Foster, George “Pops” 1892–1969
George “Pops” Foster 1892–1969
George Foster, popularly known as “Pops” Foster, was a jazz musician for more than 70 years. Born on a Louisiana plantation and raised in New Orleans at the turn of the century, Foster was inspired by the musical culture of that legendary city. He started playing instruments as a young child and dedicated his entire life to music. Foster played both tuba and string bass, but is best known for solidifying the predominance of string bass in the jazz music orchestra. 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, popularly known as “Pops” Foster, was born on May 19, 1892, on Harry McCall’s plantation in Louisiana. His father, Charley Foster, worked as a butler for the McCalls. His mother, Annie Foster, knitted and sewed for other people in order to earn extra income. George was the second of three children born to the Fosters, who lived in a two-room house on the McCall plantation about a block from the main house.
Music was a central part of Foster’s childhood. His mother’s side of the family was musically inclined and Foster’s cousins played piano, clarinet, trumpet, and drums. Foster’s older brother, Willie, was the first in his family to show an interest in music. He built a home made bass using a two-by-four, a flour barrel, and twine, and taught his younger brother how to play it. Eventually Willie Foster was hired by his uncle, Wyatt Foster, to play cello in a local band. When George Foster was seven years old he began playing in the band as well. When his younger sister, Elizabeth, learned to play guitar, violin, and bass, Charley Foster formed a band featuring his three children. The Fosters played at dances around the plantation. The children attended a Catholic school in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. After school they would all do their homework and then practice music.
In 1900 Willie Foster moved to New Orleans to work for Harry McCall’s son. Two years later Annie Foster and her two other children joined her oldest son in order to escape Charley Foster’s drinking problem. The elder Foster eventually moved to New Orleans when Harry McCall sold his plantation and relocated to the city, although he did not return to live with his wife and children.
New Orleans was filled with music when ten-year-old George Foster arrived. Ross Russell, one of the contributors to Foster’s autobiography, Pops Foster: Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman, explained: “An influx of peoples from other countries served to add new colors, rhythms, and melodies to New Orleans musical style, which became progressively demotic and varied, less formalized, subject to change and experiment.” He added, “New Orleans was one of the great
At a Glance…
Born George Murphy Foster on May 19, 1892, in McCall, LA; died on October 30, 1969, in San Francisco; son of Charley and Annie Foster; married Bertha in 1912 (divorced, 1922); married Annie Alba in 1936.
Career: Jazz bassist, performer, and recording artist, 1905-69.
melting pots of music history.” 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 frys. 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. “When people ask me about who started jazz I tell them I give the guys in New Orleans the credit for playing it, but the ragtime composer most credit for writing the music,” Foster stated in his autobiography. “Ragtime music is different from other music because it’s a happier kick, and Dixieland is an even happier kick than ragtime. … What’s called jazz today was called ragtime back then, and the blues back then was called honky-tonk music,” Foster added.
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 that catered to nightclubs, gambling, and prostitution. The band earned $9 a week, although most band members also had day jobs to help support themselves. Foster worked as a longshoreman and a driver for cotton or coal wagons. 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. It was at a lawn party that Foster met his first wife, Bertha. They were married in 1912 and separated about ten years later.
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. According to Russell in Pops Foster, the slapping technique, “whereby the fretboard was struck simultaneously with the strings, creating a strong tone with great carrying power … was just the effect needed to install the contrabass once and for all as a respected member of the large orchestra rhythm section.”
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 1931 Foster met his second wife, Annie Alma. They married in 1936 and stayed together for the rest of his life.
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, after suffering from a weak heart, blood clots, and a stomach tumor.
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. “The love of music and quest for knowledge permeated his entire life,” wrote Bertram Turetzky in the introduction to Foster’s autobiography. “This is one of the reasons why he outswung and outlived many of his contemporaries.”
Charles Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs, OKeh Records, 1924.
Charles Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs, OKeh Records, 1925.
Dewey Jackson’s Peacock Orchestra, Vocalion Records, 1926.
Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, OKeh Records, 1929.
Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers, Victor Records, 1929.
Luis Russell and His Orchestra, OKeh Records, 1930.
Mezz Mezzrow and His Orchestra, Brunswick Records, 1933.
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Decca Records, 1935.
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Decca Records, 1936.
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Decca Records, 1937.
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Decca Records, 1938.
Jimmy Johnson and His Orchestra, Columbia Broadcasting System, 1939.
Sidney Bechet’s Blue Note Quartet, Banner Records, 1940.
(With Tom Stoddard and Ross Russell) Pops Foster: The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman, University of California Press, 1971.
Almanac of Famous People, 6th edition, Gale, 1998.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street, Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1970.
Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982.
Foster, George, with Tom Stoddard and Ross Russell, Pops Foster: The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman, University of California Press, 1971.
Hodeir, André, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, Grove Press, 1980.
Kernfeld, Barry (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc., 2002.
Kinkle, Roger D., The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950, Arlington House Publishers, 1974.
“George Foster,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 21, 2003).
“George Murphy ‘Pops’ Foster,” Jazz Bass in the U.S.A., www.surfingpharaoh.com/music_ed/usabass/index.html (March 21, 2003).
“George ‘Pops’ Foster,” Red Hot Jazz Archive, www.redhotjazz.com/foster.html (March 21, 2003).
“Slap That Bass!” Wavelength, www.geocities.com/infrogmation/bass.html (March 21, 2003).
—Janet P. Stamatel
"Foster, George “Pops” 1892–1969." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/foster-george-pops-1892-1969
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