Dr. Frank Foster Receives BNY Mellon Jazz 2009 Living Legacy Award

Frank Foster receiving Living Legacy Award at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Valerie Russell.
 l-r: Michael DiMedio, Managing Director, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Mid Atlantic Region; Dr. Frank Foster; and Dorothy Pierce McSweeny, Chair, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Photo by Valerie Russell.

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On Friday, October 9, 2009, legendary saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator Dr. Frank Foster was honored with the BNY Mellon Jazz 2009 Living Legacy Award following a performance by 2008 awardee Kenny Barron in the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Previous Living Legacy Award winners include Barron, Oliver Lake, Rufus Reid, Randy Weston, Keter Betts, Jimmy Heath, Joe Kennedy, Jr., Shirley Scott, Reggie Workman, Dr. Donald Byrd, Larry Ridley, Barry Harris, Robert “Boysie” Lowery, and Clark Terry. A Millennium Award was conferred on Dr. Billy Taylor in 2000.

The award is administered by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. According to Sara Donnelly, the program officer for jazz at the foundation, the award was established in 1994 in order to honor a living jazz artist who resides in the Mid Atlantic area of the U.S. and who has made significant contributions to the jazz legacy and to their community. In addition, she said that they look for artists who have distinguished themselves both as performers and as educators. “When I look at the list of artists who have won the award, I see a range-from people who have an international reputation to those whose impact has been more local. I see someone like Clark Terry, but then also Keter Betts. And there’s also a range stylistically, as an artist like Oliver Lake has been honored.”

The cash remuneration associated with the award has risen from an original level of $2,500 to its current $10,000, but Donnelly said that for the honorees, it’s about more than money. “The awardees are allowed to invite family members to the ceremony and reception, held at the Kennedy Center. The artists are thrilled by the fact that their family is included and get a chance to see their impact in the world. It means a lot to both the artists and their families who are not always a part of these things.”

The recipient is generally offered a chance to perform the following year at the Kennedy Center so that, in essence, the past awardee performs at the ceremony welcoming the new one, as Kenny Barron did for Foster last week. That sort of artist-to-artist connection has residual benefits. Donnelly noted that, “As the awards have grown, more artists are nominating their peers.” But you don’t have to be a legendary artist or educator in order to nominate someone. Anyone can nominate an appropriate candidate and the process is very easy, requiring just a sentence or two about why the artist deserves the honor. Deadline for the next award is February 10, 2010. For more information, to the foundation’s web site.

Interestingly, the foundation keeps ALL the nominees from previous years in the list to be considered by the small panel of judges. Donnelly told JT that, “That list has a real range of ages and levels. It’s very broad, which is a good thing. I see some famous people in there, but also those known as educators or local artists.” In some respects, Foster falls into the former category and Donnelly agreed that Foster was chosen for his artistic contributions over a long career, for which he had also been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as a Jazz Master in 2002.. “It seemed that there was a growing awareness that Frank truly belongs in the pantheon of jazz greats.”

Foster is best known for his work as saxophonist and arranger with the Count Basie Band. Foster joined the Basie band in 1953 and worked with the famous group throughout much of the next four decades, both as a sideman and later as its leader. After Basie died, the group was led by Thad Jones, whom Foster succeeded in 1986. In a profile appearing in the June 1997 issue of JazzTimes, Foster told Ken Franckling about his time leading the Basie band after the founder’s death: “Creative people like myself can’t sit still and go with the status quo. I had to keep creating and adding arrangements. I had a slogan that I would not write anything that I thought the Old Man wouldn’t have liked.” Eventually, frustrated at the audience’s preference for Basie’s older material, Foster left the group in 1995 to again concentrate on his own music and career.

Throughout his time with and without the Basie band, Foster also led a variety of small and large groups and recorded dozens of albums as a leader for labels such at Blue Note, Savoy, Prestige, Denon, Concord and Arabesque. Despite having a major stroke in 2000, Foster has remained active not only as a composer and arranger, but also as leader of his own groups, including most notably The Loud Minority. Recipient of numerous honorary degrees, Foster is also a noted jazz educator, working as clinician, lecturer and instructor at colleges and universities all over the country.