Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
January 10, 2008
Edited by Don Ball
AN EARLY LOVE OF MUSIC
Q: I always start by asking people about some very pivotal, early experiences with music that they might have had.
Frank Foster: Well, at a very early age, I had an ear for music. I loved music. I can remember loving music from age five. I would hear classical music on the radio, and I would say, "Wow, that sounds great."
And at six, starting from six to age 12, my mother, who loved classical music (especially opera), would take me to the local opera. We had an opera pavilion at the Cincinnati Zoo. And by age 12, I saw all the major operas. Carmen, Rigoletto, La Traviata, La Bohème.
Q: Did you follow them?
Frank Foster: I didn't know anything about libretto, but I followed the story. I saw Othello on stage in downtown Cincinnati in the auditorium, and one thing I remember vividly: the time period was the 1930s and as you may or may not know, America was very Jim Crow at the time. Racial prejudice was almost fashionable and Othello was played by the great Paul Robeson. Well, in the scene where Othello slaps Desdemona, in a theater of 1,500 people, at the moment that he slapped Desdemona, 1,500 white voices gasped in horror in unison, and I sat there and said, "Ha." I was about 12 [years old] at the time, between 10 and 12.
INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ
Q: When did you first start hearing jazz?
Frank Foster: Not until I was about 12. I heard my first jazz, and I had a brother who was six years my senior and he loved jazz. He loved the big bands. Now, big bands were fashionable then, were in vogue at the time, and he started me listening to Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, and Count Basie. He said, "This is what's happening."
I had started taking clarinet lessons at age 11. I just wanted to play music and how that happened was a friend of mine, my best childhood buddy, we were looking at a newspaper and we saw an ad in the paper from Wurlitzer for music lessons for three dollars a week, three dollars a lesson, and there was a picture of a clarinet, and he said, "Whoo, I think I'll take up clarinet," and I said, "I think I'll take up clarinet too." I wasn't going to be outdone. I followed through on my threat, but he didn't.
Q: Where'd you get the clarinet?
Frank Foster: From Wurlitzer in Cincinnati. You paid for lessons while you paid on the instrument. Three dollars a lesson: $1.50 went for the lesson and $1.50 went toward the payment on the instrument. And at age 13, my teacher told me [that] in the dance band the clarinet is not the main instrument, it's the saxophone, and he suggested I take up saxophone. So I took up saxophone at age 13.
Q: I have read that even in high school you were leading bands and you were doing some composing. How did you figure out how to do all that?
Frank Foster: In my senior year I organized my own 12-piece band.
Q: Was this completely extracurricular?
Frank Foster: I had nothing to do with music in school. I wasn't in the school band, orchestra, nothing.
Q: Really? And they wouldn't have had a jazz band anyway, right?
Frank Foster: Not at the time they didn't, no. I played in bands, local bands as a sideman, starting at age 13 and 14, and I played with a band called Jack Jackson and his Jumping Jacks. They bought what we called "store-bought" arrangements, stock arrangements, and I would listen to these and I would hear what everybody was playing, and I would say, "Well, I can do that." So, I just took up writing. I didn't have any formal lessons in arranging, I just started writing. And my senior year of high school I organized my own band. I had four trumpets, five saxophones, piano, bass, drums, and guitar; no trombones because there were no trombone players in Cincinnati except one girl and she played with somebody else, so I couldn't get her.
I played a few gigs. I played my girlfriend's high school prom. She had to dance with everybody else because I couldn't dance -- I was the leader of the band.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Q: After high school you went to Wilberforce University, right?
Frank Foster: I graduated from high school and then I was in the college band for three years. My mother wanted me to be a classical musician and I thought it was a pretty good idea. She wanted to send me to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at that time. This was 1946. I graduated from high school that year and the Cincinnati Conservatory did not admit persons of color and so she said, "Well, in that case you might as well go to my alma mater," which was Wilberforce University located in central Ohio near Dayton, so I went there. It's interesting to note that since the classical music field, which did not welcome persons of color at that time, was closed to me, my only other option was to go into jazz.
At Wilberforce, I played in the dance band for three years, and during that time I laid the foundation for later joining the Count Basie Orchestra.
Q: How were you laying the foundation there?
Frank Foster: I got drunk one time and got sick and we had a job in Indianapolis. On the way to Indianapolis, I had a horrible hangover and we were riding in one of those old buses where you can open the window, and I had to keep my head out the window. The fresh air brought me around. By the time we got to Indianapolis I was cool and we played the job. Jazz of the Philharmonic was in this town the same night, and Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan were the stars, and after their concert was over they wanted some place to go to hang out. Where did they choose to go but where we were playing the dance? They showed up at our dance. It was Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Red Rodney, and Stan Levy, I think. They came and they asked could they sit in with us and we said, "Are you kidding? Sit in."
Q: Was that an intimidating kind of situation for you or was that just pure excitement?
Frank Foster: No, it was pure pleasure and excitement, and Sarah Vaughan was singing "Lover Man," and I was backing her up on alto. I played lead alto with the band. I must have played something that she found interesting, and she turned around and smiled at me. Now, here's this 19-year-old being smiled at by the likes of Sarah Vaughan. I almost levitated into the ceiling.
On the strength of that one night, five years later, Count Basie was looking for a tenor saxophonist and Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine said, "Well, we know a young guy named Frank Foster. If you can find him, we're sure he would fill the bill."
Q: You then spent a couple of years in Detroit?
Frank Foster: Two years in Detroit, yes.
Q: And there were so many musicians around Detroit at that time, I've heard a lot about, what was it, the Bluebird?
Frank Foster: The Blue Bird Inn. First of all, I didn't graduate from college. My third year of college my grades were horrible except for music. Snooky Young had a seven-week gig in Detroit that started in August and he asked my mother if I could make this gig. She said, "Yes, but he has to come back and finish his senior year of college." "No problem, no problem, I'll get him back." I went to Detroit for this seven-week engagement. About the fifth week of the engagement, all three of my instruments were stolen. I had a tenor saxophone, an alto saxophone, and a clarinet. They were stolen from the club we were playing in.
It ended up in with me staying in Detroit so it was a lucky, terrible blow because I fell in love with Detroit. I just wanted to stay anyway. So, I told my parents, I've got to stay here and help the detectives find my instruments. That was my lame excuse.
Q: You never went back and finished college?
Frank Foster: Never went back. And my mother's sister lived in Detroit so I had an aunt, a place to stay while I was in Detroit. I freelanced for two years, and that's where I saw Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flannigan, and the Jones [Hank, Thad, and Elvin] were in the area. I hung out with Elvin. I think they were from Pontiac. They, incidentally, are [my mother's sister's] first cousins. The Jones family. I didn't know that then.
I met so many, and I said, "I never knew there were this many musicians in the world, all these great people up here." I said, "I'm staying here," and there was one guy who said, "You don't want to stay here, you want to go to New York, that's where it's happening." I said, "I don't need to go to New York. This is where it's happening."
JOINING UP WITH BASIE
Q: I wanted to ask you about a certain event. I think you were stationed in Korea and you came across an issue of Down Beat magazine?
Frank Foster: In February 1953, I had gone in the Army from Detroit, and I ran across this Down Beat. I saw a picture of the Count Basie Orchestra inside and an article on the orchestra and inset photos of Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Paul Quinichette. I said to myself, "Man I sure want to get into that band." I got out of the Army in May and went back to Detroit, and I was walking down the street in my uniform on a weekend pass, and I ran into an old friend from Cincinnati by chance. He said, "Hey, man, it's good to see you. Count Basie's looking for you." I said, "Looking for me? Nobody even knows I'm in town." Basie was playing that night at a ballroom in Detroit.
I had never met Basie. I had seen the band when I was younger but I never met him, and this friend, I didn't even know he knew about jazz. So I went over [to the ballroom] and sure enough, Lockjaw Davis was going to leave the band soon. I had my mouthpiece in my pocket. I didn't have a horn so I introduced myself and asked if I could sit in. Ernie Wilkins and Jimmy Wilkins were in the band at the time and they both knew me from college. Jimmy Wilkins was our band leader in college, and he said, "Yeah, let him sit in. This is the guy you've been looking for."
So I sat in for two songs, and Basie said, "I'll be in touch, kid." It was May of 1953; three months later he sent me a telegram and a one-way ticket to New York to join the Basie Orchestra. In February of that same year, I [had been] sitting in a tent in Korea reading Down Beat wanting to be in the band.
Q: When you went with Basie, where were you playing?
Frank Foster: Everywhere. My first job with Basie was in a city in Western New York called Jamestown. A dance, just a simple dance and then from there we went all across the country and ended up in California and came back across the country to New York doing one-nighters traveling by bus. There's a whole lot of camaraderie and a whole lot of fun, and for a youngster like me who was only 24 it was like being in west heaven.
Q: I have read that you felt that you sometimes didn't quite fit the band, or your sound didn't quite fit.
Frank Foster: The guys that preceded me, like Lester Young and Buddy Tate, I had heard them with the band years earlier and they just sounded like they belonged. Well, I came into the band with a hard bebop style of playing. Dexter Gordon at the time was my idol, and I just somehow didn't feel that my style fit the band.
Q: Well, Basie must have because he would have booted you.
Frank Foster: He gave me nothing but encouragement, and I was also writing and he liked the way I wrote. I came into the band with an arrangement already written that I had done while I was in the Army. It was a little mambo, a simple mambo thing, and they played it and he liked it.
It was a big thrill when you hear your music played back to you by the band because at the time (this was 1953 B.C., Before Computers), it was unlike today when you can hear what you're writing on the playback on the computer. You know what it sounds like approximately. Then I didn't know what it sounded like. I just wrote it down on paper and hoped it sounded good, but I was exercising my musical knowledge when writing. I had a reasonable assurance that it would sound good.
Q: Can you remember one particular piece where what the band played didn't sound like what you had imagined in your head?
Frank Foster: We'll start with "Shiny Stockings," my best known composition. I put that down with care and precision and everything, and we rehearsed. I remember we arrived in Philadelphia to play at a club called Peps, and it was a habit of the band on opening day in a nightclub to have a rehearsal. When we arrived, the rehearsal was scheduled, but everybody was tired and evil, and nobody wanted to get out of bed, and we were hungry, and the last thing we felt like doing was rehearsing. So I put "Shiny Stockings" in front of the guys and they sloughed through it and it sounded like a 43-car pile up. I said, "Oh my gosh, he'll never play this."
I thought it was going to sound better than this, but [Basie] must have heard something even through all that confusion. He played it and played it. It was his habit not to play things that didn't turn out good in rehearsal, if an arrangement was too busy or too loaded with all kinds of "pregnant 19s" as he called them. That's what he called a loaded arrangement. He said, "Don't put too many pregnant 19s in there, kid."
I gave Basie a little space to do his thing, and then the band started off with a soft ensemble and took it from there. Another interesting thing is the melody of that song: I didn't think it was my original melody. It was something I thought I had heard Snooky Young play. I said to him, "Man, ain't this something you played? I heard you play that." He said, "No, wasn't nothing you heard me play." I said, "Well, maybe it is mine."
It had an excellent trumpet solo by Thad Jones that was the only other solo besides Basie's, and it had two shout choruses on the end. It started off very softly and built up to a very crescendo-ed climax in the end. That's what [Basie] liked and, as little as I knew about arranging at the time, I must have hit the bull's-eye that time.
PLAYING WITH ELVIN
Q: After you left the Basie band, you started playing with Elvin Jones's band. That's a very different sort of band sound and ensemble. I'm sure it must have been interesting to find your voice or to take your voice from that one ensemble to the next.
Frank Foster: Well, I didn't go from Basie straight to playing with Elvin. It was several years in between. Elvin and I had been friends since way back before I even joined the Army. So he hired me to play with his quartet. It was only a quartet. Let's see, drums, bass, piano, and saxophone, and later it was a quintet with two tenor saxophones on the front line. At one time Joe Farrell and myself and another time Sonny Fortune and myself, and the quintet/quartet setup was not my preferred mode of expression. I was a big band junkie from age 13, and the big band offers so much more potential for extended colorations and textures. I figured I could only do so much with a quintet, but it was fun because there was a lot of playing space and a lot of space for improvisation and creativity, so that sort of compensated for not having all those pieces surrounding me.
Q: Were you composing for that band?
Frank Foster: Oh, yes. I composed songs for Elvin and we traveled around on the road, and it was really big fun and it was exciting. Elvin was one of the most exciting people I ever played with. He just generated such electricity on the drums. He would play, and he would look at the audience and have this wide-eyed, almost insane stare in his eyes, and people would become enthralled by him. They couldn't keep their eyes off him. He loved to powerhouse behind the soloists, and we soloists loved it because he pushed us to push ourselves.
TAKING OVER THE BASIE BAND
Q: When you eventually took over the leadership of the Basie band after Basie died, how did you handle the balance of trying to be true to Basie's vision versus bringing your own vision to the band?
Frank Foster: Well, first of all, as soon as I took over the leadership, I decided I'm going to write for this band because I'm a writer. That's what I do. That's one thing that I do. In keeping with the tradition, I'm not going to write anything that I think Basie himself would not have liked. For a time I wrote what I think was within the Basie context, and then I got bored with that and I wanted to explore and get more adventurous and I did, and I got a lot of dissenting voices when I did.
Q: From within the band?
Frank Foster: Some within the band and some from without the band. I had all kinds of opinions from both sides. People saying, "Love what you're doing with the band, man, you sure are making 'em swing," and on the other hand, "That's not Basie, you're getting away from the Basie style." Naturally, I didn't want to listen to them because I wanted to expand, and my theory on that was Basie himself liked new stuff. Basie himself was, in a sense, progressive-minded because he wanted new stuff to come into the book while he was alive. He accepted a lot of things that probably a lot of people would've thought, "That ain't Basie," but he was really very broadminded. He just didn't want it to be too full of notes and "too busy," as he called it. It always had to swing. That was the one basic ingredient that always had to be there: to swing.
Q: What percentage of the personnel had remained the same since you had been playing with the Basie band?
Frank Foster: There were only about four or five. Freddie Green (who had been there forever), Sonny Cohn, Bill Hughes. Those are about the only holdovers from the old Basie band. When I say the old Basie band, I meant the band that I was a member of from '53 to '64. So, when I took over in '86, those were the only ones still left in the band. But the band still had that same electricity, that same fire.
Q: How did you take over that leadership? How did that come about?
Frank Foster: Thad Jones had taken over not immediately but a short while after Basie passed, and his health was failing. I think he left the band for health reasons. They went leaderless for awhile, and they had Eric Dixon, who sat in the saxophone section, counting off the tunes and directing the band and then sitting back down in the band and standing up to cut off the tunes. So, Cee [Foster's wife] and I went to hear them somewhere. Freddie Green would stand up at the mic, guitar in hand, and he'd say a few words (we couldn't understand what they were), and then he'd say, "Well, this is the Basie Orchestra." So I said it shouldn't go down like that. They should have somebody standing out front.
I really don't know how it came about. We had a meeting with George Wein, and George Wein said, "Yes, I can see a Basie band with Frank Foster standing out front," and next thing I knew I was the leader of the band. Actually, I went to do one gig with the band before I even took over around the first of June.
I liked standing in front of the band. I liked the leadership role. I liked directing the band. I got to feature myself when I wanted to, but I was very unselfish in that regard. I tried to make sure that everybody else in the band had [solos], so I was looking out for everybody before looking out for myself.
Q: Did you use Basie as a model?
Frank Foster: Basie as a pianist had an advantage sitting at the piano because if he had finished one song and didn't know what he was going to play next, he would sit at the piano and doodle for about two or three minutes and he'd play something and it almost sounded like he was going into a piano concerto while he was thinking of the next song he was going to play. Then as soon as he thought of the song, he would go into a typical introduction that let the band members know what the song was going to be. It was amazing because Basie had an introduction for every song, almost every song, about 90 percent of the songs the band played. He had a set introduction that he played and as soon as he hit the first note we knew what the song was.
Q: Since your stroke, I understand that you are not able to play anymore, is that right?
Frank Foster: Right.
Q: I'm interested in how you have weathered that process.
Frank Foster: It wasn't as difficult as you might think. You might think, "Oh, I can't play anymore, oh, it's a horrible world, I want to die," or something like that, but I had always had as much fun writing as playing. Writing and playing, they're both strongly creative, right? But when you play something, if you mess up you can't make it right. But you can write something, and if it's not right you can change it. And I always had as much pleasure writing as playing because, as I told you earlier, the thrill of hearing your music played back to you is almost indescribable.
Q: When you write now do you use a computer?
Frank Foster: Yes. They have a device on the computer called "human playback," which when you enable it, almost sounds like a real orchestra coming out of the computer. It's not 100 percent but it's close enough that you can almost get it. Sometimes I sit in my office and have concerts for myself playing everything that I've finished on the computer. [My wife] must think I'm nuts. I've got about 15 uncompleted compositions on my computer that I'm going to go back to someday and finish.
Q: How long does it take to finish a composition?
Frank Foster: It takes from about two days to six months to finish one piece, depending on the nature of that piece and how much time you feel like spending on it. I have finished arrangements within two or three days, single arrangements, and then there's some stuff that I'm still on that I've been working on for six months. For instance, for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, I'm working on one now that I have to finish the music within a certain length of time or I'll be delinquent and be called bad names by people.
One of the biggest thrills of my life came a couple of years ago when I was commissioned to do some music for the Malaysia Symphony in conjunction with the Basie Orchestra. The Basie band was going to play its usual fare, so five of those pieces (including my composition "Shiny Stockings") were going to be part of what they did together with the symphony. I wrote arrangements on those same pieces for the symphony to precede what the Basie band did. [I thought,] "Well, this is going to be nice. I'll just go there and sit in the audience and enjoy this." I ended up conducting the Malaysia Symphony because the conductor was out of the country or something. And they said, "Well, you have to conduct." I have to conduct the symphony orchestra?! You must be crazy. But there are pictures of me conducting to prove that I was there, and it was absolutely exhilarating.