Recalling Howard Foulds: A musicians' musician
Let's Talk ReggaeSunday, November 07, 2021
With Herbie Miller
There are musicians with household names, recognised stars, and A-list instrumentalists. Many are first-call studio specialists, and others, well-known audience favourites. Then there is a group, virtually unknown to the general public, which possesses the theoretical, technical, and musical brilliance, but not the animated disposition required to become pop personalities. Those musicians are considered to be journeymen — recognised and appreciated by their peers and regarded as musicians' musicians. Multi-instrumentalist Howard Foulds epitomised the latter.
Foulds died of a stroke on September 2. He passed during a period that also marked the loss of acclaimed vocalist and industry advocate Karen Smith. The incomparable producer, performer, and larger-than-life personality Lee Scratch Perry also departed around the same time.
Unlike so many others, Howard Foulds' death did not excite consequential media announcements. It did not attract unlimited industry reminiscences, scholarly evaluation, public responses, and journalistic interest resulting in TV, radio, and print features. Instead, an overflow of support by fellow musicians and music insiders demonstrated a level of fraternal unison within the industry not apparent to outsiders.
Dale Haslam, a bassist, quickly formed an online chat group to plan the funeral, cover expenses, and assist their colleague's two young children. Immediately an active gathering of musicians, including more than a few notables, some friends, and fans joined the chat. The final result was a significant display of musicians helping another musician.
They understood fully that the novel coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the livelihood of many musicians. Several are out of work, some have fallen on hard times and require such basics for survival as rent and affordable health care. Being primarily freelancers, most are without medical or other critical benefits. The shared idea for musicians assisting one of their own was a constant response echoed inside the group. Dale recommended: “We as musicians, with whatever little or much we can manage to accumulate, should be taking care of our own.”
A Montego Bay resident, Foulds played the tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, as well as the piano throughout the tourism circuit. He augmented ensembles whenever sharp readers and strong players were required. While he did not bring an extroverted attitude to the stage, his ubiquity was unmistakable for his instrumental versatility, what he played, and its relevance to the performance.
I only met Howard Foulds in July 2020 when I engaged The Desi Jones Sextet for a performance on the concert series Jazz on the Duke. As the horns warmed up, I was attracted to them because the saxophonist was running through a range of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker's material, something I rarely experience in Jamaica. I paused and listened before introducing myself. He told me “Bird” was one of his musical heroes. While conversing, we both realised that, on a recommendation from Desi Jones, we had spoken on the phone some years before regarding a separate project.
Foulds' contribution to Desi's set was among the high points of the evening. It revealed his prominence as an excellent instrumentalist. The extent of his respect among his peers was apparent when Dean Frazer took the time to scrutinise his performance. “His soprano tone is the most impressive among us all,” Frazer later told me. “Furthermore,” he added, “he is a remarkable listener.” That pertains to those of us who are not musicians, who attach less attention to the flashiness of players and more to listening.
Desi Jones also praised the saxophonist for his “old-time solo arrangement, good structure and concept, how he built his solos, which were fearless. He was unafraid of expressing himself, which he did without limitations. He developed his harmonic foundation from first being a pianist. Consequently, he had a keen knowledge of each tune and its harmonic construction, which, I think, set him apart”.
The next session I produced, Foulds was invited to accompany vocal stylist Keisha Patterson and the venerable Tony Gregory. Again, the saxophonist's performance stood out for its quality both as soloist and accompanist.
Patterson's opening number, Billy Strayhorn's Sophisticated Lady, highlighted the saxophonist's empathy, which filtered throughout the performance. His nuanced obligatos and soulful soprano solo were also distinctive and refined. His brief but effective solo on Lullaby of Birdland, followed by a series of trading licks with the vocalist, showcased aspects of the qualities that are admirable to Foulds' fellow musicians. He effectively manipulated the guttural character for which blues saxophonists are renowned, guaranteeing What a Difference a Day Makes reflected its idiomatic tradition.
Appearing on stage for the second time with Tony Gregory allowed Foulds to continue impressing the audience with his multifaceted ability. His lucid articulation created an atmosphere akin to an actual jazz performance rather than an evening listening to familiar pop songs. An uptempo rendition of In Other Words, aka Fly Me To The Moon, showcased his 'Parkeresque' attachment to passing notes and melodic intelligence. On Tony Gregory's interpretation of Errol Garner and Johnny Burke's Misty, Foulds began on tenor before switching to alto for a lyrical rephrasing of the melody before extending it to a climactic coda.
Foulds was considered an excellent soloist, and was also lauded for his harmonious syntax, form, and expressiveness. He could apply ideas from the melodic and harmonic arrangements of songs that created improvised statements and streams of consciousness that flowed eloquently through his horn. However, throughout these performances, his restraint was noticeable. He could have opted for an elevated presence, but this was not the occasion for such prolixity. Devoid of any inconsequential body shimmying, gyrating, and cliche phrases employed by too many that beckon credulous audience acknowledgment, he edited himself to minimalist solos. By so doing, he demonstrated he was a keen listener and a skilled and versatile accompanist. In his unaffected manner, Foulds yielded to the characteristics of the vocalists. He was listening, supporting, and responding, in the process revealing a good showman is not necessarily a good player.
In my brief relationship with Foulds he embodied the finest moral qualities. In Foulds, I experienced a very solid professional and a musician interested in expanding his options. I suggested he put a quintet together with a repertoire of bebop, ballads, and blues for a December concert. He was very receptive to my offer. He also agreed to do a set of duets of standards with the pianist Ozo'une for the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica. Sadly, these ideas for which we both felt so much passion and optimism will never be realised.
On his final journey, and with a festive atmosphere created by a display of horns, drums, and singing, fellow musicians granted Howard Foulds a funeral reminiscent of a New Orleans procession. In the world of the great beyond he will take his place among others, including his idol Charlie Parker and national luminaries such as Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Bra Gaynair, Little G McNair, and Joe Harriott, in the most distinguished saxophone section ever assembled.
Under the sincere guidance of Dale Haslam, 76 musicians and industry players participated in a group endeavour to ensure payment of the funeral cost for a fellow musician and assist his children. They contributed funds and in-kind support to enable a dignified and respectable burial. The effort was praiseworthy.
It reminded me of the Jamaican Vintage Artist Association [JAVAA], an organisation that for 18 years has been providing benefactions to struggling musicians. The venerable Frankie Campbell of the Fab Five Band and a bassist of considerable versatility is the long-standing chairman of JAVAA. The organisation endeavours to assist artistes and musicians who have fallen on difficult times. It also helps with purchasing prescriptions, paying hospitalisation costs and, ultimately, the burial expenses of countless contributors to Jamaica's global cultural ascendence. Because of its benevolence, JAVAA is deserving of contributions from working and prosperous musicians.
Not only musicians, but music-loving people can contribute to the social well-being of those artists in need.
Multitudes listen to and enjoy Jamaican music. And, despite the romanticised assumption that musicians are wealthy, very few enthusiasts are aware that many face health and financial difficulties. Various older musicians are also economically challenged because they were never justly compensated for their pioneering work. They created many hits enjoyed by the public – songs still popular on current reissues. Most of these creators did not have royalties as an option and aren't paid from record sales.
Herbie Miller is a cultural historian with decades of experience in the music industry, both locally and internationally. He is director and curator of the Jamaica Music Museum and arm of the Institute of the Jamaica.