Fred Foss probably won’t get a birthday tribute on radio as do many other jazz musicians. But he deserves a tribute from us. See, Freddy, as we called him, was from the block in Corona, Queens. He always seemed to say something you could use and by some accounts was the best lefthanded stickball player in history. He was introduced to the music through a record collection held by a friend’s father. I didn’t know that side of him back then. He told me the story after we reconnected after being out of touch for decades. Happens that way in the neighborhood. You note deaths and keep tabs on some who move. Others seem to just exit, mysteries until they show up on the tongue of one of those degrees of separation.
Of course, Freddy, speaking on the phone from Washington, DC, told me much more. While still a teenager, he had some trouble with drugs and the law and ended up in the rehab center up on Edgecombe Avenue in Manhattan. He was given the choice of participating in the GED program or the music program. Because he was already a high school graduate, he chose music. The first time he went in the room among the various instruments, he stayed for hours.
Multi-instrumentalist René McLean worked at the center and began instructing Freddy on saxophone. Amazed at his rapid progress---turns out Freddy had perfect pitch--- René started telling the renowned Jackie McLean, his father, how Freddy could really play. The elder McLean was skeptical that someone could progress that quickly. However, when he had a chance to hear his son’s student, he was impressed. I think (this is murky) that the McLeans had a hand in getting Freddy a scholarship to attend SUNY-Binghamton. One summer, while still enrolled at Binghamton, he successfully auditioned for Tito Puente’s band. Another summer, he made Lionel Hampton’s band. Eventually, Freddy enjoyed a long and successful career in music as a performer and educator. He left New York---too hectic for how he was trying to live---and settled in Washington, becoming a local legend. Every city has at least one, a person who stays close to home for whatever reason but is recognized near and far for vast knowledge and for being able to play. He taught music in DC public schools and other youth programs, including his own youth ensemble. Musicians he mentored over the years include his godson Obie Gereau, Nate and Noble Jolley, Corcoran Holt, Ben Williams, Eric Wheeler, and Janelle Gill. The night before he died, he rehearsed at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.
Regarded by many as the “dean of DC saxophone,” Freddy was a fixture at several venues in the Washington area, including DC Jazz Loft, Brixton Jamm, Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society, and Wesley United Methodist Church. He was slated to perform at the church on April 27, 2019---eight days after his 70th birthday. But he died peacefully on the morning of April 23. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to hear him perform live when I hired him in 2017 to play at my daughter Amina’s wedding in Pasadena, Maryland. He was in great form. The old block and some of everything else was in the music. Freddy told me that one regret he had in his career is that, although he had traveled widely, he never had a gig back in Corona. Of course, I understand the sentiment. But I heard you, Freddy. I heard.
I continue to listen. Freddy’s only date as a leader was The Journey, a 1996 release. Freddy’s in an octet and is handling alto, tenor, and flute. A Washington Post critic noted the gracefulness yet grittiness of his style, his lyricism, and senses both of tradition and adventure. The great A. B. Spellman, who wrote the liner notes, attests to Freddy’s reputation and skill. For my part, I know that Freddy is still saying something I can use. I don’t know about stickball.