September 26, 2011
we said farewell to Frank Foster (aka Uncle Frank, Fos) at Abyssinian on Fri. the 23rd. the truly giant tenor saxist & arranger was represented by family & friends who told & played his story with the love & gusto he passed on to them. or should i say musical alliance as family doesn’t cover the topic. Lady Cecelia Foster’s maiden name is Jones, as in Hank, Thad & Elvin. through them there are the Otises, as in Johnny & Shuggie. then there are the extended families, the musicians he touched: the Basie band for whom he arranged & later led, succeeding Thad, whose band he guest conducted at the Village Vanguard when Thad abdicated to Copenhagen. (there’s an LP out there.) and us.
the “New Testament” Basie-ites included fellow tenorman Frank Wess, with whom Fos later led a group dubbed “Two Franks” recording two albums. this night Wess did a late a cappella on Ellington’s “All Too Soon.” you didn’t have to listen too closely to hear the tears.
the house band was Fos’ Loud Minority. conducted by Cecil Bridgewater with guests including vocalist Carmen Bradford, who sang with Fos’ Basie band, Jimmy Heath, Jon Faddis, Antonio Hart, Paul West, Richard Wyands & Joe Wilder. both Bradford & Wilder did a cappella turns, Wilder’s particularly moving on Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”
i first met Frank Foster when the reed section of the New Testament Band was in flux. i was a teenager in the “peanut gallery” at the original Birdland on Broadway near 52nd St. the manager was Oscar Goodstein, the father of a classmate of mine at James Madison High School in Brooklyn. Goodstein brought a wire recorder to the Catskill’s Granit Hotel –i was a guest & erstwhile bongo player– playing it poolside. i heard those live sounds & was hooked. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis was leaving the band. the sax section would eventually become one of the greatest in history rivaling only Duke’s. with Marshall Royal as lead alto & Charlie Fowlkes holding up the bottom, there were the two Franks & Billy Mitchell on tenors. Wess doubled alto. even as a neophyte i could hear the difference between them: Wess had the smoother, breathier tone utilizing a bakelite or rubber mouthpiece while Fos had a bite with his brass mouthpiece. i knew Fos’ writing from the “Chairman of the Board” LP & later via Jerry Lewis’ miming of “Blues In Hoss’ Flat” in the flick “The Errand Boy.”
at Abyssinian scholar deejay Phil Schaap retold the story first heard by my Jazz Insights class of how Fos brought the piece to Basie with the original title “Blues in Frankie’s Flat.” seems the Chief thought the tune would get more airplay if he named it after a deejay. so Frankie’s Flat became Hoss’.
it was at that class that Fos & i decided that the name of any other Basie band he led would be called “The Second Coming” following the Old & New Testament. the name didn’t stick.
our bonds grew stronger. through her affiliation with the minority-led ad agency Uniworld Cecilia gave generously to jazz organizations including one with which i was honored to be appointed as their outreach journalist: the Consortium of Jazz Organizations & Artists. headed by MariJo Johnson, an important record company executive, CJOA brought together fledgling not-for-profits & we gave them the attendant public attention they deserved. we had an insert in a short-lived magazine called simply Jazz which grew from four to twelve pages as CJOA went international. there were even live recounts of important concerts sponsored by local N-F-P’s such as Cobi Narita’s broadcast over WBGO, our own fledgling NPR outlet. the reporter with the Brooklyn accent was you-know-whose.
In addition to the 14+ –it varied– piece Loud Minority Fos’s other bands included 12 Shades of Black & a smaller group called Living Color which played more blues & esoterica as only Uncle Frank could compose. they were much looser, funkier & more adventuresome than the Minority & included electric & electronic instrumentation.
our tour paths crossed in Finland in 1978. Fos was at the top of his game at the top of the world. we were invited to what would be a dacha in Russia by the tour’s sponsor. (Finnish vodka is every bit as fine as the Russian, i found out.) one thing led to another and some of us entered the sauna. the tradition is to run out of the hot into the cool, a local lake where there was still some snow around the edges. vodka courage prevailed and off i went, Charli Persip since dubbing me the Pori streaker, or something. (i was in better shape then.)
on the bus back to the hotel Uncle Frank & i were in the front conversinrg with the driver when Fos looked up grabbed my wrist & asked, “no peaking; what time is it?” i looked out, saw the sun & replied i guess abut 10 a.m.” (remember the vodka.) he removed his hand; it was 4 a.m. we were, after all, in the land of the midnight sun.
when the Minority went to the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid under the auspices of Jazzmobile executive director S. David Bailey asked me to debrief Fos & other members of the band for an aural history project. what a joy that was! they asked for an encore when the band returned from a China tour. both reports remain in the Jazzmobile archives. Fos composed a suite comprised of Olympic moments including the very soulful section honoring the first Jamaican(!) toboggan team. The Lake Placid Suite was performed in its entirety only once at a Collective Black Artists concert at Town Hall, NYC although parts remain in the Loud Minority’s book.
Daughter Jardis said that her father “explained things you didn’t even know needed explanation.” Abyssinian Rev. Calvin O. Butts remembered how he became the greatest son ever when Frank Foster’s Loud Minority played his parents 50th wedding anniversary, for free. he also noted that while so may speakers of a certain age were using pieces of paper as crib sheets Jardis was using her ipad. plus ca la change?
- © arnold jay smith