JJ 12/63: In My Opinion – Frank Foster

Sixty years ago Frank Foster pondered such as Webster, Hawkins and Coltrane as well as the differing styles of the Ellington and Basie bands. First published in Jazz Journal December 1963

Frank Foster. Photo from the JJ Archive

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Now with Basie for ten years, Frank Foster would seem to be one of the happy permanent residents of that swinging organisation. An expert arranger, Frank has also composed several of the standards in the Basie book: Shiny Stockings, Blues Backstage, Didn’t You and Down For The Count all come from his talented pen.

As a tenor saxophonist, Frank is a energetic player, with a sinewy line which lies some­where between the melodic giants of the instrument and the more vigorous hard-swingers. Always good to listen to, Frank is now one of the best soloists in the whole band.

A lithe, trim-looking humorist, he attributes his youthful looks to a life of over-indulgence in the good things of life – “Eat too much, drink too much, and do all those things you like but to excess and you will stay young,” he says. He once grew a beard to make himself look older – it didn’t help. – Sinclair Traill

Move. Wardell Gray Memorial. Esquire 32-023
That rather reminded me of another side Wardell and Dexter made, The Chase – which was I think a little better than that. Particularly for Dexter who didn’t sound quite at home at that frantic tempo. Clark Terry sounded wonderful I thought, and what a fine drummer Chuck Thompson is! I did my first ever gig with Art Mardigan and company at the Bluebird in Detroit. Not too much is known of him, but he is one of the best – living now in Los Angeles I think.

Wardell was a beautiful player at any tempo, what a shame he had to go the way he did. I don’t truthfully know the truth of what happened. It is known that he fell off a bed and broke his neck and that the other fellow who was with him at the time was supposed to have taken his body and hidden it in a ravine or gully outside. It was all very strange for there seemed no reason for it to happen at all. I don’t suppose we shall ever know the whole truth.

I first met him in 1950. He used to come to the Bluebird, for whenever he came to Detroit he and Milt Jackson had a standing gig at the Bluebird – never mind who was working there, Wardell and Milt always that standing gig. It was automatic, for just as long as they decided to stay in town. I got to know Wardell very well, and we used to have cutting sessions every night when he was around. The crowd would be with me one night and with him the next. We played very much alike in those days, in fact a local man down there taped one of those sessions and it is difficult to tell us apart. I play a few more notes than he did, but I was younger and full of enthusiasm in those days.

I’ve changed my style somewhat now, but I’ve been trying for almost ten years now to find myself, rather than take from other people. I leaned towards Coltrane for a time, but I think I have gone away from that now. I have been working on my sound recently, trying to get a bigger tone – you know, leaning towards what is called the hard-bop style – but I feel it doesn’t matter too much what style it is as long as it swings.

Stomp Off, Let’s Go. Bob Crosby & His Orchestra. Ace of Hearts AH 29
That was Fazola, wasn’t it, and the tenor Eddie Miller? Well, I didn’t imagine I could listen with pleasure to anything recorded as long ago as that, but both clarinet and tenor were fine – very smooth. I really did enjoy that. What a tone Fazola had – very big.

Tigress. Duke Ellington-Afro Bossa. Reprise
Now Paul Gonsalves, there’s a man who has a style to himself – and he’s sounded that way ever since the first time I heard him, about seven or eight years ago, I guess. That band of Duke’s get much more solo space than we do – I like that! And yet if I were asked to join that band (which is very, very unlikely, I might say) I’d stay right along with Basie. Duke always has a lovely band, but there is less conflict of personalities where I am now, and I think Basie’s music is happier. Maybe less jazz solos, but I think our band is happier, and sometimes we manage to play just like we want to play. Duke’s band always manage to sound good, but they don’t always have the appearance of “I want to be here”, if you get what I mean. The band play wonderfully together, but they never seem to have the same kind of family spirit we have with Basie. We have fun in the band. As you know we used to split it up into the Giants and the Midgets, and now we’ve got another gimmick. We’ve gone all Cockney and adapted English names. Eric Dixon is now called Monty. Don Rader is Dudley; Bill Hughes we named Cuthbert; Wess is Wellington; and they call me, little Alfie. Basie? Well I don’t know. You suggest, Marmaduke. That’s a good name. We’ll have to try and put that one on him.

But it’s wonderful what does come out of Duke’s band. Of course, he has so many stars of tremendous stature that there is bound to be a little trouble now and again – fifteen geniuses (or genii?) must take some getting along with, even with Duke at the helm.

Gone With The Wind. Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet. Columbia 33CX 10137
Well, the only musician I ever thought of as God was Art Tatum! And Ben Webster was one of the few people who could play with him and not get lost. You see Ben knows just how to treat a melody, and to play with Tatum that was what you had to do – that’s all you needed to do. If anyone tried to get too far out or to try and keep up with Tatum, unless they had an extraordinary ability to pick out the right notes they were sunk. But Ben has just that ability – more than any other tenor player I think.

Take The Coltrane. Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. HMV CSD 1502
Well, I certainly wish they had had the whole band on there, instead of just Duke and Coltrane. It is a strange mixture of conceptions. It sounds beautiful, but does nothing except remind you of a Coltrane quartet. You don’t ever get the feeling that the two of them were there together. I guess it really needed a few more month’s planning to get a thing like that just right.

I like Coltrane’s playing, but that doesn’t mean I like to listen to it non-stop for fifteen or twenty minutes without a break. I admit that I’m not too much in favour of the modern trend of extending songs or tunes to half an hour or so. It’s too long. In a half hour not much more has been said than can be said in five minutes. Longer than that you get too much repetition. Although I may have great respect for the artist, I can never say I agree with the idea of stretching songs over such long periods as they do today.

Coltrane can be hard to take to an untrained ear, you have to be groomed that way for years and years; it is perhaps better explained as a musician’s music. I feel that a lot of people who say they like it, merely say that to go along with the general trend, but are not really sincere in what they say – they say that, as they must be hip. This was also true in the bebop era. Maybe true in every jazz era, right back to swing. In ten years’ time maybe some fellow will be playing things on a saxophone which will make what Coltrane is doing sound simple and easy to understand, who knows? Of course, there is Ornette Coleman. Now I think he is about two years ahead of me, so maybe I’ll even catch up in time.

You Dirty Dog. Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins. H.M.V. 1494
I see that this and the Coltrane were recorded just about one month apart – that surprises me. This is much better prepared. Yet to use a British word I don’t much fancy Coleman Hawkins these days. I once did, very much indeed, but of late I don’t like what he is doing. I have always swung between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and I now lean much more heavily towards Ben. Of course, it is not a matter of musical ability, it is merely personal taste. However I must confess that it has taken Coleman Hawkins a very long time to age – I only hope I can hold out that long! And keep such an ability!

Not long ago I read a statement by Eddie Lockjaw Davis, where he said that he is going to stop playing, ’cause his cycle has come to an end – in other words that any appreciation for his style of tenor playing has now passed. But of course, that is only according to him. But we still have Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins, so I wonder just why Lock feels the way he does. Johnny Hodges has recently in my estimation suffered (no, wrong word) a rebirth. During the years of hard bop I left Johnny Hodges. Before that, during the 1930s up to ’45, I loved what he was doing and then, when I got carried away by Charlie Parker, he and Benny Carter and others got kind of washed away. But recently I have become to re-appreciate these men, and funnily enough I now like them better than ever before; especially Johnny Hodges. He used to sound just too dated, but now he sounds just beautiful. I can’t explain it for he hasn’t changed at all, he has kept to the same style throughout the years. I even for a time went off ‘Little Jazz’; I couldn’t see Eldridge when I was obsessed by Charlie Parker. Then Dizzy, who idolised ‘Little Jazz’, he took over. But I’m back with it now.

Of all the big band leaders, you know Basie is certainly always with the roots – he is one of the original gardeners as it were. To start a band a man has to have an idea, an original idea, something that will set him off, set him apart from the others. Basie used a very simple style of piano playing, with swinging riff-type arrangements that built up into exciting ensemble shouting band choruses. Then he came back to top it off with his little ‘clink, clink’ on the piano. And that is what has done it for thirty years! And Basie hasn’t changed his style either – the arrangements have kept up with the times, but Basie hasn’t altered.

Duke is another, of course. Not a brilliant pianist, he is a genius at expressing himself through the medium of his band – and you can never mistake that Ellington writing. He is an interesting pianist, I like listening to him, but there are many better pianists around. He is more than adequate but never brilliant tho’ he does certainly have something of his own – yet as a musician he is certainly a genius, for whenever that music of his comes out it just spells Duke Ellington, and that is that. Although there are more solos with the Ellington band than with Basie, yet Duke writes for each separate musician in his band. Most arrangers write for 1st trumpet, 2nd trumpet, 3rd trumpet etc., but Duke writes for each individual musician in his group. Of course it does happen to us in a degree. I am trying to forward this notion of writing for each man individually in my most recent arrangements for the band, but I’m running up against a brickwall ‘cause I don’t get enough of them played. Perhaps I go a little too far out for ‘Marmaduke’, but I’ll keep trying to do something new and something different. I guess being with Basie has made me stay with the roots; I haven’t been allowed to fly too far away into outer space. And one thing staying with the roots will teach you is that the music is supposed to swing – and that’s important, perhaps the most important thing of all.