• Swing Easy: WBGO Celebrates Uncle Frank Foster

    July 28, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

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    WBGO says goodbye this week to our dear friend saxophonist and composer Frank Foster, who passed away at home in Chesapeake, Virginia on July 26.

    Jazz lovers knew Frank for the hits he wrote and arranged for the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950s.  “Shiny Stockings,” for one, remains a perennial favorite, which pops up in places like the soundtrack to the Jackie Chan movie “Rush Hour 2.”

    But at WBGO, Foster will always be “Uncle Frank.” He was a benevolent presence behind the scenes for many years, performing with his Loud Minority big band for the station and on NPR broadcasts, and he quietly shared his wealth of musical knowledge and experience with many of us.

    Gary Walker with Frank Foster
    Gary Walker with Frank Foster

    “His measuring stick was what he called HR – ‘Harmonic Relevance’,” WBGO’s Gary Walker recalled, “and he could tell right away if a singer or instrumentalist had it.”

    Click here to hear one of Walker's conversations with Foster in 2001:

    Click here to hear Frank Foster's All Star New York Orchestra play "Shiny Stockings" at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on New Year's Eve in 1995:

    "Only Frank could write rhythms so that folks in tuxedos and evening gowns could do the electric slide!" Walker recalled about the event.

    “Can we call you Uncle Frank?” asked the daughters of Dorthaan and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, when they moved to the East Coast in 1971, far away from family and friends in California. “Yeah!” answered Foster, and the name stuck.

    The girls made their new uncle promise not to tell anyone he was not their blood relative. Foster kept his word, and “so I always introduced him as Uncle Frank,” said Dorthaan, who has worked at WBGO since our doors opened in 1979. “And it just boomeranged from there.”

    The Fosters and the Kirks were like one big family; the two saxophonists even ran a music school together out of the Kirk’s home in East Orange for a time. Uncle Frank remained upbeat, even as his own health and fortunes within the music business waned. A stroke in 2001 curtailed his ability to perform, and for many years he received almost no revenue from his most popular compositions, due to agreements he signed as a young man.

    “Frank was a calm, gentle soul,” said Dorthaan. “Not once in forty years did I ever see him angry.”

    Foster also remained creative, and compiled as many as a twelve hundred new compositions and arrangements.

    Click here to hear Foster talk with Gary Walker about his compositions in 2008, when Jazz at Lincoln Center premiered one of his new works:

    “When the sun went down, that’s when he went to work,” said WBGO's Walker, who visited Foster with Dorthaan in Chesapeake for a week in 2005. Every night, they stayed up talking about music. But even as Dorthaan and Gary headed off to bed in the early hours of the morning, they would hear new music waft out of Frank’s composition studio upstairs, as he dug back into the work he loved.

    “Uncle Frank, what are you doing up there?”

    ‘Writing music!”

    WBGO celebrated with Uncle Frank in 2002, when he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and 2008, when ASCAP commissioned works in his honor.

    Click here to hear Foster's speech at that event:

    We celebrated again in 2010, when the rights to many of Frank's compositions were restored, through the efforts of filmmaker Brian Grady.

    While researching for a documentary film on Foster’s life, Grady noticed a rarely-used provision in copyright law which allows a composer to regain the rights to his work after 56 years. Grady reached out to the Community Law Clinic of of Rutgers University – Newark, where Foster also taught in the 1970s, to craft a case.

    2010 was the year when the window to this legal opportunity opened, since 1954 was when Foster wrote many of his most popular compositions. The team needed to work fast to reclaim the rights.

    “I needed a happy ending,” Grady told WBGO’s Doug Doyle in July of last year after Foster’s rights had been restored, “and we got one.”

    Click here to hear the full audio of Doyle's conversation with Grady.

    Click below to see a trailoer for Grady's film on Foster's life and career, "Shiny Stockings." Proceeds from purchase of the film on DVD support the Frank Foster Scholarship Fund of the Break the Glass Foundation.

    A funeral service will be conducted at 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, August 2, at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Chesapeake. Donations in Frank's honor can be made to the Jazz Foundation of America.

    Swing easy, Uncle Frank. We will miss you!

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