Frank Foster, Iconic Saxophonist and Composer with Count Basie, Dies at 82

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Frank Benjamin Foster, III, the saxophonist-composer-arranger who made his mark performing in the Count Basie Orchestra and subsequently became its musical director, died today. He was 83 years old. After suffering a stroke in 2001 that incapacitated his left side and ended his playing career, he developed other health issues in recent years and was put on dialysis. A few weeks ago he decided to forgo treatment. He died peacefully at his home in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Frank Foster was born on September 23, 1928, in the Walnut Hills section of Cincinnati, Ohio. He started taking clarinet lessons at 11 and moved to alto saxophone at 13. By 14, he was gigging locally; by 18, he was leading and writing arrangements---he'd learned by trial and error---for his own 12-piece band. In 1946, he matriculated at Central State University (formerly Wilberforce), one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges that was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856. There he played with and wrote for the Wilberforce Collegians, following in the tracks of such world-historic jazzfolk as Benny Carter, Horace Henderson, Rex Stewart, and George Russell.

Foster moved to Detroit in the summer of 1949 on a six-week engagement with trumpeter Snooky Young, and remained there until April 1951, when he was drafted. A few months before his discharge in 1953, Basie trombonist and Wilberforce chum Jimmy Wilkins recommended him to Basie as a replacement for tenorist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, who had given notice.

That May, Foster returned to Detroit and was informed that Basie—coincidentally in town for an engagement—was looking for him. He joined the band two months later, at Birdland, in New York City. He would remain in Basie's employ until 1964.

During this Basie tenure, Foster contributed numerous arrangements and originals to the band book, including the standard, “Shiny Stockings,” as well as “Down for the Count,” “Blues Backstage,” “Back to the Apple,” “Discommotion,” and “Blues in Hoss’ Flat.”

Within the warp and woof of the band’s shows and recordings, Basie liked to utilize Foster’s proclivity for playing cogent lines at fast tempos, juxtaposing his fierce, stentorian tone and progressive harmonic concept against the mellow, more laid-back sound of fellow tenorist Frank Wess. During these years, Foster also presented his voice on more than a few freelance dates, both as a leader for Blue Note (New Faces, New Sounds), Savoy (No Count), and Argo (Basie Is Our Boss), and as a sideman with such giants as Thelonious Monk and Elvin Jones.

In a 1992 piece, Bob Bernotas cites Foster’s remark that he “learned Basie's three keys to a successful arrangement—‘simplicity, swing, and leaving spaces for the rhythm section.’” Foster continued: “One of the main things Basie always said to me was, ‘Kid, swing that music.’ In other words, don't write too many complicated arrangements with all kinds of stuff going on everywhere. In that way he was almost as great an arranger as anybody out there, because he was a master at what to take out, what to leave out.”

Foster would follow this credo on post-Basie engagements with the Woody Herman Orchestra and with his own Loud Minority Big Band of the ‘70s and '80s, which recorded several fine dates for Denon, a Japanese label. His playing in various ensembles led by Elvin Jones and on small-band recordings like Fearless Frank Foster (Prestige, 1965), Roots, Branches and Herbs (Beehive, 1978), and Leo Rising (Arabesque, 1997) incorporated the influence of John Coltrane (also born on September 23rd), but he also made a pair of “two Franks” dates with Wess for Pablo and Concord on which he played in a more traditional manner, as he did when he helmed and revitalized the Count Basie ghost band from 1986 to 1995. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2008; an oral history conducted by the  distinguished scholar W.A. Brower for the Smithsonian can be read here.

Held in deep esteem by all in the jazz community not only for his musical skills, but for his deep commitment to jazz education and unflagging support of young musicians, Foster will be sorely missed.

Foster is survived by his wife, Cecilia, their son, Frank, and daughter, Jardice.

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Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for DownBeat, Jazziz, and many other outlets; he broadcast it from 1985 to 2008 on WKCR. He recently launched a blog called Today Is The Question.

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