Frank Foster, 1928-2011

Frank Foster died today following a long period of ill health. He was 82. Foster was important to the Count Basie band as a tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger for more than a decade beginning in 1953. In the reed section, he and Frank Wess teamed up as one of the best-known tenor sax tandems in jazz. Foster later also distinguished himself as a bandleader in his own right and as an educator. He moved beyond his hard bop essence as a soloist into free territory opened for exploration by John Coltrane, but never abandoned his bebop beginnings or the blues heart of his style. His Loud Minority and Living Color big bands served as training and proving grounds for dozens of young musicians and outlets for established players who cherished the band environment. After Thad Jones’ death, Foster led the Basie band for nearly ten years in the 1980s and ‘90s. For a thorough obituary of Foster, see Nate Chinen’s piece in today’s New York Times.

When I first heard Foster with Basie around 1955, he looked pretty much as he does in this photograph. Following a concert in downtown Seattle one night, he, Wess, bassist Eddie Jones and other members of the band showed up at the old Birdland on East Madison Street (pictured). Aside from Foster’s powerful playing in a jam session that occupied several early morning hours, I remember that during breaks he charmed the best looking woman in the club and ultimately went out the door with her on his arm. That was years before he met Cecilia, the woman who became his wife.

Foster’s composition “Shiny Stockings,” recorded in Basie’s 1955 April in Paris album, became an instant staple in the Basie book, where it remains in today’s edition of the band. That hugely popular piece will be coming in for lots of attention in the aftermath of Frank’s death. Video of the Basie band playing it has been removed from the web by a record company copyright intervention, but we have the audio of “Shiny Stockings,” accompanied by a photo of Basie.

Here is Foster leading his beloved Loud Minority in his composition “4, 5, 6.” The video is a bit shaky, possibly because of the disco lights on the dance floor. He is in a wheel chair and doesn’t play, but you can feel his energy swinging the band. The trombone soloist is the veteran Benny Powell.

Frank Foster, RIP.

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  1. John Birchard says

    I never met Frank Foster, never interviewed him, but that mid-50s edition of the Basie band will forever be imprinted in my memory. I was an enlisted member of the U-S Air Force, stationed at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama (yes, THAT Selma). After duty hours, I would repair to the NCO Club on base for ten-cent beer and a juke box that included “April in Paris” and “Shiny Stockings”, lurking among the Patsy Clines and Patti Pages. A small group of us nearly wore out those Basie ’45s. As Basie was wont to say: “One more once”.

  2. says

    R.I.P. Frank Foster, your “Shiny Stockings” will always be played.

    By the way, it’s been posted at YouTube with Count Basie & His Orchestra:

    And here’s “Blues In Hoss’ Flat” with … Ah, see yourself:

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Yes, but that video presents a much later Basie band, not the so-called New Testament edition with Foster and Wess. The tempo of “Shiny Stockings” crept up over the years but with Basie at the helm, no serious damage was done. Good as some of the late editions of the band have been, notably with Thad Jones and then Foster in charge, the spirit, intensity, relaxation and indefinable Basieness of the operation changed after he died.

      The Lewis clip is brilliant, particularly the trombone solo, but that’s a truncated “Blues in Hoss’ Flat.”

  3. Patrick Hinely says

    It should not be forgotten that between the departure of Thad Jones and the ascendance of Frank Foster to the helm of the Basie Orchestra, Eric Dixon was director. I heard them then, with Mackrel drumming. It was a class act and ass was kicked, with equal parts of power and grace.

  4. Rob D says

    Love the Basie band in most of its incarnations. I bought a double LP of Roulette recordings on a whim when I was just getting the fever for jazz and played the HECK out of it. My hard rock friends even dug it.

    I love that “indefinable Basieness” phrase. I often watch “Last of the Blue Devils” and really dig his interactions with the other musicians. He walked into a room and seemed to change the whole scene. I wish I could have met him because he made me a jazz fan.

  5. Jeffrey Sultanof says

    Frank Foster was a class act, one of my most important influences. I was blessed to be his assistant when he taught for a year at Queens College back in the seventies, playing baritone sax and helping him in his arranging class. He and I spent many hours together talking, and he gave me a lot of confidence. I used to run into him every once in awhile; one of these encounters was at Newark Airport when he informed me that he was leaving the Basie band, which I was sorry to hear. The estate was not happy with what Frank was doing, which was to continue the Basie tradition with new music which was a bit more advanced for their comfort level. I consider his tenure with the band to be its strongest period since Count left us.

    I later saw him at an IAJE in Long Beach when he was in a wheelchair, and once again ironically, he was right across the way from a student band playing “Blue in Frankie’s Flat.” I took that opportunity to point out to him that his considerable contributions to jazz would live on. He got an award from the organization that year.

    He was far more than “Shiny Stockings” and “Blues in Frankie’s Flat.” He wrote a fantastic arrangement of “Mack the Knife” for Sinatra that is one of the highlights of the “L.A. is My Lady” album. I regret that he rarely had the opportunity to write for strings, as his arrangements for Sarah Vaughan for the album “Viva! Vaughan” are beautiful (a pity he could only write for strings in unison, as per Quincy Jones’ instructions).

    He was blessed being married to Cecilia Jones, who was a cousin to Thad, Hank and Elvin, so she knew the world he was a part of and always supported whatever he did, quite different from how his first wife looked at his work. Up until the end, he was filled with warmth and light.

    The one regret I have about him is that he never had an opportunity to write for symphonic orchestra and really expand his horizons, but he left a lot of music regardless, and it is beautiful and filled with life.

    Goodbye, my friend.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Ms. Smith has just informed me that the memorial service is rescheduled for September 23 at 6:30 p.m.

  6. George Ziskind says

    In 1958, I began a friendship with Tadd Dameron (our relationship is detailed in a piece I wrote which can be found by simply Googling “I Remember Tadd George Ziskind”)

    Tadd gave me a years-long ongoing course in Arranging 101. Let’s just say that it was like studying “Light Bulbs 101” with your instructor being Thomas Edison.

    After a year or so of being drenched in Tadd’s tutelage, I wrote a big band chart on “Tadd’s Delight.” Having read in the jazz press that Count Basie would be at Chicago’s Blue Note in a few weeks, I carefully copied all the parts in my best hand and sent the whole thing to Basie, c/o the Blue Note.

    Some weeks passed – and one day the mailman brought me a neatly wrapped bundle. Inside was my chart, and there was also an envelope with my name on it. It contained a letter from Frank Foster, handwritten, and quite a few pages long (note paper sized).

    Frank was straw boss and musical director of the band. He told me – in great detail, and this was the phrase he used – that my chart was “too hip for Basie’s ears.” He went into great detail about why this was the case, and also praised my voicings as being 100% faithful to Tadd’s original voicings. Perhaps most important was the final part of Frank’s note: it was loaded with praise and encouragement..

    That Frank Foster would go to the trouble of handwriting his thoughts on my arrangement, and even bothering to return my chart to me – were one more measure of the man that this guy was.

  7. Terence Smith says

    I am in your archives reading about Frank Foster. Of course, a great arranger and player. When I think of Frank Foster, I think of him as one of a handful of tenor players who sounded completely comfortable playing with Thelonious Monk. He and Ray Copeland (trumpet) are with Monk on the old Prestige LP, Blue Monk, vol. 2 (May 11, 1954). Especially on “Locomotive”, but also on “We See” and “Hackensack”, Foster sounds like he is living and thriving in the Monk themes, not just struggling with them. I used to listen to this LP over and over. “Locomotive” is leaving the station, very powerful, no rushing, with Art Blakey and Monk and Curley Russell very much an engine. Unforgettable tenor solo. When I heard this thing as a kid I assumed that the artists lived in a magical realm. I recently read Robin D.G. Kelley’s Monk bio and found that Monk and Nelly’s life was barely marginal in 1954. But you can hear that Foster IS in a magical realm with Thelonious. He knows that “Locomotive” runs deep, the very center, not the margin.

    Incidentally,Hackensack, New Jersey is where Rudy Van Gelder recorded Monk and many others for Prestige. Including four tunes with Foster, if you include “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. “Hackensack,” the Monk original, seems to be a variation of “Rifftide”, a Coleman Hawkins original which some say was the brainchild of pianist Mary Lou Williams, I believe. And which Monk and Hawkins used to reportedly play when Monk worked fror Hawk in about 1944. Monk constantly tinkered with his little themes, and with everything he played, for that matter. He tinkered with Rifftide’s bridge and named it “Hackensack”, launching it with Foster I guess. Bud Powell seemed to continue to call “Hackensack” by the title “Rifftide.” It was attributed to Hawkins as composer on some of the European recordings of it made by Bud Powell late in his career. One of my favorite late Bud Powell recordings was a concert with Hawk, I think in Germany. They played something they called “Rifftide”, but it sounds like they are playing it as tinkered by Monk. But in the arts, variations are entitled…

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The similarity between the title of the Hawkins tune and this weblog is no coincidence, as explained in this post shortly after Rifftides launched in 2005.

      Name That Blog

      Now that you ask, the name Rifftides was inspired by a 1945 Coleman Hawkins piece, “Rifftide.” The tune was part of the celebrated 1945 Hollywood Stampede session that included trumpeter Howard McGhee, one of the bebop kiddies Hawk nurtured. Thelonious Monk had played with Hawkins the year before. Monk later recorded the tune and called it “Hackensack.” Either way, it’s based on the harmonic structure of “Oh, Lady Be Good,” but copyright law doesn’t cover chord changes, and George Gershwin’s estate earned no royalties. Nor can titles be copyrighted, so I stole Hawkins’s and pluralized it.

  8. Rob D says

    I can’t believe how things have gone since I started reading this blog. Moved to a new city, discovered a used vinyl shop and purchased a copy of “Hollywood Stampede” which I have never owned before.

    Then I come on here and voila…Doug is explaining the birth of his blog with Hawkins staring me down from the cover of the LP.

    What’s going on, man? I’m spooked…lol