I don't like him. He plays too many notes.' Naturally, my feathers fell and I felt two inches tall. That was my first lesson in how not to make a musical statement."

It was heaven for the aspiring saxophonist. Foster was honing his chops, learning valuable musical lessons, locking horns with the masters. Trouble was, the Army had been preparing him for Korea, not 52nd Street. Once he completed his basic training, he knew he would be shipped out, and soon. "Not wanting to be shipped to the Far East, and having such a nice time in San Francisco," Foster reasons, "I chose to go AWOL-absent without leave-over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays." After about a month on the lam, he realized that this could not go on forever. Friends advised that if he turned himself in to a chaplain, he might be granted some leniency.
"I went to the chaplain at, I think it was, Camp Stoneman near San Francisco," he recalls. "It doesn't matter, they're all the same, military bases-horrible places. He said, `What do you do, son?' I said, `I'm a musician.' He said, `What kind of music do you play?' And I said, `Jazz.' And he really looked disturbed. `Well, I'm sorry to hear that, son. You know, what you should be playing is church music, inspirational music. You'll have to give up that jazz.' Needless to say, I was very disenchanted with having come to the chaplain."

Foster was sentenced to 39 days in the stockade-the amount of time that he was AWOL-but he was shipped out to Japan after only five, and then transferred to Korea. "I would have been a combat infantryman, a rifleman, but I was pulled out and put in a supply company-it was a non-combat capacity. Even though it was up near the frontline, I still didn't have to shoot at people." (Or get shot at.) After a few months, Foster auditioned for the company band and the rest of his Army hitch was one easy walk in the park.
"While I was stationed in Korea," Foster recounts, "I received a copy of Downbeat magazine and it had a picture of the Count Basie orchestra with inset photos of Lockjaw Davis and Paul Quinichette, who were then playing tenor with the band. I remember saying to myself, `Wow, I would love to play with that band!' This was around February of 1953." He had no idea that stateside, events were conspiring to shape the entire course of his life.

Trombonist Jimmy Wilkins had been the leader of the Wilberforce Collegians while Foster was there, and he often praised the Cincinnati-born tenor man to his brother, saxophonist-arranger Ernie Wilkins. By 1953, both brothers were working in the Basie band, which was on tour with singer Billy Eckstine. Mr. B had sat in with the Collegians during a gig in Indianapolis in the late '40s, and Foster made an lasting impression on him, as well.

Lockjaw Davis had given Basie his notice and the Count was looking for a new tenor, so Eckstine and the Wilkins brothers recommended Foster. "They said," Foster notes, still amused by it all, "`We don't know where he is, but if you can find him, he's a good tenor player.' At that time I was still in the Army in Korea, wishing I could be in Count Basie's orchestra."

Foster was discharged in May of 1953 and headed back to Detroit where the Basie band just happened to be playing. "I was walking down the street, still with my army suit on, in Detroit, and I ran into a friend who I hadn't seen since I'd left Cincinnati. He said, `Hey, Count Basie's looking for you.' And I said, `How can Count Basie be looking for me? I just got in town and nobody knows I'm here.'
"`Count Basie's looking for you, so you better go down there where he's playing.'" Wisely, Foster fell by the club that night, and asked for an audition. After two numbers Basie, a man of few words, told him, "I'll be in touch."

The rest of May passed, then all of June, and as the end of July neared, Foster gave up hope. "I figured, `Well, I guess they found somebody else.' Then the next thing, I got a telegram from Mr. Basie with a one-way airline ticket to New York, and I said, `This dream is really gonna come true.' On Sunday, July 26, 1953 I flew to New York City. And on Monday, July 27, 1953, a good friend of mine, [singer] Sheila Jordan took me to Birdland, where Charlie Parker was appearing. Sheila was a good friend of Bird's and she persuaded him to let me sit in. People don't have dreams this fabulous!

"Now, at that time, as far as I was concerned, nobody could play like Charlie Parker, nobody. I mean, he was just God on the alto saxophone, as far as I was concerned. He did what a lot of seasoned professionals do when they encounter a youngster-they call difficult tunes at fast tempos. He did this, put me on trial, and I rose to the occasion and impressed him, and got a compliment from him. That was better than getting the Medal of Honor.

"On Tuesday, July 28, we left New York for my first gig with the Count Basie orchestra in Jamestown, New York. Now don't ask any more about where I played with Basie when! We've been every place imaginable."
When he joined Basie, Foster was a typical mid50s, rough-and-ready, hard bop tenor. "I came in with this heavy Sonny Stitt influence and Basie right off saw that I could really shine on up-tempo songs. That's mostly where I performed solo wise with the band." But even on the fast stuff, Foster often felt ill at ease soloing with the Basie band although the Count never had any complaints. "I loved playing in the saxophone section under [lead alto] Marshal Royal," he claims, "but when I stood up to take a solo, very often I felt that I couldn't fit too well. A lot of times I felt sort of out of place, as though somebody else should have been playing my chair, when it came to solos."

True, he was in fast company. Basie's other tenor soloist was the smooth, confident Frank Wess, whose refined lyricism offered an distinct contrast to Foster's more strident approach. "I never will forget," Foster remarks, shaking his head, "my first wife said, `The difference between your tones is that his is warmer.' To which I replied, `Thanks a lot!' But it was true. He had a sound that was suited for ballad playing and medium tempo playing, and Basie realized this early. And my tone was better suited to uptempo songs, like `Little Pony' and `Jumpin' at the Woodside.'

"I remember once after I'd been in the band a year or two, maybe three, even, I asked Basie, `Why don't you let me play more ballads?' And his answer was simply, `You do all right on the fast tunes. You don't need to play no ballads.' And I didn't argue with that. I knew what he meant, 'cause when I came into the Count Basie orchestra in 1953, my sound was still not mature on tenor saxophone. I had the technique down. I had the facility to play uptempo `around the corner,' but my tone was still not mellowed out."

In 1957, Basie added a third strong tenor voice when Eddie `Lockjaw' Davis, the hard-driving, gruff-toned saxophonist whom Foster had replaced four years earlier, rejoined the band. "Jaws was Basie's sweetheart when it came to the tenor," Foster muses. "He fit the band so well 'til I felt intimidated every time Jaws played. I even had more of a hangup trying to fit with the band during that time. And some of my recorded solos with the Basie orchestra are things that I'm not very proud of."

But Joe Williams, who sang with the Basie band in the '50s, disagrees with Foster's stinging selfcriticism. "Many times when you're working like that, you don't hear your work," Williams observes. "You have to hear it objectively, and much later, and see what you did when you were younger. I think Frank just underestimates what his contribution was to that band." Williams is right. Just listen to the Basie band's splendid Verve and Roulette albums and you'll find dozens of strong, self assured Frank Foster solos.

Already an experienced writer, Foster learned Basie's three keys to a successful arrangement-"simplicity, swing, and leaving spaces for the rhythm section. One of the main things he always said to me was, `Kid, swing that music.' In other words, don't write too many complicated arrangements with all kinds of stuff going on everywhere. In that way he was almost as great an arranger as anybody out there, because he was a master at what to take out, what to leave out.

"A case in point is one selection we play now called `Good Times Blues,' which features trombone and bass as soloists. There was a lot of writing in this-it was arranged by Ernie Wilkins-a lot of writing in the first part of it, and then there was this out chorus. Well, Basie took out the whole first segment, he took out everything but the closing, the out chorus, and he just had solos up until the out chorus, and it builds nicely. He really knew what to do.

"`Li'l Darlin','" Foster continues, "by Neal Hefti, was brought in as a medium-tempo, sort of bounce tune. Basie listened to that and he said, `Let's slow that down and make a ballad out of it,' and it got to be one of the band's most popular songs. Still is. That was the genius of Basie, to listen to something and decide what had to be done with it. And the arranger-composer could only have felt complemented if Basie decided to keep the arrangement, no matter what he did with it, no matter how much he chopped it up or took out of it."

In his 11 years with the Count, Foster contributed a tall stack of marvelous charts to the Basie book ("Blues Backstage," "Down for the Count," "Blues in Hoss' Flat," "Back to the Apple," "Discommotion," the entire Easin' It album), but none suited the Chief's prerequisites better than "Shiny Stockings."

"I wrote `Shiny Stockings' in 1955 and we had a rehearsal at a place called Pep's Bar in Philadelphia. We had just arrived in town. Everybody was sleepy, tired, hungry, and evil. Nobody felt like rehearsing. We rehearsed `Shiny Stockings' and it sounded like a bunch of jumbled notes, just noise, and I said, `Wow, all the work I put into this, and it sounds so horrible. I know Basie will never play it.' And then something very strange happened. He continued to play and it came together. Finally, we recorded it and, well, it's the very best known piece that I have contributed to the Basie book.

"Years later," Foster remembers with pride, "Basie gave me the supreme compliment. Every now and then, he'd say about a chart, `Oh, it's very nice, kid,' and then leave it at that. Well, he grabbed me, he said, `Junior, you know that "Shiny Stockings"? You really put one down that time.' You couldn't receive a better compliment from Count Basie.

"It embodies all the things that were important to him. It builds-it starts soft and ends with and explosion. It leaves space for the rhythm section to do whatever it's going to do. It has that ensemble writing which the band can sink their teeth into and really make happen-and a wonderful trumpet solo by Thad Jones." One more thing: it swings.

In 1964, still disenchanted with his playing, weary of the road, and wanting to spend more time with his family, Foster left Basie. He freelanced around New York for the next few years and, in 1970, joined drummer Elvin Jones' group. Swimming in this more contemporary current, Foster's playing and writing stretched well beyond the familiar Basie formulas. He took musical nourishment from contemporary players like George Coleman, Dave Liebman, Joe Farrell, and Steve Grossman who, at various times, joined him in Jones' two saxophone frontline. At last, Foster developed what, he felt, was a more mature and satisfying style. His long held penchant for bebop and blues became wedded to a newfound, Coltrane inspired energy, modernism, and confidence.

During this time Foster, ever the big band partisan, also began leading his own band, which he eventually decided to call, with no apologies to Spiro Agnew, The Loud Minority. "I was definitely making a statement," he insists. "I was all for civil rights and I got sick of hearing this expression, `the silent majority.' Now what I understood by `silent majority' was a group of white folks who didn't go along with the civil rights movement and whose basic premise was, `What do those people want?' So I said, `I'm gonna call my group by a name that means the opposite of the silent majority.'"

For the first few years, gigs were scarce. "The band worked like two or three times a year" but eventually things picked up and Foster kept The Loud Minority together until the summer of 1986, when he assumed the leadership of the Count Basie orchestra. After Basie died in April, 1984, Thad Jones fronted the band, but he quit in early 1986 due to poor health. For a time, Eric Dixon "led" the band-counting off and cutting off-from his chair in the saxophone section. But without a "name" leader, the band was facing financial crisis.

"With Basie not there," Foster explains, "the fee had gone down. They didn't want to fire all the old members and hire a bunch of youngsters from the Berklee School of Music trying to play the Basie book and pay 'em less. My wife, Cecilia, and I went to hear them in Boston and she suggested, `Why don't you offer your services and see if they are interested?' We had a little meeting with both the CEO and [concert promoter] George Wein, who's very influential in the music field in seeing that people get work" or, one might add, that they don't get it. Wein decided that he liked the idea of "the Count Basie orchestra under the direction of Frank Foster," and Foster was hired.

So for the past six years Frank Foster has been leading one of the most celebrated and influential big bands in the history of jazz. Still, it's not his band. He obviously enjoys the gig, although you can't help wondering if standing in the shadow of a legend can't get a little frustrating after a while. But Foster is pragmatic and philosophical. He's just glad to have a regular big band gig. "I don't feel a resentment," he insists. "I feel like I'm riding on Basie's coattails. It's because of the Basie name that I'm working regularly, because as `Frank Foster and The Loud Minority,' I could hardly buy a job with a big band."

Nevertheless, being both the caretaker of a venerable jazz legacy and a creative force in his own right presents Foster with a dilemma: how to strike the right balance between the familiar and the original, the nostalgic and the new. Naturally, the crowds want to hear Basie chestnuts like "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "April in Paris," and Foster obliges. But at the same time, he has introduced, gradually, more and more original material into the band's book.

"When I came back into the band," he explains, "I would say about 90 per cent of it was Basie's and 10 percent was Frank Foster's. Now the ratio is closer to 50-50. What I mean by this is, although I'm trying to write in what I term a `modern Basie idiom,' I'm still adding touches of my own which are not necessarily characteristic of the so-called Basie idiom. And while I'm going to leave a lot of space for the rhythm section, and while you always hear `plink-plink-plink' pretty close to the end of a Frank Foster arrangement, I'm adding some things that perhaps are a departure from the Basie idiom."

As a result, the Count Basie orchestra is undergoing, as its musical director describes it, "a gradual transition into a Frank Foster concept." But will it ever evolve completely into "the Frank Foster orchestra?" Joe Williams, for one, wouldn't mind that at all. "That is possible," the singer feels, "that could happen. It would be a nice thing, a nice legacy, if Frank would take it over completely, and make a presentation of it." Of course, Foster's employer, Count Basie Enterprises, might have something else to say about that.
The bottom line is simply that Foster is a big band warrior. He fought the good fight through the '70s, a rough time for jazz in general and a lousy one for big bands. And now, with The Loud Minority in mothballs, the Count Basie orchestra is providing an excellent vehicle for the music of Frank Foster. "I have stated publicly on several occasions," Foster notes, "that I was content with the idea of devoting the rest of my career to the Count Basie orchestra. Now, barring getting fired or barring quitting for some reason or barring ill health or whatever, I plan to just be here. Everybody has their own idea of what `Basie' is all about, I have mine. I'm going to keep on with that, and yet I'm going to attempt to cater to some modern tastes and keep the band working.
"But I will say this-if for some reason I am not with the Basie orchestra, either through being terminated or terminating myself for one reason or another, and I'm still able to function, The Loud Minority will rise again!"
* * *
After nine years at the helm of the Count Basie orchestra, Frank Foster resigned as its musical director in July 1995. Foster released a quartet recording in the spring of 1997, Leo Rising (Arabesque)-his first American issue in 25 years!-and later that year, the Loud Minority did begin to "rise again."

© Bob Bernotas, 1992; revised 1999. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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