January 28. 2007
Jazzman uses stages, schools and radio to teach
Tribune Staff Writer -- Howard Dukes
The title music educator fits Billy Foster very well. Foster, who will sit in with Stephen and Mary Merriman on Wednesday at the Century Center for the latest installment of the Merrimans' Playhouse Jazz Performance Series, spent 35 years teaching music to elementary school students in Gary. Although he recently retired from that job, he continues to teach as a jazz piano instructor at Valparaiso University -- a post he has held since 1979.
Foster also tours with his own band, The Billy Foster Trio, and plays with a jazz ensemble at the university. He hasn't, however, left younger students behind -- he often plays at schools, which allows Foster to bring jazz to young people. Those visits to schools gave Foster an education of his own. Children enjoy jazz music when they are exposed to it, but their exposure is limited because jazz is hard to find on the radio and performers are rarely seen on television.
That might explain Foster's decision to start hosting a jazz show. Since 2005, Foster has been the host of "The Billy Foster Jazz Zone" on the Gary-based radio station WGVE-FM (88.7). Foster says there are a lot of people who don't know much about the music because of its limited presence on the airwaves. That's where disc jockey and educator merge on Foster's program. A show such as "The Billy Foster Jazz Zone" is a way for people new to the music to learn about jazz, but Foster also sees the show as a way to quench the jazz lover's ever-growing thirst for knowledge. "One of my pet peeves about a lot of jazz shows is how they never tell you who is playing," he says. "You don't know who the sidemen are." Foster says jazz lovers want to know all of the players and not just the band leaders. Those sidemen are great players in their own right, Foster says. Many of them lead their own bands, and jazz fans would buy their CDs if they only knew their names.
Foster is the perfect example of that: He'll be a sideman Wednesday with the Merrimans, but Foster's also a band leader whose latest recording, "Portrait," came out in 2005.
The story of how Foster got the Merrimans' Playhouse gig has a familiar ring to it. He'd met Mary Merriman several years back. The Merrimans ended up attending some of Foster's concerts at Valparaiso, and that eventually led to them inviting Foster to join them Wednesday at Century Center as the one-night-only third member of the Merrimans' trio.
Foster likes small combo jazz, and is especially fond of the Miles Davis band that featured sax player Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams. "I liked the way those guys listened and played off one another," he says. "In that band, it seemed that whatever direction a soloist went, the rest of the band was able to follow."
That takes a level of sophistication that Stephen Merriman believes Foster possesses. Beyond Foster's technical skills, the pianist's disposition also makes him attractive to the Merrimans. "He's very approachable," Stephen Merriman says. "He knows his stuff and he's nice. That's a good combination."
Staff writer Howard Dukes: