Jazz runs through his soul
December 6, 2013 1:32PM
Billy Foster | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 9, 2014 6:14AM
“Roaming through the jungle of ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats.”
— Duke Ellington
Billy Foster is a retired music teacher and a jazz pianist who has a popular radio program called The Billy Foster Jazz Zone.
Foster also beat kidney cancer and was free of the dreaded disease for 11 years. Unfortunately, it has reared its ugly head once more. Medication keeps Foster’s condition stable.
Foster, 66, lives on Gary’s west side with his wife, Renee.
“After graduating from Froebel High School, I went to college in Defiance Ohio,” he said. “I earned my bachelor’s degree in music education at Defiance College. I earned a master’s degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I also took some extra classes at New York University.”
“I started at Dunbar Elementary, and then taught at Drew Elementary School for more than 30 years.”
You grew up right next door here on Fillmore Street.
“Yes, it was beautiful here in the ‘50s.”
“Froebel was the school that Frank Sinatra came to in the 1940s.”
Sinatra was good friends with heavyweight champ Joe Louis. I believe “Old Blue Eyes” helped out “The Brown Bomber” when he was down on his luck.
“Frank Sinatra helped out a lot of people. My father went to Froebel; he was quite an athlete back in the day. He also played semi-pro baseball. Here’s a 1930 team photograph from when he played with the Gary Giants.”
Very cool. This was taken more than a decade before Jackie Robinson was allowed to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“We went down to the Negro Hall of Fame in Kansas City. Did you know Henry Aaron started out with the Indianapolis Clowns?”
As a matter of fact, I did. My mother liked the sound of his name when he was first breaking into Major League Baseball and named me after him. My middle name is Aaron. Coincidentally, “‘Hammerin’ Hank’ broke Babe Ruth’s home run record on my 17th birthday, April 8, 1974.
“Really? My wife was born April 8, 1956. The Negro Hall of Fame is right next to the Jazz Museum in Kansas City. I took both of them in the same day.”
Did you try some of that world-famous barbecue while you were down there?
“Oh, yeah. Kansas City has the best barbecue that I’ve tasted across the country. I took a photograph of Arthur Bryant’s place; there were people standing in line to get barbeque at 10 a.m.”
Bear with me, Billy. I jump all over the place with these interviews.
“That’s all right with me.”
When did you start doing your radio program?
“A few months after I retired from teaching. It’s WGVE, 88.7 F.M. I’m on every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Basically, I play CDs.”
You probably have crossed paths with my friend Mark Spencer of the West Side Theatre Guild.
“Mark is really talented. We were recently doing some advertising for him on the radio. He brought the Pacific Mambo Orchestra to Wirt High School. They’re a Latin jazz band from San Francisco. They had Tito Fuente Jr. with them.”
It’s unbelievable some of the world-class talent Spencer has booked at Gary West Side.
“We opened for Ossie Davis and Rudy Dee. Ossie and Ruby are class acts. A few years ago, we opened for Nikki Giovanni.”
One of my favorite poets. Tell me about your band.
“We’re called the Billy Foster Trio. The trio is piano, bass and drums. Renee is our vocalist. The Trio has been around since 1970.”
This is kind of lame, but who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?
“Oh, gee. That’s kind of hard. I like everybody. I guess Duke Ellington would be the person I admire the most. There are so many — Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock ...
“Jazz is an American art form. The execution of it is democratic. Each person can be an individual, but the group thing is the goal.”
I always liked Etta James. On videotape, I have her performing “I’d Rather Be a Blind Girl” with Dr. John. It’s smokin’ hot. Check it out on YouTube.
“I saw Dr. John at Milwaukee Fest. He’s very unique.”
When did you start playing piano?
“I started when I was 7. I took lessons from Granuel Whittemore. He was a great teacher.”
You also have ties to Valparaiso University.
“Yes, each year we have a jazz festival at the university. This year will be our 29th. We have what we call the VU Faculty Jazz Trio. We invite an artist to play with us.”
Who are the other two musicians?
“Bruce Evans and Jeff Brown. We perform extensively throughout the Midwest. I’ve taught jazz piano at Valpo since 1980.”
Billy, I must say, between V.U., giving private lessons out of your home, and your radio gig, you stay quite busy in “retirement.”
On April 9, 2014, at Valparaiso University, Billy Foster will do a retrospective concert consisting of the music he has written since the 1970s.