Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Foster, Pops (George Murphy)

Bassist George Foster's powerful sense of rhythm and resonant tone rang out with authority across early jazz, earning him universal respect amongst younger musicians, such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who called him "Pops." His musicianship is remarkable in light of the fact that he taught himself to play on an instrument he made out of a flour barrel, a two-by-four, and two pieces of twine.

Pops Foster

Unfamiliar with the traditional approach to the instrument, Foster was innately aware that the stronger he held down a string with his left hand, the better and more powerful the sound he could create, so he developed unorthodox playing techniques and a variety of hand positions akin to death grips. These innovations and the beautiful tone they produced made Foster a favorite sideman of, among others Louis Armstrong, saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianist Earl Hines.

George Murphy Foster was born May 19th, 1892 on the McCall Plantation in Louisiana, about 60 miles outside of New Orleans. Born into a musical family, Foster began playing bass at an early age and by 1899 was a regular member of a family string band, which played at dances at the plantation and surrounding towns.

New Orleans was a booming, international city of 300,000 people at the time, and the Foster family in moved there in 1902, a dramatic shift from the rural, sharecropping environment the boy called home for the first ten years of his life. He attended an elementary school program at New Orleans University until the fifth grade, and held down a few odd jobs before becoming a professional musician in 1908. By this time he had acquired a proper bass, and for the next nine years Foster gigged around the New Orleans scene, playing lawn parties, fish fries, funerals, and Storyville gigs with the likes of trombonist Kid Ory, cornetists Joe “King” Oliver, Freddie Keppard and John Robichaux. In these formative years, Foster was expected to play all of the diverse styles of music that were popular in New Orleans at the time, which later combined into the music we now call jazz.

Foster landed his first steady employment with Fate Marable’s riverboat groups in 1917, aboard the SS Belle of the Bend and later on the SS Capitol. In 1919 Foster was joined in Marable’s group by clarinetist Johnny Dodds and his brother, drummer Baby Dodds, clarinetist Johnny St. Cyr and an eighteen-year-old cornet player named Louis Armstrong. Foster forged and maintained a warm relationship with Armstrong for the better part of his career.

By 1922, Foster was a cross-country traveling performer, heading first to Los Angeles to play with Kid Ory. In 1924, Foster landed in St. Louis, where he made his first recordings with Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs for OKeh records. In all, Pops Foster appeared on fifteen sides recorded by Okeh between December 1924 and March 1925. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of recording technology in the era, Foster’s playing is not well represented on these records.

Foster’s next big move would be to New York with Luis Russell and his Orchestra, an affiliation he would maintain for the next eleven years. One of the top big bands of the time, the Russell Orchestra featured trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham among others. Russell had telegrammed Foster requesting his services; on February 11, 1929, the bassist agreed, and made the move north.

During his tenure in Russell's band, Foster also gigged and rehearsed with Duke Ellington, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Foster also recorded often during this period, including sessions with Morton, Waller and Armstrong.

Among the sides Foster recorded around this time include the 1929 Armstrong version of “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” which Foster regarded as his personal favorite recording, and a raucous version of “It Should Be You” with Henry “Red” Allen. Foster even briefly returned to his string band roots during this time, playing a radio show with guitarists Joe McDonough, Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti.

Armstrong, meanwhile, by 1935 was searching for a quality orchestra to back him up, after weathering a series of subpar supporting bands. He and his manager, Joe Glaser, made offers to several established groups around New York before coming to terms with Luis Russell. The Russell Orchestra then became Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra, but Russell's lineup remained intact.

This renewed assoication with the popular Armstrong may have seemed fortuitous for Foster, as it was the height of the Great Depression, and steady work was hard to come by. But Armstrong's band was only paid during engagements; Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, by comparison, was paid a weekly salary year round. During the band's long periods of “loafing,” as Foster called them, he took to gambling and drinking, issues which plagued him for more than a decade.

In 1940, Joe Glaser fired the entire Armstrong Orchestra and replaced its members with cheaper, younger musicians, and Foster found himself out of a job. For the next five or so years, Foster worked erratically and sunk deeper into drinking. But the latter half of the decade proved more productive, highlighted by a stint supporting Sidney Bechet, a successful European tour with Mezz Mezzrow, and a regular radio appearance on the show This is Jazz.

Earl Hines entered Foster’s life in 1955, when the piano man asked the bass player to join his group at Club Hangover in San Francisco. Foster stayed with Hines for the next five years called San Francisco home until his death on October 29, 1969. In addition to his work with Hines, Foster worked consistently with a number of small groups and pick-up bands, primarily in the traditional, New Orleans style, though he did at one time perform with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and he toured Europe in 1966 with the New Orleans All-Stars.

In 1971, "The Autobiography of Pops Foster" was published, which was in fact an "as told to" memoir co-written by Tom Stoddard, based on more than seventy hours of interviews he did at the bassist's home over the last two years of his life. While the memoir reveals minor inconsistencies in Foster's memory – in a few cases, it contains slightly differing accounts of the same event – it remains one of the few eyewitness accounts of the early days of New Orleans jazz, and is thus both and engaging read and an invaluable tool to researchers.

Pops Foster was almost without peers in the early days of jazz. Only Wellman Braud and Bill Johnson could hold a candle to the power and drive with which he played. Hugues Panassié, the noted French author and critic praised Foster “for his extraordinary power and attack.” Former Down Beat magazine editor and jazz historian Dan Morgenstern considers Foster the greatest of the first generation of jazz bass players. Foster laid the foundation for the big bass sounds of generations to follow, and through his work, ensured that the bass would always be at heart of the jazz beat.

Select Discography

with Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs

Jazz in St. Louis (Timeless)

with Henry “Red” Allen

1929-1933 (Jazz Chronological Classics)

with Luis Russell

1930-1934 (Melodie Jazz Classic)

with Louis Armstrong

1929-1940 (ASV Living Era)

with Art Hodes

George “Pops” Foster with Art Hodes (American Music)

Contributor: Sean Lorre