Herman Foster

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Late in 1961 the pop-jazz singer Gloria Lynne was booked into one of New York City’s top jazz supper clubs, Basin Street East, on Manhattan’s East 48th Street, where she was to record her first live album.  The emcee announced, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Basin Street East proudly presents a young artist who was introduced nationally on the Ed Sullivan and Harry Belafonte shows—Everest recording star, Miss Gloria Lynne.”

Lynne was 30 years old, had won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theater in the 1950’s, and had sung with several vocal groups before beginning a solo career.  She was blessed with a clear, powerful voice of equal parts high tradition and soul, as well as good looks and considerable presence.  She had already recorded several well-regarded LPs for Everest Records backed by first-rate jazz musicians and would continue to work with top sidemen and such talented arrangers as Marty Paich and Ernie Wilkins.  For the Basin Street East engagement, she had her working trio of Herman Foster on piano, Earl May on bass, and the Pittsburgh drummer Grassella Oliphant, who doubled as her manager, augmented by top-notch jazz guests Kenny Burrell on guitar and Ray Barretto on conga.  Foster, an ingeniously unorthodox pianist and accompanist, and superb backer of singers, also served as her musical director and arranger.

In 1962, Lynne recorded a second live album, Live at the Las Vegas Thunderbird, with Foster again leading her trio; Leroy Vinnegar was on bass, and Mel Lewis on drums.  The two LPs, available today as a set on the Collectables Jazz Classics label, demonstrate Foster’s philosophy of learning the lyrics to every song he could so he could “paint pretty pictures around the words and make the soloists sound their best.”  Lynne’s two albums with Foster were collections of standards and show tunes, among them the 1940 Rogers and Hart classic “It Never Entered My Mind”; Bart Howard’s popular 1945 composition “Fly Me to the Moon”; Frank Loesser’s inspirational “I Believe in You”; two tunes with evocative Johnny Mercer lyrics, “Drinking Again” and “Autumn Leaves”; the 1950 standard “End of a Love Affair”; “And This Is My Beloved” (from the 1953 Broadway show Kismet); the Gershwin classic “I Got Rhythm”; and a trio of Jimmy Van Heusen compositions—“But Beautiful,” “Sunday, Monday and Always,” and “The Second Time Around.”

Foster, who died in April 1999 of a stroke three weeks short of his 71st birthday, was a native of Philadelphia, blind from early childhood, self-taught, and a classic example of a first-rate piano accompanist.  His talent for intricate harmonic backing could be sensed as well as heard and, on record, sometimes needed to be heard more than once to be appreciated fully.  Better known today for some dozen albums he recorded with star alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson (a close friend and colleague for nearly 50 years) in the late 1950’s, 60’s, and 80’s, Foster worked and recorded with Gloria Lynne between 1961 and 1963, recorded with vocalists Joan Shaw and Jean DuShon in 1964 and Johnny Hartman in 1972, and, when not working with Donaldson, played mostly in New York City in duos and trios of his own in such venues as The Terrace Bar at The Village Gate, Jimmy Weston’s, Clifford’s Lounge, La Maganette, and Rust Brown’s, and also in Westchester County and out on the Holiday Inn circuit.  He accompanied a number of other singers in New York, including Claudia Moore, Sharon Fisher, and Kitty Laren in the 1970’s, 80’s, and early 90’s.  He also recorded four albums of his own, including Have You Heard in 1960, in 1961, and Ready and Willing in 1963.

In his solo work, influenced by Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson, he played in a bebop style, arms straight out in front of him, jagged, hard-edged, single-note lines that segued into entire choruses of punchy block chords and rumbling tremolos, and created an atmosphere of excitement and urgency, an attempt somehow at approaching the full sound of the tenor saxophone he had played as a youngster.  His many recorded solos through the years behind Donaldson on such tunes as “Candy,” “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” “You’ll Never Know,” “Skylark,” “Autumn Nocturne,” “If I Should Lose You,” “Dorothy,” “Cole Slaw,” and his own composition “Herman’s Mambo” show his talent for harmonic inventiveness even within the one- or two-chorus solo limits of the standard LP.  Donaldson once said that Foster “knows just about every tune and lyric in the world, and he can set up good harmonics behind the solos, great chord patterns with good force to them.”

His ability to paint those pretty little pictures around the words of vocalists made him even more special.  Although a full-chording player, his introductions and comping on ballads often demonstrated a surprising delicacy, and his versatility was obvious on Gloria Lynne’s live Basin Street and Thunderbird albums; the exuberant, shimmering chords and fluttering background tremolos on “And This Is My Beloved,” “So This Is Love,” and “Tall Hope”; the driving, pumping chords building tension on “End of a Love Affair,” “I Believe in You,” and “This Could Be the Start of Something Big”; the tinkling blues backing of “I Got Rhythm”; and the more introspective backings on “It Never Entered My Mind,” “Autumn Leaves” (along with three changes of tempo), “Drinking Again,” “But Beautiful,” and “The Second Time Around.”

Vocalist Irene Reid, who never worked with Foster and during her career preferred to work with organists, once said that “some organists can work with singers, and some can’t, and some could but don’t want to.”  The same might be said of pianists, relating to the wish of many musicians to make their marks as soloists rather than remain in the background, and yet many pianists have been ill suited technically to the more subtle role of catering to the needs of a vocalist.  Foster, along with Jimmy Rowles (heard most prominently with Billie Holiday and then Ella Fitzgerald), Gildo Mahones (with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Lou Rawls, and Lorez Alexandria), Tommy Flanagan (with Fitzgerald from 1963 to 1965 and again from 1968 to 1978), Kirk Stuart (with Sarah Vaughan and Della Reese), Jimmy Jones (with Sarah Vaughan, Harry Belafonte, Dakota Staton, and others), and Bobby Tucker (with Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine), have been a few of those with the technical know-how and modesty to know the difference.

Later in life Foster, a genial, chipper man, commented that “I haven’t gotten to be a big star in this business yet, and I don’t understand why, but I’ve had a ball,” and suggested that “I probably should have done more to exploit the exposure I got with Gloria Lynne.”  He was pleased with his fine reputation as a musicians’ musician and was always happy to chat about music between sets over his usual Wild Turkey and ginger ale with friends and fans and bystanders, and would show his enthusiasm for his surroundings with sudden comments about clubs such as, “Oh, that was a beautiful place, man!”  He kept himself in shape on an exercise bike in his apartment on Manhattan’s West 69th Street, was never late, and, as he once put it, “As soon as I hit the door, I’m ready to go.”

Sharon Fisher, a New York native who still appears in the city and who sang with Foster for nearly two decades (from around 1976) and remained a close friend, said recently that “singing with Herman was like singing with a whole orchestra.  He played so full and put so much heart into his music, and he was different because he led you where you wanted to go and let you stretch out.  Some pianists sort of trap you inside.  He always told me to ‘stay pretty’ and not get into the blues.  He liked ballads a lot, things like ‘Shadow of Your Smile’ and ‘What are You Doing For the Rest of Your Life’ and ‘But Beautiful.’  He critiqued me a lot and helped me train my voice.  He kind of spoiled you.  Working with Herman was like a love affair.”

Foster was a modest man but, reminded that he had attained something of a cult status with jazz fans, would burst into laughter and answer, “Evidently so.”  Fellow musicians referred to him as “the dean of accompanists.”  His fourth and final album under his own name, The One and Only, was recorded in Holland in 1984, a trio session with Jeff Fuller on bass and Victor Jones on drums, and showcased standards like “Over the Rainbow,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”  As with all his work, what was obvious again was that, like the title of the album, there was a lot of the “one and only” to Herman Foster.

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