Frank Foster: Saxophonist celebrated for his work with Count Basie


Frank Foster succeeded to tenor saxophonist Lester Young's chair in the Count Basie sax section in 1953.

Where Lester had played with a soft tone,Foster had a hard, crisply articulated style that had more to do with Charlie Parker than with Lester Young. He helped to change Basie's band from being a swing band into a Bebop-inspired band. But through all the changes, it was the Basie rhythm that remained the band's signature.

Foster was 24 in the spring of 1953 and had just returned home after serving in the US Army in Korea. "I was just on a weekend pass when I ran into an old buddy who said, 'Count Basie's looking for you.' I said, 'How does he know where I am, because I'm not even out of the army yet?' I found out that I'd been recommended to Basie by Billy Eckstine and Ernie Wilkins. And luckily, the very day I got to Detroit the Basie band was playing there. All this seemed to happen by chance, but I like to think it was divine providence."

Although Charlie Parker was at the root of his influences, he also admired Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster and another Basie tenor man, Wardell Gray. "I always wanted to play like Ben," he told me, "but the guys in the Basie band didn't think I was any good at playing ballads. I soon realised I had to alter if I was to fit into Basie's band. In the bands I'd played in before, everybody was the same age level. When I joined Basie the ages ranged from 24 to 54."

Foster adapted so well that he was soon changing the band's style himself and, apart from being one of the major soloists, he became one of its most prolific and skilful arranger-composers. He and Frank Wess developed one of the most notable tenor sax partnerships in jazz. Foster's eminence in the Basie canon was epitomised when he was asked to transcribe and rewrite 23 of Basie's classic records for a 1954 recording of "The Count Basie Story". Foster's "Shiny Stockings", written in 1955, became a massive jazz hit for the band and was later recorded by innumerable singers.

"When we were out on the roadwe didn't think about saving money," he told me, "and we spent it all. Sowhen I had to retire I had very little.It was only several years later, after a long legal tussle over royalties that hadn't been paid to me, that things eased up financially."

The Basie band was musically exultant and often socially exuberant too. There's a recording of a wonderfulconcert in Paris that really tips over. I sent a copy to Frank. "We were all high," he confirmed, "including Basie, by the sound of it."

Foster's interest in music grew early, and by the time he was seven his mother was taking him to see opera performances at the local Cincinnati theatres. "I would have studied classical music, but I chose the jazz route because blacks couldn't go to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music when I graduated from high school in 1946."

His first instrument was the clarinet when he was 11, but changed to alto sax at 13 and began playing in local dance bands. He formed his own big band while still at school and wrote all the music that it played. Typically the sound was completely his own and he didn't try to copy any of the name bands of the day. He enrolled at the black Wilberforce college in Ohio, and for three years wrote for and ran the college's big band.

"I switched to tenor becausethey had enough alto players but not enough tenors to fill the section."Foster stayed with the tenor for the rest of his career and always continued to write. "Much of my time with Basie was concentrated on arranging. You'll find that most arrangers who play are not exceptional players. Usually something somewhere is sacrificed by those who write and play. When you concentrate on writing for a month or so, sometimes your playing will fall down, and vice versa."

His first notable compositions for Basie came in the winter of 1953 when he wrote "Blues Backstage" and "Down for the Count", both of which stayed in the band's book for years. Indeed Basie's albums are graced by a multitude of Foster's arrangements and, for example, all seven compositions in the 1960 album Easin' It are Foster's.

In July 1964, after 11 years on the road with Basie, and with two young children at home, he left. Almost immediately he formed a quintet in New York and began to rehearse an 18-piece jazz orchestra that he'd assembled. With the Count's blessing he based the band's library on 20 or so of the charts that he'd written for Basie. The band made its debut at Birdland in New York in 1965, but as it proved unmanageable and work dwindled down, he concentrated more on a small group that he called The Living Colour.

In 1972 Foster took a post as assistant professor of music at the State University in Buffalo and for the next four years this limited the time he could give to his bands. He took his small group to Europe for a successful tour in 1978. His big band evolved into The Loud Minority, and although it made few recordings and never had much work, it was the achievement in his career of which he was most proud. Foster was commissioned to write his Lake Placid Suite for the 1980 Winter Olympics.

When Basie died in 1984 one of his trumpeters, Thad Jones, returned to lead the band. But Jones's health deteriorated alarmingly and in May 1986, Foster took over the leadership. He led the band for another 10 years. During this time the band toured in the USwith Frank Sinatra and re-trod the many Basie paths across Europe.

Foster also worked with Frank Wess, the tenor man who had sat next to him during most of his Basie years. They appeared in clubs as The Two Franks and their 1984 album Two for the Blues was given a Grammy award. Foster was given another for his writing for artists including Frank Sinatra (he wrote charts for Sinatra's LA Is My Lady album) and George Benson.

Over the years Foster made many recordings for small jazz labels with musicians like Thelonious Monk and Milt Jackson, which have disappeared, but there's enough of his work still in the catalogues to testify to his greatness as a soloist, composer and bandleader. In 2001 he suffered a severe stroke, and was from then unable to play. He continued to write music, saying, "The thrill of hearing your music played back to you is almost indescribable." In 2002 was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

Frank Benjamin Foster III, tenor saxophonist and bandleader: born Cincinnati 23 September 1928; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Chesapeake, Virginia 26 July 2011.

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