By Hal Smith
GEORGE 'POPS' FOSTER, bass
b. McCall, LA 5/10/92 d. San Francisco, CA 10/30/69
The career of bassist George 'Pops' Foster spanned the entire history of jazz, from pre-WWI engagements in New Orleans to an appearance at one of the first West Coast traditional jazz festivals in 1968. In New Orleans, Pops worked with some of the greatest names in New Orleans Jazz, such as Freddie Keppard, Buddy Petit, Manuel Perez, and Alphonse Picou. He played on Mississippi riverboats with orchestras led by Fate Marable and Charlie Creath. During the 1920’s, Foster worked in California with Kid Ory, Curtis Mosby and Mutt Carey, in St. Louis with Dewey Jackson, and in New Orleans with Sidney Desvignes.
After moving to New York in 1929, Foster quickly became one of the busiest bassists in town. He played and recorded with the great Luis Russell Orchestra, which included fellow New Orleanians Henry 'Red' Allen and Albert Nicholas. Russell’s ensemble performed at the Savoy Ballroom, the Roseland Ballroom, and the Saratoga Club. The orchestra made numerous recordings, and Foster and the sidemen also recorded in bands led by Red Allen, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Wilton Crawley. Foster also recorded with the Mound City Blue Blowers, alongside Pee Wee Russell, Glenn Miller, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, and Red McKenzie. He played with Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Eddie Condon, Zutty Singleton and others on two sessions by the Rhythmakers.
Louis Armstrong used Russell’s musicians, including Foster, on his famous record of “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” and the entire orchestra backed Armstrong on other classics such as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Song Of The Islands.” By 1935, Russell’s orchestra was working full-time as Armstrong’s accompanying group. They recorded many sides for Decca, and Foster’s huge tone and driving beat helped to make instant classics out of recordings like “Swing That Music.”
Foster was fired from the Russell/Armstrong orchestra in 1940. The New Orleans Revival had not yet kicked into high gear, so Pops had to scramble for work. He took a part-time job with the New York Transit System. As the interest in older styles of jazz spread across the country, however, Foster began to get more musical work, and participated in great recording sessions with bands led by James P. Johnson, Omer Simeon, Sidney Bechet, Zutty Singleton, Art Hodes, Mezz Mezzrow and others. In 1945 he worked with Bechet and Bunk Johnson in Boston, and played Rudi Blesh’s This Is Jazz broadcasts with Wild Bill Davison, Muggsy Spanier, George Brunies, Albert Nicholas, Joe Sullivan, Ralph Sutton, Danny Barker, and Baby Dodds. He played concerts, club dates, and private parties throughout the Northeast. Foster also appeared at the 1948 Nice Jazz Festival in France with a band led by Mezz Mezzrow.
After a near-fatal mugging on his front steps, Foster and wife Alma were ready to move from Harlem. In 1955, Doc Daugherty invited him to join Earl Hines’ All-Stars at Club Hangover, and the Fosters relocated to San Francisco. Foster stayed with Hines until 1961, but also participated in recording sessions with Don Ewell and Barbara Dane in his off-hours, as well as in jam sessions at Pier 23. Many Bay Area musicians remembered visiting Pops Foster's home in the '50s and '60s to enjoy the traditional New Orleans red beans and rice.
Throughout the ‘60s Foster played a variety of engagements with Muggsy Spanier, including an appearance on Ralph Gleason’s “Jazz Casual” television program. He worked with Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoon’s, and played intermissions in a trio with Darnell Howard and Elmer Snowden. Occasionally during the mid-‘60s, Foster worked with humorist/trombonist Mal Sharpe’s band at LaVal’s in Berkeley. This group also included Darnell Howard and veteran trumpeter Amos White. Sharpe, aware of Foster’s fondness for practical jokes, actually made the bassist a victim on a gag tape. The recording, which also involved Howard and White, continues to induce uncontrollable laughter even today.
In 1966, Foster took leave of the Bay Area for a tour Europe with the New Orleans All-Stars, including Hines bandmates Howard and Jimmy Archey. Back in San Francisco, he played in a band led by young clarinetist Phil Howe and also befriended younger musicians Leon Oakley and Bill Carroll. One of Foster’s last appearances was at “Dixieland Monterey” in May, 1968. There he played with the Festival All-Stars (Bob Neighbor, Mike Starr, Phil Howe, Art Nortier, Ted Shafer, and Thad Vandon) and accompanied banjoist/vocalist Clancy Hayes.
The following year, Pops Foster passed away at home. His recorded legacy is one of the greatest of all New Orleans musicians. His unique sound, fierce attack and captivating rhythm continues to inspire bassists in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.
Listen - Audio Samples from the Collection
To listen, click on an image below. When the audio player opens, click on the Play Button (arrow) in the top left corner of the screen.
- Audio 1: Elmer Snowden Trio - Intermission at Earthquake McGoon's (n.d.) Start0:26 Sister Kate; Basin Street Blues
Additional Bay Area Recordings by Pops Foster
Barbara Dane: Trouble In Mind (with P.T. Stanton, Bob Mielke, Darnell Howard, Don Ewell, Bill Young) San Francisco Records M 33014
Don Ewell: Man Here Plays Fine Piano (with Ewell, Darnell Howard, Minor Hall) Good Time Jazz CD 10043
Don Ewell: Free And Easy (with Ewell, Howard, Hall) Good Time Jazz CD 10046
Earl 'Fatha' Hines All-Stars: Live at the Black Sheep, San Francisco 1961 Acrobat ADD CD 3075 (two CD set)
Earl 'Fatha' Hines Live at the Crescendo Vol. 2 GNP-Crescendo GNPD 9054
Earl 'Fatha' Hines Featuring Muggsy Spanier: Live in San Francisco, 1957 Grammercy Jazz 388
Earl Hines All-Stars Featuring Muggsy Spanier: Live at Club Hangover, San Francisco April – May 1957 Acrobat ADD CD 3174 (two CD set)
Earl Hines/Muggsy Spanier All Stars: The Chicago Sessions Storyville STCD 6037
Note: There is duplication of material between the Hines CDs listed above. Despite the fact that GNP-Crescendo 9054 and Storyville 6037 indicate different venues, all the tracks were recorded at Club Hangover. Though the GNP CD is labeled Vol. 2, there is no Vol. 1 in existence.
Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual: Muggsy Spanier/Joe Sullivan Idem Home Video – IDVD1007
Note: Tracks 1-4 come from the television program described in the text, above. The remainder of the performances are piano solos by Joe Sullivan, from a different “Jazz Casual” program.
Stoddard, Tom: The Autobiography of Pops Foster – New Orleans Jazzman. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA., 1971
AUTHOR'S CONVERSATIONS AND CORRESPONDENCE REGARDING POPS FOSTER
Baker, Clint (musician); Byassee, Lloyd (musician); Caparone, Marc (musician); Carroll, Bill (musician); Duffy, Mike (musician); Evans, Bill (musician); Gould, Ryan (musician); Grosz, Marty (musician); Hadlock, Richard (musician); Haggart, Bob (musician); Hoag, Joshua (musician); Jazdzewski, Joe (musician); Mielke, Bob (musician); Mopsick, Don (musician); Murphy, Turk (bandleader); Oakley, Leon (musician); Perrine, Matt (musician); Simmen, Johnny (writer); Singleton, James (musician); Skjelbred, Ray (musician)