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Frank Foster: Jumpin’ at 78

Jazz musicians who worked with Thelonious Monk, comic Jerry Lewis and society bandleader Peter Duchin would surely form a select club. So select, in fact, that Frank Foster might be its only member. “I’ve played with just about everyone,” the 78-year-old saxophonist-composer says in describing a career that stretches back to the late 1940s. His track record bears him out. Foster’s gruff, impassioned tenor style graced innumerable small-group recordings over the decades, both as leader and sideman. Yet it’s his work with big bands-in particular, his two stints with the Count Basie Orchestra-for which he’s best known.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Foster’s infatuation with big bands began early. “I started arranging in high school,” he says. “I had my own 12-piece band my senior year in high school, and I started writing a year before that.” Foster attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. “I wrote all through the college years for the Wilberforce Collegians, which was a big band-about 18 pieces,” he says. “That’s been my love ever since.” The Collegians were led by trombonist Jimmy Wilkins, who would later play another important role in Foster’s career.

After college, Foster moved to Detroit. “I went there for a temporary engagement with [trumpeter] Snooky Young,” he says. What was supposed to be a seven-week stay ended up lasting much longer. “When I was there, I had three instruments stolen from me: an alto, a brand-new tenor and a clarinet. I used that as an excuse to stay in Detroit, because Detroit was such a happening town at the time.” He never got the horns back. “But I had a heckuva good time in Detroit for two years, until I went into the Army.”

Foster spent 1951 through 1953 in the service. He was eventually stationed in Korea, where he played in an Army dance band. After his discharge, he returned to Detroit. For Foster, it was the right place at the right time. Count Basie was in town, looking for a tenor player to replace Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, who was on the verge of taking one of his periodic leaves from the band. Jimmy Wilkins had praised Foster to his brother Ernie, an arranger and saxophonist with Basie. Based on the brothers’ recommendations (and one by Billy Eckstine, who’d also been impressed by the saxophonist) Basie hired Foster. “I got back in May of 1953, and that July I found myself sitting in the Count Basie saxophone section,” says Foster. “It was quite a thrill.”

Foster spent the next 11 years with Basie, doing small-group gigs on the side. His freelance work led to a couple of interesting job offers. “You wouldn’t believe that I turned down a gig with Thelonious Monk,” he chuckles ruefully, “to my dismay, eventually.” He also turned down an offer to go with Miles Davis. “I was afraid to leave the Basie band because it was secure,” he says. “I made 150 dollars a week, and I’d heard stories about Monk and Miles and didn’t know how stable they were as leaders.”

All in all, Foster enjoyed his time with Basie, “especially the early years,” he says. “The late ’50s was the most exciting period of my entire life. From ’56 through ’61, those were the greatest years ever.” As an arranger, Foster played his part in defining the classic Basie sound, contributing such compositions as “Down for the Count,” “Blues Backstage” and the timeless “Shiny Stockings” to the band’s repertoire. He even got a taste of Hollywood, as the band appeared in a pair of Hollywood films: Cinderfella, starring Jerry Lewis, and Sex and the Single Girl, starring Natalie Wood. Foster also wrote incidental music for the Lewis film The Errand Boy. It was a heady time.

But all good things come to an end, and by 1964 he’d had enough of life on the road. He left Basie. “I had a growing family and my then-wife was pressuring me, because I was gone too much.” Foster settled in New York and began freelancing, leading his own groups and working as a sideman. Meanwhile, his love affair with big bands continued. He formed the Frank Foster Big Band, which by the early ’70s had evolved into the Loud Minority Big Band. The band included, among others, Elvin Jones, pianist Mickey Tucker and bassist Earl May.

Keeping a big band together wasn’t easy. “Sometimes, with the gigs few and far between, I couldn’t always get the personnel I wanted,” he says. Fortunately, there was no shortage of sideman gigs. During the ’60s and ’70s, Foster played with the cream of the established big bands: Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and others. “I worked with a band led by a wonderful writer named Duke Pearson,” he says. “I worked with Thad [Jones] and Mel [Lewis] quite a bit, as well. I also worked with Johnny Richards, a wonderful composer and arranger. Those gigs with Johnny Richards, Thad and Mel, and Duke Pearson were the most fun.” He also worked with the aforementioned Peter Duchin. “He was pretty good; he wanted to do jazz in the worst way,” Foster laughs, “but he just didn’t have it.” Foster also taught, working as a music consultant with the New York City Public Schools and with the city’s Jazzmobile program.

Foster kept the Loud Minority going through thick and thin. He toured Europe with the band around 1980. His “Lake Placid Suite” was performed at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. He also continued working with small groups, including a band he co-led with fellow Basie-ite Frank Wess. In 1986, Foster was asked by George Wein to take over leadership of the Count Basie Orchestra, replacing Thad Jones, who had quit due to poor health. “Things were goin’ kinda slim for me at the time, so I said, ‘Hey, I’ll do this.’ At the time I thought maybe I’d want to do that for the remainder of my career. I didn’t realize my career had that much more to go!”

The orchestra thrived under his leadership, winning Grammy Awards and-thanks largely to a slew of new arrangements written by Foster-reaching a level of creativity it hadn’t known for years. Unfortunately, some folks did not appreciate the direction in which he took the band. “I really enjoyed it the first five or six of those years,” he says, “but there came a time when some people were saying, ‘You shouldn’t do anything new, you should continue to just do the regular Basie fare, the stuff that people know.'” By 1995 that attitude had worn Foster down. “People wanted to hear the old stuff, not the new stuff. As a creative artist, that turned me off. I thought I’d better get out and do my own thing. I can’t ever stop growing.”

He never has. A stroke in 2001 forced Foster to give up playing his horn, but it didn’t curtail his composing. The Loud Minority remains his focus. Last year, a 30-year-old studio recording of the band, previously thought lost, was found through the efforts of Foster’s wife, Cecilia. The resultant album, Well Water, was released early this year on the Piadrum label. There are also plans to record the current edition of the band. Foster writes for other bands, too: Among his clients have been the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, both under the direction of Jon Faddis. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra under the direction of Wynton Marsalis recently came knocking, as well, commissioning Foster to write new material for the band’s 2008 season.

Then there are the awards. Foster has been nominated for a Grammy four times, winning twice. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2002, and this March was honored by the Kennedy Center as a Living Jazz Legend. Frank Foster has had a terrific run, and at age 78, he has no intention of retiring. “Oh, no!” he says, “I’m definitely keeping busy.” He’s content about the way things have turned out, “because I’m doing only exactly what I want to do. For so long I didn’t. I was tossed around by others, doing the work of others for others. Now I do just what I want to do. While I’m not doing a lot, I do have a lot of time for writing. All the spare time in which I’m not performing, I’m spending writing. And having a ball doing it.”

Recommended Listening

Frank Foster

“Well Water” (Piadrum)

“We Do It Diff’rent” (Mapleshade)

“The Loud Minority” (Mainstream)

“Frankly Speaking” (Concord Jazz)

Count Basie and His Orchestra

“April in Paris” (Verve)

Originally Published