Born: May 18, 1892 | Died: October 30, 1969 Primary Instrument: Bass, acoustic
George Foster, popularly known as Pops Foster, was a jazz musician for more than 70 years. Foster played both tuba and string bass, but is recognized for solidifying the predominance of string bass in jazz music.Foster was known for his musical imagination and his unique bass slapping technique, which was later copied by other popular musicians. Foster performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz musical history, and had one of the longest and most prolific careers of the jazz musicians of his era.
George Murphy Foster was born on May 19, 1892, on a plantation in Louisiana. Music was a central part of Foster's childhood. When George Foster was seven years old he began playing in a family band. The Fosters played at dances around the plantation. After school they would all do their homework and then practice music.
In 1902 the family moved to New Orleans. New Orleans was filled with music when ten-year-old George Foster arrived. Foster continued to play in local bands and develop his skills. He went to school at New Orleans University, but did not do well academically because he focused all of his attention on music. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade to take his first professional job with the Munson People at Audubon Place, performing at lawn parties and fish fries. In 1906 he became a regular for the Rozelle Band, which was founded by his brother, Willie. It was Willie who bought the young George his first real bass instrument.
Around the time Foster started playing bass professionally, jazz music was just starting to develop. In 1908 the Rozelle Band broke up and Foster joined the Magnolia Band, started by Louis Keppard. Shortly thereafter Joe Oliver, who would become a legendary jazz trumpet player, joined the band. The Magnolia Band performed regularly in the District, the area of the French Quarter of New Orleans. From 1910 until 1914 Foster worked as a freelance bass player in the District. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, the District was closed down and many musicians left the city or worked for the war effort. Foster took a job in an iron foundry.
For the next few years, Foster played with some of New Orleans' finest musicians, including Frankie Dusen, Kid Ory, and Freddie Keppard. Aside from playing in clubs, Foster also played on passenger boats and train trips. He played regularly at lawn parties, country dances, and funerals, which was typical for New Orleans musicians at that time. When the District closed, many New Orleans jazzmen moved to Chicago or California to continue their careers. Foster stayed in New Orleans and worked on the riverboats. In 1917 he began working for the Fate Marable Jazz Syncopators on the S.S. Belle of the Bend. Musicians lived and played on the boats for weeks or months at a time, making possible the spread of New Orleans jazz music to other cities in the country. Although Foster is best known as a string bassist, he also played tuba. He bought his first tuba in 1921 when he joined the Eddie Allen band on one of the riverboat tours.
It was common for jazz musicians at this time to change bands frequently and to travel extensively. In 1922 Foster decided to move to California to join Kid Ory's band, and a year later he left California to play with Charley Creath in St. Louis. During this time Foster recorded several records for the OKeh Company. In 1925 Foster returned to the riverboats with Dewey Jackson's band, and then returned to New Orleans to work with Sidney Desvignes. In 1927 he returned to Los Angeles to work for Papa Mutt, who had taken over Kid Ory's band and renamed it the Liberty Syncopators. In 1928 Foster toured the country with the Elks Brass Band, playing tuba. A year later he returned to St. Louis to play with Dewey Jackson.
In 1929 Foster was invited to move to New York to play with the Luis Russell Orchestra. He stopped playing tuba and began to concentrate solely on playing the string bass. Foster developed a unique slapping technique for the bass that not only solidified his place in jazz history, but also highlighted the importance of the bass in jazz music.. The Great Depression of the 1930s made it difficult for many nightclubs in New York and other American cities to survive, and many musicians struggled during this period. Foster, however, had earned a strong reputation by this time and he was able to continue playing for numerous bands.
In 1935 the Luis Russell Orchestra teamed up with Louis Armstrong, one of the most popular jazz musicians of that time. I got my nickname from Louis Armstrong, Foster recalled in Pops Foster. He calls everyone 'Pops.' The name just stuck on me. Foster stayed with Armstrong until 1940, when Armstrong's manager, Joe Glaser, fired the entire band and replaced them with less-well-paid players. Foster hit hard times after being fired from Armstrong's orchestra. He was hampered by health and financial problems. From 1942 to 1945 he took a job as a porter to make ends meet, though he played occasional gigs in New York and Canada. He also appeared on the This Is Jazz show with Rudi Blesh. In 1948 Foster traveled to Europe with Mezz Mezzrow.
Foster's luck changed after World War II, when he played for various bands in New York and on the East Coast, including the Sidney Bechet Band. In 1944 he even formed the Pops Foster Band for a brief period. In 1955 Foster moved to San Francisco, where he worked with the Earl Hines Club Hangover Orchestra for five years. From 1960 until his death, Foster continued to play with pickup bands for special concerts and one-night gigs. He died on October 30, 1969, in San Francisco.
Foster's prolific career as a jazz musician spanned 70 years. He is featured on many of the earliest jazz recordings and he played with most of the leading figures of the jazz era, such as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. Foster created a new sound with his unique style of playing the string bass, and he established that instrument as an essential element of jazz music.
Source: Janet P. Stamatel