Wednesday, July 27, 2011

R.I.P.: Frank Foster

Frank Foster, Jazz Saxophonist, Composer and Arranger, Dies at 82
by Nate Chinen
New York Times, July 27, 2011

Frank Foster, a saxophonist, composer and arranger who helped shape the sound of the Count Basie Orchestra during its popular heyday in the 1950s and '60s and later led expressive large and small groups of his own, died on Tuesday at his home in Chesapeake, Va. He was 82.

The cause was complications of kidney failure, said his wife of 45 years, Cecilia. Mr. Foster had a varied and highly regarded career as a bandleader, notably with his Loud Minority Big Band, and he was sought after as an arranger for large ensembles. But it was the strength of his contribution to the so-called New Testament edition of the Basie band, from 1953 to 1964, that anchors his place in jazz history.

Mr. Foster wrote and arranged a number of songs for the band, none more celebrated than "Shiny Stockings," a puckishly genteel theme set at a cruising medium tempo with a slow but powerful crescendo. Recorded by Basie on his classic 1955 album "April in Paris," it subsequently became both a band signature and a jazz standard, often performed with lyrics (there were two sets, one by Ella Fitzgerald and one by Jon Hendricks).

Among Mr. Foster's less famous entries in the Basie canon, some, like "Blues in Hoss' Flat," have enjoyed steady circulation in the repertories of high school and college jazz bands.

He was one of two musicians named Frank in the band's saxophone section, the other being the tenor saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess. Their contrasting styles as soloists -- Mr. Foster was the more robust, with a harder husk to his tone -- became the basis of a popular set piece called "Two Franks," written for the band by Neal Hefti.

After leaving Basie, Mr. Foster worked for a while as a freelance arranger, supporting the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan.

He returned to the Basie band in the mid-1980s, this time as its leader. (Count Basie died in 1984.) He held the post for nearly a decade and earned something like emeritus status: when the Count Basie Orchestra was enlisted for Tony Bennett's 2008 album "A Swingin' Christmas," Mr. Foster was the arranger.

Frank Benjamin Foster III was born on Sept. 21, 1928, into Cincinnati's African-American middle class -- his father was a postal clerk, his mother a social worker -- and began his musical studies first on piano, then clarinet. The alto saxophone came next, and within a year of picking it up he was playing in a neighborhood dance band.

Most of his early professional experience involved playing stock arrangements in big bands; during his senior year of high school he formed one himself, writing charts from scratch. He considered himself self-taught as an arranger, having studied only harmony in school.

Mr. Foster attended the historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio, after being rejected by Oberlin College and the Cincinnati Conservatory. He played in and arranged for Wilberforce's dance band, the Collegians.

As a budding tenor saxophonist he drew inspiration from Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, strong stylists who made the transition from swing to bebop. "I'm a hard bopper," he told an interviewer with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program in 1998. "Once a hard bopper, always a hard bopper."

But Mr. Foster was hardly confined to bebop as a musical language. His tenure with the Count Basie Orchestra, which began after his tour of duty with the Army during the Korean War, proved as much.

So did his efforts after leaving Basie, when he played in smaller groups, including those led by his wife's first cousin, the drummer Elvin Jones. At the time he was drawn to the adventurous music of John Coltrane, in whose quartet Mr. Jones had created an influential polyrhythmic pulse. An album called "Well Water," recently released on the Piadrum label, captures Mr. Foster and Mr. Jones jointly leading the Loud Minority Big Band in 1977, with a determinedly modern mind-set. The album includes their take on "Simone," Mr. Foster's best-known post-Basie composition.

Even as he spent a good portion of the late 1960s and '70s exploring harmonic and rhythmic abstraction, Mr. Foster never quite surrendered to it. And he was no purist about jazz-funk -- "Manhattan Fever," one of his best albums, released in 1968 on Blue Note, has several effervescent backbeat-driven tunes.

In 2001 Mr. Foster had a stroke that hindered his ability to play the saxophone. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master the following year, and continued to write and arrange music, often as a commission for organizations like the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He also became active in the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization that delivers aid to musicians in need.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Foster is survived by two children from their marriage, Frank Foster IV and Andrea Jardis Innis; two sons from his first marriage, Anthony and Donald; and six grandchildren.Also recommended:

Frank Foster - R.I.P.
by Douglas Payne - Sound Insights blog

The great composer, band leader, educator, humanitarian and reed player Frank Foster, died today of complications from kidney failure at his home in Chesapeake, Virginia. He was 82. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 23, 1928, Frank Benjamin Foster took up the clarinet at age 11, switching to alto saxophone two years later. He became so proficient on the alto sax that he was playing professionally at age 14 and leading his own 12-piece band while still a senior in high school.

After attending Wilberforce University, Foster moved to Detroit with trumpeter Snooky Young where he joined the local scene, playing with such musicians as Wardell Gray. After being drafted and serving in Korea, Foster returned to the music scene by joining the big band of Count Basie (1904-84), where he stayed through 1964.

During this time Foster was a featured soloist in the Basie band on tenor saxophone and contributed many compositions and arrangements to the Basie book, including the now standard “Shiny Stockings” as well as “Down for the Count,” “Blues Backstage,” “Back to the Apple” (featured in the 1986 Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters), “Discommotion,” and the terrific “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” (from the 1959 album Chairman of the Board and brilliantly used by Jerry Lewis in his 1961 film The Errand Boy), as well as arrangements for the entire 1961 album Easin’ It (featuring “Discommotion” and available on the now out-of-print CD box set The Complete Roulette Studio Recordings of Count Basie and his Orchestra).

While still with Count Basie, Frank Foster recorded several solo albums for the Blue Note, Savoy and Argo labels, but began his own solo career in the mid ‘60s with several albums of soul jazz on the Prestige label, including his first, Fearless Frank Foster (1966), featuring another near standard in “Raunchy Rita.” It was around this time that Foster also arranged Sarah Vaughan’s Viva Vaughan (Mercury, 1965), performed with his own 18-piece ensemble and toured and performed with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton and Duke Pearson.

Foster recorded several albums for the Blue Note label (one of which was never released) and joined drummer Elvin Jones’s group in 1968. Foster recorded and toured with Jones through 1974, while holding several teaching positions and a featured spot in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band from 1972 to 1975.

In 1974, Foster formed his famed Loud Minority band (first heard on the 1974 Mainstream LP The Loud Minority) as well as Living Color, a quartet co-fronted with drummer Charli Persip. In 1983, Foster co-led a quintet with Frank Wess, recording Two For The Blues (Pablo, 1984) and Frankly Speaking (Concord, 1985).

In June 1986, Foster succeeded Thad Jones as leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. While leading the Basie Orchestra, Foster earned two Grammy Awards, one for his arrangement of the Diane Schuur composition "Deedles’ Blues" (1987) and the other for his arrangement of the renowned guitarist/vocalist George Benson’s composition "Basie’s Bag" (1988 – Foster had earlier played with Benson on the guitarist’s 1973 CTI album Body Talk).

Foster left the Count Basie Orchestra in 1995 to assume leadership of his own groups The Non-Electric Company (a jazz quartet/quintet), Swing Plus (a 12-piece band), and The Loud Minority Big Band (an 18-piece concert jazz orchestra).

In 2001, Frank Foster suffered a stroke that impaired his left side, preventing him from playing the saxophone. He turned the reins of his Loud Minority over to trumpeter and group member Cecil Bridgewater, and continued composing and arranging at his home in Chesapeake, Virginia. He had recently contributed to Jamie Cullum’s The Pursuit.

The zest of wondrous musicality in Frank Foster’s sax playing and the zing of spontaneous joy in his writing will be sorely missed in jazz. Very few sounds could match the utter joie de vivre of Frank Foster’s music.

Few players and even fewer composers can match or even copy the lovely examples of music Frank Foster left for us. Fortunately, there is much of Foster documented on disc and plenty of other worthy talents who appreciated what Frank Foster contributed to music in his six-decade career.

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