Foster died Tuesday morning at his home in Chesapeake, Virginia, of complications from kidney failure, according to Cecilia Foster, his wife of 45 years.
Foster was recognized in 2002 by the National Endowment for the Arts as a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor . In a statement expressing sadness at Foster’s death, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman called him “an extraordinary saxophonist, composer, arranger, bandleader, and educator.”
Landesman added, “We join many others in the jazz community and beyond in mourning his death while celebrating his life.”
According to the NEA, Foster’s many compositions included material for singers Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and a commissioned piece written for jazz orchestra for the 1980 Winter Olympics: “Lake Placid Suite.”
Foster was a native of Cincinnati. He told NEA interviewer Don Ball in 2008 that he “had an ear for music” from an early age. He said his mother took him to hear opera when he was just 6.
Jazz big bands caught his attention when he was 12. Foster’s first instrument was clarinet, but at age 13 he took up the sax. Foster told the interviewer he played in a dance band at Wilberforce University and went on to join Basie’s band in 1953.
During his 11-year tenure with Basie, Foster not only played tenor saxophone and other woodwinds but also contributed numerous arrangements and compositions for the band, including the jazz standard “Shiny Stockings,” Down for the Count,” and “Back to the Apple.”
After Basie’s death, he returned to assume leadership of the Count Basie Orchestra from Thad Jones in 1986. He won two Grammy Awards while leading the band until 1995.
However, Cecelia Foster said he was proudest of his own big band: Frank Foster’s Loud Minority. He also played as a sideman in drummer Elvin Jones’ combo and co-led a quintet with fellow Basie veteran, saxophonist-flutist Frank Wess.
Foster also served as a musical consultant in the New York City public schools and taught at Queens College and the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Although he was partially paralyzed by a stroke in 2001, Foster’s wife said he continued composing “up until the end.”
In the NEA interview, Foster said, “I had always had as much fun writing as playing … But when you play something, if you mess up you can’t make it right. But you can write something, and if it’s not right you can change it. And I always had as much pleasure writing as playing because the thrill of hearing your music played back to you is almost indescribable.”