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.
Foster’s glorious “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” – as interpreted by Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (search YouTube for the brilliant copycat version made but not used for Family Guy):
The immortal “Shiny Stockings” by Count Basie and his Orchestra:
“Raunchy Rita” from the great 1968 Elvin Jones/Richard Davis album Heavy Sounds, with Foster reeling out on tenor sax and the little-known and possibly pseudonymous Billy Greene on piano: