Frank Foster, Jazz Saxophonist And Arranger, Has Died

Jul 26, 2011
Originally published on July 27, 2011 1:00 pm

Frank Foster, a saxophonist and composer/arranger best known for his longtime association with the Count Basie Orchestra, has died. He passed away in his sleep early Tuesday morning at his home in Chesapeake, Va., according to his widow and manager, Cecilia Foster. He was 82.

Foster was a key member of the "New Testament" Basie band — the large ensemble Basie led in the 1950s and beyond. In addition to his playing on tenor saxophone and other woodwinds, he contributed many melodies and arrangements. At least one of those tunes, "Shiny Stockings," became a jazz standard.

"One of the core things about that band was that wonderful reed section, the saxophone section," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies. "That was such a wonderful sound that that section had, and Frank was so much a part of that."

Foster was born Sept. 23, 1928, and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. After playing in local dance bands as a teenager, he spent some years at Wilberforce University and moved to Detroit, where many future jazz stars were evolving concurrently with a new musical language called bebop. Foster was later conscripted into the Korean War.

Not long after returning to Detroit, Foster was conscripted by an employer he much preferred: William "Count" Basie. He spent 11 years with the Basie band the first go-round; he later led the Count Basie Orchestra after Basie's death for nine years, winning two Grammy awards in the process. In between, he found work as a freelance saxophonist, composer/arranger and music educator.

Foster also convened his own ensembles, including a big band, which sometimes used the name Loud Minority. He said he was especially proud of his work writing for large ensembles.

"I want to make the biggest statement with the biggest group, the big band, because that's just something that's in my blood from the time I was coming up," Foster said in an interview for the Smithsonian's Jazz Oral History Program. "It has never left. I don't care what the economic conditions of the nation or the world become, or how they affect how we live and work and whatever. I have to make a statement with a big band, or there ain't going to be no statement."

In 2002, Foster was named an NEA Jazz Master.

In recent years, after he again left the Basie band, NPR has followed Foster's career. After a 2001 stroke left him unable to perform, he was left with minimal pension and Social Security benefits, the result of many years of being paid in cash for his services. Additionally, Foster had given away many of his publishing rights in youthful ignorance, which deprived him of substantial royalty payments over the years.

Last year, a team from Rutgers School of Law helped him win back his rights to collect royalties for his compositions, including "Shiny Stockings." Now, the family Frank Foster worried about for so many years will finally be able to collect on the fruits of his legacy.

More Frank Foster stories at NPR Music:

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And let's take a moment this morning to remember Frank Foster, a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, composer of one of the most enduring tunes in jazz. His work as a composer and tenor saxophonist earned him the Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Foster died yesterday at his home in Virginia at the age of 82, and NPR's Felix Contreras has this remembrance.

FELIX CONTRERAS: In 2005, Frank Foster stood in front of a living room wall at the home he shared with his wife Cecilia and reminisced.

Mr. FRANK FOSTER (Composer, Tenor Saxophonist): See this photograph here? And that was Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell and myself were the featured artists...

CONTRERAS: He started playing professionally in his hometown of Cincinnati when he was 15.

Mr. FOSTER: Yes, that was the band I had in high school, my senior year of high school.

CONTRERAS: That experience of not only leading a band, but also composing and arranging, was Foster's calling card when he eventually moved to New York and landed a job with Count Basie.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DAN MORGENSTERN (Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University): One of the core things about that band was that wonderful reed section, the saxophone section.

CONTRERAS: Dan Morgenstern is the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

Prof. MORGENSTERN: That was such a wonderful sound that that section had, and Frank was so much part of that.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Frank Foster was a featured soloist with the band, and he wrote one of its biggest selling records, a song that's become a jazz standard, "Shiny Stockings."

(Soundbite of song, "Shiny Stockings")

CONTRERAS: Foster stayed with Basie for over 10 years, then left to work with his own small groups and big bands. When Basie died, Foster came back to lead the band, winning two Grammys in the process.

In 2001, Frank Foster suffered a stroke that left him partially disabled and put an end to almost six decades of touring. It was then that he started thinking about something else besides his health.

Mr. FOSTER: At no point in my life did I consider myself to be earning enough money to take care of my family and me. I always felt as if I was worth more than what I was earning.

CONTRERAS: Specifically, Foster allowed a song publishing agency to control the copyright on "Shiny Stockings," leaving him with just a small slice of the royalties for a song that would eventually become recorded and performed countless times over 50 years. He said, as a young jazz musician in a very popular band, he only had two things on his mind.

Mr. FOSTER: Playing music and having a social life involving young ladies.

CONTRERAS: The business side of music was just not on the radar for Foster and his peers. Someone else took care of the paperwork.

Mr. FOSTER: Through the years, nobody encouraged me to publish my own music, except outsiders. Nobody in the band or nobody in the recording companies or nobody like that ever said, you know, you can publish your own songs, Frank.

CONTRERAS: Frank Foster was finally given a chance to correct that mistake just last year. A filmmaker working on a documentary about Foster put the saxophonist in touch with the Community Law Clinic at Rutgers. They discovered that Foster could use a provision of U.S. copyright law to renegotiate royalties so they all came back to him. Now the family he worried about for so many years will be able to collect the fruit of Frank Foster's legacy.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.