Connecting with the Jazz Tradition: Studying with Frank Foster in Buffalo

by Bill Benzon

Frank Foster leading and fronting the Count Basie Orchestra in 1994

I headed off to the State University of New York at Buffalo (aka UB) in the Fall of 1973. While I was going for my Ph.D. in English Literature, I was also interested in the school’s music offerings. I’d just gotten my trumpet out of “storage,” a year or so ago and I decided I wanted to sharpen my jazz chops. So I looked through the UB catalogue and noticed they had some guy named Frank Foster teaching jazz improvisation. I’d never heard of him. But, hey, I looked him up anyhow, you never know—played and arranged with Basie, Elvin Jones, Sarah Vaughan, “hmmm,” says I to my little-too-smart self, “maybe he’ll do.”

He did.

I forget just how I made my way into his improv workshop. While I was registered in the English Department and took courses there, there was no problem about showing up in Frank’s class and just hanging out. I didn’t even register for credit. Just showed up. (Maybe I officially audited the course, as it’s called, but I don’t really remember the arrangement.)

Frank had no problem with that. Neither did anyone else.

So, anyhow, I show up in the room. Other folks came in. We got out our horns and warmed up in that “checkin’ everyone out” way that musicians have. Naturally I was apprehensive about whether or not I could hang with these musicians. True, most of them were a bit younger than I was, but I figured most of them would have been music majors whereas music had never been my central focus.

Then Frank came in—he must have, because that’s how it had to be, no? But I don’t actually remember that first day. I remember other days, but not that one. So I’m pretty much making it up about that first day.

Frank comes in, says “Hi” to folks he recognizes. Does some administrative crap, and gets down to business. He goes to the chalk board, writes out the head (melody) and chord changes to a tune, say, “Blue Bossa.” He then explains a thing or two about “harmonic relevance” (his term) and we’re blowing. The rhythm section – bass, drums, piano, guitar – starts and then we all play the head with Frank. Frank takes a chorus or two and then sends it around the room. Everyone took a turn.

But maybe I didn’t take a solo, not that first day. Now that I heard these cats, I wasn’t feeling so cocky with my Blood, Sweat and Tears Chicago Transit Authority jazz-rock solo chops. Eventually I got up there, though with Billy Skinner in the room it was a little scary, and I blew some. Probably sucked (that is, was merely adequate), too. But that was OK.

I took notes, wrote out exercises based on the tunes Frank called, and practiced diligently (while at the same time taking courses in the English Department and teaching composition). I would compare notes with the other musicians. And over time I got better. One day we were playing one of Frank’s tunes, “Who’s That Rocking My Jazz Boat” – a title that speaks volumes about the fate of jazz (recorded with Elvin Jones as “Someone’s Rocking My Jazzboat”). Funkier ‘n shit. And I got off a good solo. When I was done, Frank looked at me, then looked at the rest of the group. He pointed at me and smiled.

That made my day. Made my day. My week. I got the nod from Frank.

I was not, of course, the only one. Lots of folks got the nod from Frank. And by the by I figured out that I wasn’t the only non-enrollee in the course. There were others. Heck, some of those others weren’t even students at UB. They were just local jazz musicians who dropped in to hang out and jam with The Master.

And Master he was.

One day we were jamming on “Giant Steps.” For those of you who don’t know, the name says what the tune is, giant freakin’ steps. Fast furious and more changes than a chameleon on speed. You had to be damn good just to keep up, and to make actual music on that tune, few managed.

And Frank was one of those few. Things were movin’ along and the piano player lost it. And then the bass player. So it was just Frank and the drummer. He killed it! Killed it dead! A capella, all in his head, Frank hit every change right on, and made music out of it.

Astounding, both in his physical mastery of the horn and his conceptual mastery of the music.

There’s the day he broke out singing “Hello, Dolly,” sounding just like Louis Armstrong. It shocked the bejesus out of us standing around. Who’d have thought this bad-ass post-bop Basie arranger and contemporary of Coltrane had a world-class Pops imitation in him? Think of the cultural history collapsed into the one moment. Armstrong has been one of the earliest jazz pioneers. By the 1930s he had become a major entertainer and public figure in America and Europe but by the 1950s he was two style revolutions behind the times and jazz was being displaced by rock and roll. In 1964 his recording of “Hello, Dolly” became his best-selling record, putting him on the charts along side the Beatles. Is that when Frank first developed his Armstrong imitation of the tune? I have no idea. By the time he regaled us with his singing Armstrong had been dead for four or five years and so been transmuted into pure myth and symbol. And that’s what we heard, an icon made flesh through the voice of Frank Foster.

And then, and then, then there’s the day he was kind enough to be embarrassed on my behalf. The school decided they wanted to have a big band. So they held auditions. And of course I auditioned. While mostly a soloist, I really wanted to play in the big band.

I got in there. They put a chart in front of me, the lead trumpet part for “Central Park North.” I sucked. I knew I would. My sight-reading chops just were not anywhere near my jazz chops. This was, maybe, three years from when I’d first showed up in Frank’s improv workshop and I’d gotten to be a damn good soloist. And, in Frank’s world, the world of professional jazz musicians, damn good soloists can also read fly shit on paper. So Frank, I’m sure, expected me to kill the audition. Which I did, but not it the good sense of kill. In the bad sense (but not, you know, the good sense of baad). As I said, I sucked.

I was disappointed and embarrassed. And the thing is, so was Frank, on both counts. Disappointed, yes, because maybe I wasn’t going to be the lead trumpet player he was looking for. But also embarrassed, like it was his failure too.

Of course it wasn’t. The failure was all mine. But it was kind and sweet of him to be embarrassed on my behalf. He was that kind of man.

Oh yes he was.

* * * * *

In 2002 the National Endowment for the Arts presented Foster with the NEA Jazz Master’s Award. Four years before that William Brower, Jr. had interviewed him for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. A 178 page transcript of the interview is available on line. I’ve selected a few excerpts.

Foster’s style

Stylistically Foster’s heart was in bebop, but he spent much of his career with the Count Basie Orchestra, which has grounded in the swing era, jazz’s major stylistic movement prior to bebop. But he as stretched to various post-pop developments and at times flirted with avant-garde “outside” playing.

Let’s start with the special connection he felt with John Coltrane [pp. 22-23]:

Foster: I brag about having the same birthday as Trane. Where were we? […]

Brower: And I wondered, and this is a real digression, is there some connection? I mean do you feel a connection with Coltrane? Does the 23rd – does that day ­ does that mean something to you?

Foster: Definitely. I feel a connection ­– there’s a fact that in although we’re two years apart, he having been born in 1926. Before he joined – was it with Monk first or Miles?

Brower: I think it was Miles first. I think it was Miles, Monk, Miles.

Foster: Miles, Monk, Miles, yeah. Before his first tour of duty with Miles, his style and my style were very similar. This is around 1954, I think, ’55. I remember hearing a recording of his and I remember remarking to myself, wow, he sounds a lot like me.

Then he got with Miles and I with Basie, and our paths went in vastly different directions. Trying to fit with the Basie orchestra and being torn between the Lester Young approach, and the Buddy Tate, Don Byas approach, and really being in love with Sonny Stitt, I was all kind of messed up, while Trane, his direction was very definite and intense. Here I – while I’m trying to fit with this institution, long-standing institution, by veering back and forth between Prez and Don Byas and Buddy Tate, my style became diffused, whereas Trane was pinpointed in a certain direction. Then he left me in the lurch.

Later in the interview Foster mentions that Davis had actually offered him a gig with his band, but he turned it down because the gig with Basie paid more, an important consideration for a man whose wife was pregnant with his first child.

Here’s how Foster characterized bebop [pp. 37]:

Foster: Being a bebopper meant that you concerned yourself with certain elements of the music, like melody and chord changes, especially the chord changes, and rhythms where instead of the [Foster sings a repetitive drum pattern], the heavy four associated with the swing era, you had [Foster sings a widely varied rhythm], drummers dropping bombs. That became the expression used for the way drummers, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, et cetera played. We liked the idea of playing with drummers who dropped bombs instead of [Foster again sings the repetitive pattern].

Brower: Instead of a steady chug.

Foster: Yeah, right. We liked the freedom that it afforded us, and we became more aware of what chord changes were. The melodies that were created by Dizzy Gillespie and Bird, we emulated these melodies. We analyzed what they were doing in terms of extensions of what – before we were just aware of the root third, and the fifth, and maybe the sixth, but now here we were hearing the major seventh, the ninth, and the raised eleventh, the thirteen. We were getting into these extended intervals and we really – we were considering ourselves –

Brower: Artists?

Foster: Many notches above the swing-era people and old heads who said, “Oh, that bebop ain’t nothing but a lot of noise. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Early Years in Ohio, the Army

Foster was born in 1928 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up there. Of his early exposure to music [p. 5]:

Foster: Certainly. I think it’s most important to say that at a very early age I discovered that I had a strong appreciation for music, music that I refer to now as quality music. For instance when I was five years of age, I really got off on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and things of that nature.

I didn’t hear any jazz per se until I was about nine years old. It’s not that it wasn’t – I wasn’t frequenting places where at that age – I wasn’t hearing much on the radio, but I was hearing a lot of classical music and popular music, and my mother regularly took me to what was referred to as the summer opera at the Cincinnati Zoo. They had a pavilion where they had operatic performances every summer. I saw most of the major operas by the time I was ten years of age. I really loved classical music and some of the better popular songs of the day, but I’d like to say that very early I developed a taste for quality music and a distaste for garbage.

Here are some remarks about race relations in his early years as a musician [pp. 15-16]:

Brower: In these places, were you playing for black folks, white folks, mixed audiences?

Foster: We played for black folks. There were no mixed audiences in those days. You either played for all black audiences or all white audiences.

Brower: Would there be some white people at the black thing but no black people at the white thing?

Foster: Exactly, yeah. Some white, only a smattering.

Brower: Were they typically musicians or more hip people? Who were the whites

who ventured into the black world to hear this music?

Foster: A lot of them were so-called slummers. You know, “Let’s go slumming tonight. Let’s go see what’s happening,” and so forth. Not particularly hip people but people who – they may have had black friends who brought them to the affairs, or they may have been people who actually had an appreciation for music and who didn’t know where else they would be able to hear this band, so they would come to this black dance.

In 1951 Foster was drafted into the Army and served in Korea in the infantry. Foster didn’t see combat [pp. 81-82]:

Foster: No, I didn’t see combat, but every night we could hear small arms fire going, machine guns.

Brower: What did the experience of being, and I guess you’re getting to this, but how did it feel being in a war? How did it affect you as a human being?

Foster: It didn’t feel good at all. I did not like it. I did not like the Korean countryside. I hated the army experience of getting up early in the morning and having a long day, a long hard day, and finally getting to bed at night and getting – we’d get a pass to go into a local village. All you could smell was fertilizer when you went into the village. It seemed like our only recreation was going into the village and uh –

Brower: The great “uh.” Foster: Yeah, the great “uh.”

Brower: Uh.

Foster: We did discover marijuana stalks growing in the fields, marijuana stalks that grew to six feet in height. We’d cut them and pluck the branches off the main stalk. We’d hang them upside down to let the essence flow to the leaves. Then we’d fill an empty cake box, like if somebody’s mother sent them a fruitcake. As soon as we finished the fruitcake, we’d fill the cake box with dried marijuana leaves. That was our best recreation. […]

Brower: Was it boring?

Foster: Huh?

Brower: Was it boring? Did you think it would end?

Foster: Strangely enough it was not boring. I though it would never end, yeah.

Brower: You thought it seemed endless.

Foster: It wasn’t boring, because — we did have some music to listen to. We won a tape recorder in a contest. We would record our own music on this tape recorder, and we would —

Brower: Were the units segregated?

Foster: No, no. The training unit at Camp Roberts California, was segregated. The army on an overall basis was integrated by that time in the early 1950s, but the integrated status hadn’t gotten to Camp Roberts yet. So we trained as a segregated unit, but as soon as I got to Japan everything was totally integrated. All organizations, band, every area was totally integrated.

Brower: Now I want to maybe make the transition to how you got from there to Basie, unless there’s some other aspect of your time there or the military experience that’s either musically or personally significant to you.

Foster: Yes. In February of 1953 – I was scheduled to be released in May, so in February of 1953 I got a hold of a Down Beat magazine. I saw a picture of the Basie orchestra with inset photos of Paul Quinichette and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. I remember saying to myself, “Man, I sure would like to be in that band,” not realizing that less then four months I would sitting in that band. I got out in May. I went back to Detroit, and I freelanced around Detroit. I played with Kenny Burrell

Four months after he left the army Foster was playing with Basie, which he did for well over a decade, after which he lived the life of a freelancing musician based in New York City. It’s during that period that he taught at UB (1972-1976) and then spent another ten years freelancing.

Running the Count Basie Orchestra

Foster took over the Count Basie Orchestra in 1986, where he received two Grammy Awards. Here he talks about the challenges and opportunities that afforded him [pp. 175-176]:

Foster: When I heard the band under Thad Jones, I wondered how it was going to do. I wondered how long it would last. Thad took it in another direction, because Thad’s arrangements were some of the most progressive of anyone this century. Thad kept it going until his health failed and he had to resign.

I thought when I took over I would uphold the Basie tradition. The fact that I wasn’t overly successful in my professional life up to that time – I was very unfulfilled. I didn’t get to hear my band but once every seven or eight months, and I had – just having a rehearsal was like pulling teeth to get everybody to come to a rehearsal. Was it a rehearsal for a particular gig? “Aw, no, there’s no gig, I just want to rehearse the music.” “If there’s no gig in sight, why do you want to rehearse?” “I just want to hear the music.” “I’ll try to make it by, but I can’t guarantee.”

Brower: So it’s too frustrating.

Foster: I was highly frustrated and just doing little gigs that didn’t have anything to do with my ambitions, just to make money to pay the mortgage. Doing a gig, a club date or a gig with some guys who couldn’t play that well, just for that $150 or $200, and going doing a workshop and a clinic and playing with some students –

Brower: So what kept you from snapping?

Foster: I had a good marriage going, a good marriage and a good partnership. She was encouraging me, “Do what you want to do. Do what you do best.” She didn’t say, go out and play some rock-and-roll, or go out and play some funk, or write some commercial stuff for this whatever. She encouraged me to do whatever – what I wanted to do, what I did best.

So when I toured with the Basie band, I said, here’s a regular job in front of a good organization that was going to play the music well. So I was all gung ho about upholding the tradition, not writing anything that the Chief wouldn’t like. After about a year of being in this power struggle, I was beginning to get weary and frustrated again, but still even so I had these excellent musicians in front of me every night, playing this music very well and very satisfactorily, not playing it sloppy and not having me have to make speeches. “Man, you all sounded – you all sucked. You all sounded horrible.” It was no more of that. Because I had cursed my own band out several times about sounding bad and sounding sloppy. That’s because I had too many mediocre musicians in there with the cream, and they took the level down.

But still I was falling in love with swing all over again and deciding that when I get out of this context and back into my own, the numbers are not going to last 20 minutes and a half hour for one number. I’m going to keep my numbers inside of five minutes, six minutes, and still have everybody playing solos and have a whole lot of ensemble going on, just the same as in the Basie orchestra, because in the Basie orchestra no tune lasted more than five minutes and most of them were over in three and a half, four minutes. I got accustomed to that. I got to liking the fact that you could play 10 to 12 pieces in an hour instead of just two to four pieces.

* * * * *

Frank Foster – Let’s Jazz Party


00:00 – Giants Steps
06:59 – Joy Spring
15:08 – Simone (A Foster original, which we played in the workshop)
24:50 – Just 40 Bars
29:25 – A Blues Ain’t Nothing But a Trip
42:00 – Fat Shoes
46:50 – Escale a Victoria
51:29 – My Heart Stood Still
57:33 – Theme for Ernie
01:07:33 – I’ll Take Romance
01:12:56 – The Things We Did Last Summer
01:16:56 – Chiquito Loco
01:29:24 – Shiny Stockings (Foster’s best-known composition)