For more than 40 years, Frank Foster's career has been intertwined with that of the Count Basie Orchestra.
The saxophonist-composer joined the Count's ensemble in 1953, wrote one of its trademark numbers, "Shiny Stockings," and played lead tenor well into the '60s. After Basie's death, Foster took charge of the band in 1986, a post he continues to hold.
Foster, now 66, also has a career outside the Count's shadow. He was a central figure in drummer Elvin Jones' bands of the late '60s. He has also led his own combos, sometimes in tandem with fellow saxophonist Frank Wess. And Foster's own big band, the Loud Minority, was one of the most brash, most invigorating large ensembles of the last 30 years, providing sounds quite different from those the Basie band is famous for.
Foster essentially put aside that solo career, and the work of the Loud Minority, when he became the director of the Basie band. The Loud Minority has played one gig in the last several years, a private function in June in New York. Foster took advantage of the Basie group's vacation early in December to travel to Germany, where he led an orchestra in tribute to trumpeter Thad Jones.
"I get the odd guest shot here and there, the one-night thing," Foster said in a phone conversation earlier this week from his home in New York City. "With only three or four days off at a time, that's about all I can do."
Foster explained that giving up his solo career was a major consideration when he was asked to lead the Basie band. But economics were an even bigger factor.
"What weighed in the most was the fact that, with the Basie band, I would be working regularly. I'd be able to write music without worrying that I would be paid for it. I thought, 'I can put all the other things on hold. This won't last forever.' At the time, I didn't realize that I would be here 8 1/2 years."
But, as the song says, everything must change. Foster is now considering leaving the Basie orchestra behind.
"When I first joined the band, I made a public statement that I would be content doing this the rest of my career. . . . I really don't plan to be on the road that much longer. The travel is really getting to be a hassle: too much flying, too much running through airports, too much time away from home.
"I'll probably call it quits in a couple of years. I don't have a deadline, but I just can't run like I used to."
Foster says that the band itself is not part of the problem.
"I love performing with that band and writing for our excellent musicians," he said. "A lot of people have told me the band is tighter than ever, tighter than when Basie himself led it. Now, I wouldn't boast, but the band is tight."
The other issue behind his change of heart is what Foster calls "the raging battle between the traditionalists and those looking for something new. . . .
"There are two schools of thought in our audiences (and) among the writers and reviewers who critique our performances. One is the die-hard traditionalists. After you play 'April in Paris,' 'Shiny Stockings,' 'Moten Swing,' 'Corner Pocket,' they're satisfied. That's all they want to hear.
"But that's not the way I do things. In every program, I try to mix the old with the new, play something old, then play a new arrangement, and try to feature everybody in the band. . . .
"The old school says they're tired of hearing the new stuff. . . . They don't understand that musicians have to be constantly challenged or you lose them. And we need that youthful energy in order to keep the band on top. Obviously, I'm on the side of those who like newer things."
On the other hand, Foster said, he feels a strong sense of responsibility to the late bandleader whose orchestra he fronts.
"There's a strong sense of carrying on the tradition, doing something to cause the old man to smile," Foster said.
When he eventually does leave the orchestra, Foster has plans. He's developing a home publishing business for his music, but progress has been slow because of all the travel with the Basie band. And he'll be leading his own band.
As he puts it, "The Loud Minority will rise again."
"I'll always be about one thing. I'm a big-band fanatic. The Basie band is about total swing with a bluesy concept. Its key is its simplicity. The Loud Minority is more experimental; it has more of a modern idea of what a big-band presentation will be.
"It works more with orchestral color and texture. It has a little teaser of the avant-garde, but except for some collective improvisations, it never goes totally in that direction. I like to swing too well."