Frank Foster in Buffalo

28 Jul

Frank Foster in Buffalo

At first glance this wouldn’t seem to be about politics. It’s about a musician who was also my teacher. Which is to say, it is very much about politics in the deepest sense. Music is about community, and so is politics. Teaching is about passing knowledge from one generation  to the next, as politics requires. Like politics at its best, it’s about truth and tradition. One of my teachers just died. A great musician, Frank Foster. This is about, and for, him. He knew truth, respected tradition, and made beautiful music, of his time and for the future.

I headed off to the State University of NY 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 their music offerings—the school’s, not the English Department’s. I’d just gotten my trumpet out of “storage,” as it were, 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 improv. 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. Then Frank comes in—he must’ve, 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 just makin’ it up about that first day.

Improvising, you might say.

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 and changes to a tune, say, “Blue Bossa,” explains a thing or two about “harmonic relevance” (his term) and we’re blowing. The rhythm section has it, we all play the head with Frank. Then Frank takes a chorus or two and then sends it around the room. Everyone took a turn.

But maybe I didn’t play, 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, too. But that was OK.

I took notes, practiced, wrote out exercises. Compared this and that with the cats. And got better. One day we were playin’ one of Frank’s tunes, “Who’s That Rockin’ My Jazz Boat.” Funkier ‘n shit. And I got off a good one. When I was done, Frank looked at me, then looked at the rest of the group. He pointed at me and smiled.

Made my day, man. 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.


There’s the day he broke out singing “Hello Dolly,” sounding just like Louis Armstrong. Who’d have thought this bad-ass post-bop fierce Basie arranger had a world-class Pops imitation in him. But he did.

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. “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 bad). 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 lookin’ 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.

Bye Frank. “Cecelia is Love”—one of his tunes. So is Frank.

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