Recorded Telephone Interview of Frank Foster - Alumnus of the Basie Band
Date: July 6, 2006
Saxophonist Frank Foster played with the Count Basie Orchestra for twelve years. During the majority of his tenure with the band, Freddie Green was performing in the band until his sudden death on March 1, 1987 in Las Vegas.
In addition to his outstanding woodwind skills, Mr. Foster is a composer and arranger. He provided compositions and arrangements for the Basie band such as "Blues Backstage," "Down for the Count," "Blues in Hoss' Flat", and his most popular work, "Shiny Stockings." He has written music for recordings by singers Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and a work for jazz orchestra, the 1980 Winter Olympics' "Lake Placid Suite." Mr. Foster has taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and at Queens College. In 1983 he received an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater, Central State University. Mr. Foster was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2002 and a member of the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame in 2006.
Many thanks to Frank Foster, a jazz legend, for sharing his memories of Freddie. His concluding thoughts about Freddie: "Long live Pepperhead! Long live Mr. Rhythm!"
Note: The text below is an edited version of the recorded interview.
Freddie The Musician
When playing in the Basie band, I could always feel Freddie even if I didn't hear him. Whenever the pulse seemed to be faster than the tempo, that meant that the tempo was slowing down and Freddie was trying to bring the tempo back up to where it should be. When the tempo would start to drag, we would hear Freddie strum harder on the guitar, trying to bring the drummer back to tempo. Freddie would always play harder with Sonny Payne because Sonny's tempos were not always solid like Freddie wanted. He was rightly called "Mr. Rhythm."
Basie had to twist Freddie's arm to get him to ever play a solo. He was very unusual. Most guys want to solo and will quit the band if they don't get a chance to solo much. Freddie was the exact opposite. He knew what his job was; he zeroed in on his job and that's what he did. Once a lady was watching Freddie play. Because he looked so serious she said to him "Why don't you smile?" And he says "Smile for what? I'm working."
Freddie once asked me for some voicing tips for his song "Corner Pocket." So I gave his some tips about four-part harmony and I gave him a book called First Arrangement written by Van Alexander. Now Ernie Wilkins did the Basie arrangement of "Corner Pocket", but Freddie was interested in learning about arranging. He just wanted to get a few tips. Freddie might have been thinking about arranging the tune but once he got Ernie to write the chart, he probably thought "Maybe I won't bother about it." A few months later, Freddie looked at me with an approving smile and said "First Arrangement, baby!" That meant the book was right on target. I had already been through the book and that's why I laid it on Freddie.
"What you say last night 'bout Freddie Green?" The band used to sing that at the beginning of "Cute." I don't know how it started but Thad Jones probably started it...he started a whole lot of stuff like that. I don't recall a punch line. There was just the question "What you say last night 'bout Freddie Green?". And there was another thing we would sing to the same rhythm as the Freddie Green thing: "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9........1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9........Give me some of yours and I'll give you some of mine."
A whole lot of people asked Freddie to record with them. I wouldn't be surprised if he was the most recorded guitarist in jazz
Freddie the Comedian
Freddie was hilarious when he imitated other people, like the way they talked and walked. He would have us on the floor whenever he imitated someone. He would imitate our band valet, Carl Caruthers, who had a hard time saying the word "immediately." But you know Freddie was never mean-spirited. We'd be playing and someone unique would walk by the bandstand. Freddie would immediately make up a name for that person and tell it to the band. I can't remember an example now, but the made-up name would be totally hilarious because of Freddie's style and mannerisms.
Freddie The Disciplinarian
If someone in the the band was acting silly, all Freddie had to do was look back at him and say "Act your age!" If you were acting wrong and got the Freddie Green look, you knew that you had better straighten up.
Freddie said little, but when he spoke we all listened. Freddie would even straighten out Basie when Basie got out of line. He did that privately, but we all knew when Freddie was telling Basie how it was.
Freddie the Quiet Man
In June 1986 when I became the director of the Basie band, Freddie said to me: "It's in your hands now." I conducted the Basie band until 1995.
Freddie was a no-nonsense fellow. If ever there was an elder statesman for the Basie band, it was Freddie.
We all admired Freddie for his devotion to the job and his straightforwardness. Benny Powell (trombone) said, "Freddie Green, you're such a good cat that you ought to start a school for good people."
My first wife I married in 1954 and we didn't have any kids until 1957 when my son Anthony was born. Shortly thereafter, she was pregnant again with my son Donald who was born in 1959. When she was starting to show with Donald, Freddie walked up to her and said "You gone again?" That's all he said.
Freddie was never gung-ho about doing interviews. He kept his thoughts and feelings to himself. The only time I ever saw Freddie overcome with emotion in public was at the funeral of his wife, Bernice. When her casket was lowered, I saw Freddie grab his forehead; he was crying and grief-stricken.
Memories of The Basie Band
Neal Hefti wrote "Li'l Darlin'" as a medium up tempo tune. It was Basie that said to take it at a much slower tempo. Basie sat in the corner reading the (horse) racing form or something, listening to the band, and said "No, no, let's take it about here..." (Mr. Foster then sings "Li'l Darlin'" at the slow tempo.) And the rest is history, including Freddie's guitar arpeggio at the beginning.
We didn't use the music at all, we had most of the charts memorized. I never saw a chart in the Basie book for "Jumpin' At The Woodside." Ernie Wilkins wrote eventually wrote a chart for "Moten Swing." I used to play without hardly looking at the music unless we played something new. And Marshal Royal went one step further - he would have a copy of "Jet" magazine on his stand. I kid you not. He'd be reading "Jet" while the band was playing. The other band members would be looking out at the people and there's Marshal intently looking at his music stand...not the music but his copy of "Jet." I recall hearing a lady say, "He is so intent on his music." That just broke me up!
Freddie passed in March 1987. The band was booked in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand with Tony Bennett. One night, I saw Kenny Hing (saxophone) walking around with a dazed look on his face. I asked him what was wrong and he said "Freddie didn't make it." That's when I knew that something had happened. Freddie was OK up until he had the stroke. But the Vegas booking wasn't canceled. When it came time for the band to play for the first time after Freddie was gone, Bill Hughes (trombone) put Freddie's guitar on Freddie's chair, then put a rose on top of the guitar. I made an announcement to the audience about Freddie but could barely talk as my eyes were filled with tears.
At Count Basie's funeral, I remember Freddie saying, "Now that's he gone, I don't know what I'm going to do." And that's what I said at Freddie's funeral. I said, "When Basie died, Freddie Green said 'Now that's he gone, I don't know what I'm going to do'. Now that Freddie Green is gone, I don't know what I'm going to do."
Filling Freddie's Guitar Chair
I was directing the band before and after Freddie's death in 1987. We had a string of new guitarists: Paul Weeden, Jerry Eastman, and then Charleton Johnson. You know, these new guitarists wanted to use an amplifier and that was not the Basie sound. Most players got into the Basie band on recommendation instead of an audition. I had known Paul Weeden from before and I knew that he could play so I recommended him. Paul Weeden had moved to Norway though he was originally from Columbus, Ohio. Paul had a good attitude and he wanted to play the music. He came in with the exact opposite mannerisms of Freddie. He was always grinning and smiling. Some of the band members didn't like that because he was too much unlike Freddie Green. Eventually we settled on Charleton who did a good job; I was happy with his playing. But there was only one Freddie Green, let's face it man.