Frank Foster, R.I.P.


Saxophonist, flautist, composer, arranger and educator Frank Foster died on Tuesday in his Chesapeake, Va., home.

Born in Cincinnati on September 21, 1928, Foster’s early jazz career was primarily in the Midwest, where he played tenor and soprano saxophone as a student at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Upon graduation, Foster moved to Detroit, where he played with local bands until he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served during the Korean War and, after his discharge, joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1953.

No alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra carried on the band’s rich legacy more effectively than Foster. During his 11-year stint with Basie, Foster both contributed his talents as a reedman and honed his composing and arranging skills; he eventually composed the feel-good “Shiny Stockings,” which quickly became a much-played standard.

Foster left Basie’s orchestra in 1970. He played with the drummer Elvin Jones until 1972 then freelanced as both a sideman and a bandleader, joining the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Band, touring with organist Jimmy Smith throughout Europe, and co-leading a quintet with fellow Basie alum and saxophonist Frank Wess.

But Foster most appreciated the big band format; he’d even organized his own 12-piece band during his senior year of high school. He led the 18-piece band Loud Minority until 1986, when—two years after Basie passed away—he took the reins of the Count Basie Orchestra. Under Foster’s leadership, the Count Basie “ghost band” set the standard for posthumous jazz orchestras formed in honor of their founders. He won two Grammys while working with them; in 1987 he won the Best Arrangement Accompanying A Vocal trophy for his arrangement of the Diane Schuur composition “Deedles’ Blues” and in 1990 he garnered the Best Big Band Instrumental award for the Orchestra’s performance of George Benson’s “Basie’s Bag.”

Foster was also an accomplished jazz educator at the high school and college level, and his teaching career included stints at Queens College and in the New York City public school system. A stroke in 2001 caused Foster to put down the saxophone for good, but he continued to arrange, compose, and occasionally lead the Loud Minority. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Foster the Jazz Masters Fellowship. In his acceptance interview Foster said, “I always had as much pleasure writing as playing… the thrill of hearing your music played back to you is almost indescribable.”

Foster was 82.