Fred Foss, a tenor, alto, and flute player whom colleagues regarded as the unofficial “dean” of D.C. jazz saxophone, died on the morning of Tuesday, April 23 at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. He was four days past his 70th birthday.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Gloria Foss, who said that her husband had gone into cardiac arrest at his Northwest D.C. home in the early hours of April 23. She and her son attempted to resuscitate him and called for an ambulance. When Foss arrived at Washington Hospital Center, he was pronounced dead on arrival.
A New York native, Foss spent nearly 40 years in the District as a saxophonist, bandleader, composer, and educator. A protégé of saxophonist René McLean and his legendary father, Jackie, Foss embraced the McLeans’ commitment to jazz education, becoming a mentor to countless younger musicians who ascended through the ranks of D.C. jazz—specifically, through the Lettum Play organization, the University of Maryland’s jazz studies program, and his own Fred Foss Youth Jazz Orchestra.
In more recent years, Foss was the director of the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Youth Orchestra, the educational component of the titular Maryland venue.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it wasn’t for this man who was not only a teacher, but a mentor and a father figure,” said Ben Williams, a D.C. native who is now a star jazz bassist in New York, wrote on Facebook.
Foss was born April 19, 1949 in New York City and grew up in Corona, Queens, a neighborhood famous for its jazz musician residents. However, he began to study music only after graduating high school, when he was 19 years old and working in his first job on Wall Street. It was then that Foss engaged René McLean for private alto saxophone lessons. The younger McLean introduced Foss to his father Jackie and mother Dolly—who, Foss recalled, “took me in, and made me a part of their family.”
In learning from the McLeans, Foss came to share the tart, hard-boiled tone that characterized both father and son’s playing, a trait that Foss’s sound would retain throughout his life.
Foss enrolled at Binghamton University in 1970, where he studied political science and African-American studies but also continued playing saxophone in both jazz and rhythm & blues ensembles. When he graduated, Foss decided to pursue music as a career, joining the Lionel Hampton Orchestra as its baritone saxophonist and touring with the band for four years.
After leaving Hampton, Foss taught public school in New York City for a few years before moving to D.C. in about 1980 to teach. He also began working with college-aged musicians, most notably then-Howard University students Geri Allen, Greg Osby, and Wallace Roney, and taught with Lettum Play, the Fillmore School, and the University of Maryland.
In the meantime, he continued working professionally, especially with the South African jazz musicians Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and Hugh Masekela. He recorded The Journey, his first and only album as a leader, in 1996.
Foss’ greatest passion, however, may have been teaching. In the mid-1990s he organized the Fred Foss Youth Orchestra, which became one of the D.C. area’s most potent schools for budding jazz musicians. Its alumni include bassists Ameen Saleem, Eric Wheeler, and Williams; pianists Janelle Gill and Noble Jolley; and drummers Kush Abadey and Nate Jolley.
“Fred Foss was the real deal,” says tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed, another of Foss’ protégés. “He was never afraid to say what was on his mind, and always gave guidance to the younger generation. At the same token, he spent each day trying to better himself as a human and learn something new—often times from the younger cats.”
In 2017 he became the founding director of the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Youth Orchestra, giving it the same level of tireless dedication he had evidenced in his previous endeavors. Indeed, Foss led a rehearsal of the orchestra the night before his death.
Foss carried on extracurricular teaching as well. He was a longtime member (and eventually president) of the Listening Group, a loose club of about 50 people who met monthly for 25 years to listen to and study jazz.
Even so, Foss never stopped playing live himself. He was a favorite at such local venues as CapitalBop’s Jazz Lofts; DC Jazz Jam at the Brixton; Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society; and Wesley United Methodist Church, where he had been scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 27.
Foss was as noted for his warm, kind demeanor as for his knowledge and ability with the music.
“Since the news [of his passing] went out, a lot of people were calling me just to talk about him,” Gloria Foss told Washington City Paper. “I was amazed just to see how loved he was.”
In addition to his wife, Foss is survived by his son, Brandon, and a granddaughter, Catherine.
Foss’s friend, vocalist George V. Johnson, has initiated an online fundraiser to help the Foss family with expenses.