“I’m 72 and Something That I Wrote At 18 Is Relevant Now”: An Interview With Ronnie Foster

Chris Robinson speaks to organist Ronnie Foster about his formative musical experiences, rebooting his career, being sampled by J. Cole and more.
By    August 1, 2022

Image via Ronnie Foster/Instagram

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Chris Robinson will buy any book with French flaps, fancy endpapers and a deckled edge.

In the annals of jazz history, Buffalo isn’t usually included in the same sentence as New York, Chicago, Kansas City, L.A., or New Orleans. Yet for organist Ronnie Foster, Buffalo was the perfect place for him to meet and learn from his heroes and launch his career. With several big clubs, everybody came through Buffalo. As a 12-year-old, Foster introduced himself to Hammond B3 organ master Jimmy Smith and took lessons with him. At 13 he was asking Herbie Hancock for advice on the blues. He made his professional debut at 14 at a supper club backing an exotic dancer. And at 15 he started working with George Benson. It wasn’t long before Grant Green knocked on his door and basically said “you’re coming with me.” At twenty, Foster made his recording debut in 1970 on Green’s album Alive!, which immediately led to getting signed by Blue Note.

Foster’s 1972 debut album, Two Headed Freap is a jazz-funk masterpiece. Recently reissued as part of Blue Note’s Classic Vinyl Series, the album is a 37-minute burn. Foster’s crackling organ playing, George Duvivier’s and Gordon Edwards’ propulsive bass lines, and George Devens’ mellow vibraphones have made it a fertile sampling source for rappers and producers. “Mystic Brew”—which Foster wrote when he was 18—has been flipped most notably by A Tribe Called Quest, J. Cole, Madlib, and Childish Gambino. Foster followed up Freap with four more albums for Blue Note and closed out the 70s with two albums for Columbia.

The Hammond B3 organ jazz tradition remains throughout these albums (especially on his Live: Cooking with Blue Note), but as his career progressed he expanded his arsenal of keyboards and ventured into soul, disco, and funk: lush string and synth arrangements, covers of Stevie Wonder and Gilbert O’Sullivan, occasional sultry female backing vocals, and pop vocal features. Think Freap sets out for Motown polish and production. He recorded his last album, The Racer, in 1986 before moving more into primarily a producing role. Throughout his career he has been an in-demand sideman and session player. He’s appeared on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, albums by Grover Washington, Stanley Turrentine, the Jacksons, and many others, as well as several albums by George Benson, including the multiplatinum Breezin’.

Reboot is Foster’s first solo album in 36 years and marks both the 50th anniversary of Two Headed Freap and Foster’s return to Blue Note. In the intervening decades since his last record, Foster has been active as a record producer, working with a long list of jazz, r&b, soul, Latin, and pop acts ranging from David Sanborn and Chet Atkins to Will Downing and Brazilian superstars João Bosco and Djavan. Despite primarily working as a producer, Foster never stopped writing music and has six albums’ worth of material ready to record.

Reboot is primarily an organ trio record that is rooted in the swinging, bluesy, take-me-to-church tradition of Jimmy Smith, Richard Groove Holmes, Shirley Scott, and others. At the same time, it showcases Foster’s career-long practice of branching out into different styles and vibes. Sure, “Swingin’” is an old-school greasy blues, but there’s also a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” a sensitive solo piano piece, Latin and flamenco elements, a fun vocal Chicago-style blues, and two cuts that slide to the smoother side of the radio dial.

I caught up with Foster over the phone from his home in Las Vegas to talk about his start in Buffalo and his formative musical experiences, how being sampled by J. Cole gives him instant cred with the 19-year-olds he plays basketball with five times a week, and how the release of Reboot has made him “happily numb.”

What was the scene like in Buffalo when you were growing up?

Ronnie Foster: Buffalo’s a very, very musical town. At one time there were about five or six clubs that had major entertainment coming through—all the greats. These are the top three, and not in any particular order—Bon-Ton and Royal Arms and the Pine Grill. It was amazing. I met a lot of my heroes at those clubs.

So basically everybody came through town?

Ronnie Foster: Oh, yeah, everybody. I met Jimmy [Smith] when I was 12. I started studying with Jimmy when I was 12. And I sat on the organ bench with Jack McDuff all the time when he came to town. And I met Herbie [Hancock] when I was 13, The Jazz Crusaders, Groove Holmes, Charlie Earland, and everybody.

Can I tell you the story about how I met Jimmy? This is important for me. The owner of Royal Arms would always sneak me in because I wasn’t supposed to be in at 12 years old. He knew I loved music. So he said, “you get your butt over in that corner and you stay there and you can’t move.” And that corner happened to be on the side of the stage where everybody went up, so I had a bird’s eye view of what was going on onstage. Jimmy was coming in and I called the owner and I said, “hey, where’s Jimmy staying?” He named some motel in Buffalo. I called Jimmy and I still about laugh about this. Jimmy picked up the phone. “Hello?” I said, “Yeah, Jimmy, Mr. Smith, this is Ronnie Foster, I’m a little young organ player around here, you got to show me something.” And he said, “Boy, when you hear me play, you won’t want to play anymore,” and so I said, “No, no, no, Mr. Smith. I really love to play.” And he said “Boy you’re not listening to me, when you hear me play, you’re gonna want to throw your organ away.” I’m goin “no, no, no.” But you know why he was doing that? Because he wanted to know how hungry I was, right? So he said, “okay, what time you get out of school?” And I said, “3:00.” He said, “You meet me over at the club,” and the rest is history. When he was in town I was with him every night and we got a great relationship moving forward as I got older until he passed. He was amazing and it really pisses me off when people say, “Oh, Jimmy Smith is so overrated.” How can he be overrated? He created the genre. He had his own voice and his own vocabulary on that instrument, which was his and his only. And there’s a lot of organists that play bebop. They’ve taken that direction. But Jimmy’s was very, very special. Very, very unique.

I can tell you one thing about Jack McDuff. One night Joe Dukes was playing drums and one point in the tune Jack would hold the chords like this. [Foster plays organ chord] And he would just hold that F#9. And Joe Dukes would play a solo forever. So I’m sitting next to Jack, and then he says, “Hey, Ronnie, just grab this.” So I took over the chord. And it meant the world to me. I wasn’t doing anything but holding the chord. Joe Dukes is going crazy on the drums. And Jack is at the bar in front of the stage and he’s got like a drink in his hands and is giving me a thumbs up. “You’re doing great!” “All I’m doing is [Foster plays chord].” I was very fortunate with those guys. I met Herbie at thirteen when he was playing with Miles. With THE group [Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams]. I used to carry my melodica around. I said, “Herbie, you know I’m a young organist around town.” And I told him, “I got tired of the same old turnaround on a blues and so can you give me some ideas of some different directions to go?” He said “Yeah, give me your melodica,” he took my melodica and showed me this thing, right? So now fast forward. Herbie and I are still friends. One time I’m at his house and I say, “Herbie, remember when we first met you showed me this alternate turnaround?” he says, “Yeah, I bet you’re still using it too.” And I said, “Yeah I am.” I met the Jazz Crusaders at the Royal Arms. Roy Ayers has shown me stuff—I met him when he was with Herbie Mann. Chick [Corea] I met when he was with Art Blakey. So it’s a lot of history and I was exposed to, you know, lots of real masters at an early age.

Wow, that’s wild.

Ronnie Foster: Yeah, it was that kind of scene where everybody came through. Jimmy introduced me to George Benson when I was 14, and I started working with George when I was 15. Well, you know the rest of the history. With all the stuff later, the album Breezin’. So yeah, George is like a brother to me. We talk every two weeks.

In addition to playing with him when you were young, who else were you playing with?

Ronnie Foster: My first professional gig was at 14, and this club was a supper club. The only reason I could work was because it was a supper club. So James Clark was a great guitarist out of Buffalo who worked with Grover Washington. You know Grover came out of Buffalo. A lot of people seemed to think he was from Philly but he was from Buffalo. But anyway, they hired me for the gig and they said, “so now we’ll practice the music for the exotic dancer.” So remember, I’m 14. So we’re running over “Caravan” and all that stuff. And then we’re doing the gig. We do a couple songs before the guy announces, “Now we’re going to bring out our beautiful, exotic dancer of the week, Ms. Vanilla Wafer.” She came out and we’re playing “Caravan” and she starts taking off stuff. You know, I’m 14. Well, I up and all of a sudden I lose track of what I’m doing, and I just kind of hold the chord down. Bandleader shouts at me: “Ronnie, Ronnie.” “Oh, okay. I got it.” And that was my first pro gig. That’s how I started. And these guys, actually the first night they took me back in the kitchen and they actually pushed me up against a wall and they said, “We see you doing any stupid shit. . . we’re going to kick your m-f ass. So just play your instrument.” So that was a good foundation, because I’ve been drunk twice in my life. They treated me like a kid, you know, like their kids. That was a good foundation.

How did you get hooked up with Grant Green?

Ronnie Foster: Well, yeah, that’s a funny story. I obviously was a big fan of Grant’s, Larry Young and all that stuff. What had happened was—I still to this day don’t understand how this happened. But, you know, with no cellphones—today, you know, we can call anybody anywhere, right? So I’m walking down the street in Buffalo and this guy walks up to me, he says, “Hey, Stanley, Turrentine’s trying to get a hold of you.” I said, “Wow, okay.” “You got to go home, call him.” So I get back and there’s a message and I still to this day, I don’t know how he found me. Stanley said, “Hey, I need you up here.” You know, he’s married to [organist] Shirley Scott and they had a fight and she just left. “I got two more nights at this gig. I need you up here.” So I flew up there. I did the gig with Stanley two nights, and I stay with a friend of mine from Buffalo in Harlem. And Stanley was calling every day saying, “Oh, you know, I got this gig in Chicago. Just, you know, I’ll talk to the club owner and I’ll get back to you.” So meanwhile, one day there was a knock at the door and it was Grant Green. He said, “Ronnie, you’re coming with me.” What am I supposed to say? “No?” I had met Grant briefly. When I got out of high school, I was playing with this band in Indianapolis, Indiana. And it was a vibraphone organ trio, you know, vibes, organ, and drums. And we opened up for him on a show that they did in Indianapolis. And I met Grant briefly that that was the extent of our interaction. So he came to knock on the door. He said, “Are you coming with me?” And then I went out on the road with him.

That changed my career path because when we did the album Alive! After the session was over, Francis Wolff—one of the co-founders of Blue Note—walked up to me and said, “Hey, Ronnie, how would you like to have to deal with Blue Note?” And I go, “yeah.” Unfortunately, he passed away. And then Blue Note was kind of up in a gray area because they were trying to find someone to run Blue Note. But then I found out who that was, which was Dr. George Butler. And I called him up and I said, “Hey, you know, Francis offered me a deal. You know, I’d like to, you know, do it if we could do it.” And he said, “Oh, where are you playing?” And I said, “I’m playing at this club in Detroit.” He said, “Oh, I’ll fly out to check you out.” He came out after the first set and he says, “Yep, I’m signing you.” You know, it was like that. A very beautiful situation. You know, I was with George through that and then I did two other albums for him at Columbia.

Obviously you’re working hard, but it sounds like it just fell into place almost.

Ronnie Foster: Yeah. I feel so humble. Just think about like when Jimmy introduced me to George at 14, that really changed my whole path. Like, I got a lot of notoriety or whatever you want to call it. I’m not saying that in an ego way. I’m just saying this was developed through my relationship with George. I’m still humbled, I’m humbled about this whole thing that’s happening right now. So, yeah, it’s really crazy, you know, it’s like a numb happiness if you can have that. I’m like numb, it’s a happy kind of numb, you know? It’s not like a negative numb.

I’ll tell you a really great story. Jimmy called me one day. He says “Ronnie, Ronnie—Michael [Jackson] and Quincy [Jones] sent me over this tune. I need your help. You’ve got to tell me what I got to play.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And you know what? The tune was “Bad.” Which a lot of people don’t know that that’s him on organ on that. That organ solo is his. And he sent me the track and I said, “Jimmy, just play you.” Yeah, but it was just funny that he’s asking “man you got to show me.” I was like “get out of here.” But, yeah, it was great. We had a great time. He’s a king to this day. So, you know, more than the utmost respect.

In addition to Jimmy Smith and George Benson and these other folks, you’ve played and recorded and worked with so many incredible artists. What projects or relationships and records really stand out to you?

Ronnie Foster: Well, one would be the first album I ever produced. It was by the Brazilian artist Djavan. When I had left Columbia with George Butler and he always knew I wanted to produce. So Sony Brazil came to New York and said they were looking for an American producer to produce their Brazilian artists. They hooked up with George in New York, and he said, “I know a guy you should check out.” And they flew out and we met. And that was my first production I ever did. I mean, I had an idea of what to do to a certain extent. You know, it was a learning experience. But that record is a historical record in Brazil. And I even brought Stevie [Wonder] in and he played harmonica on one of the tunes. So that’s how I got into production.

The next thing that happened was Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note at the time, called me up and says, “Hey, Ronnie? Oh, you’re producing now?” I said, “Oh yeah, starting out.” He says “I was thinking about doing this album with Stanley Turrentine of Stevie tunes.” I said, “Oh, that’d be great, you know,” and so we did that album. Stevie played on a cut on that, we mixed it in Stevie’s studio and you know, that was great. So I was doing pretty good from a production standpoint. I knew David Sanborn for a long time. He said, “Ronnie, I want to do one of your songs.” He was in L.A. and said “yeah bring me some stuff over.” He was surprised because I came with this leather bag full of cassettes. I just dumped it out on the floor and we started listening to stuff. He liked “Summer,” which is a tune I wrote and produced for him. You know, I was very, very proud because that record went gold.

Your music and I think especially like “Mystic Brew” has been sampled a lot by hip hop producers and artists. What does it mean to have your work and music kind of take on a new life in that way?

Ronnie Foster: It’s kind of funny when I think about it because I wrote “Mystic Brew” when I was 18 in Indianapolis. And the way I found out about A Tribe Called Quest sampling it was this guy from England, can’t think of his name now, but he is one of the forefathers of acid jazz in England. He called me one day, “Hey, Ronnie, just want to let you know we love your music” and he said “we were going to do a remix of ‘Mystic Brew,’ but A Tribe Called Quest did it already.” And I said, “Oh, they did? I didn’t know anything about it.” Then I went and I got the record and I felt violated at first. Then I called the company and said, “can we look into this?” They took care of everything. So everybody’s happy from that standpoint. I met Ali Shaheed, from Tribe and I reached out to Ali—I say, “hey, man, I’d really like to talk to Q-Tip, just to thank him and just vibe with him on the whole thing.” And he gave me his number. Two weeks ago, he called me and we were on the phone for like two hours. It was beautiful. So it’s great. I’m trying to get a hold of J. Cole. I’d like to thank him. He was very cool when he did “Forbidden Fruit,” sampled it, and then when he did “Neighbors,” he did it backwards. And I don’t think anybody would have known what the sample was backwards. But he still gave me credit, which was great. Very cool. I’m 72 now and something that I wrote at 18 is relevant now. I play basketball five days a week and I’m running out there with the youngest is probably like 19, maybe the oldest is 40. Some of the guys know that I’m into music. I say, “Hey, J. Cole,” They’re like “what?” But you know if I say “Jimmy Smith” they’d go “well who?” It’s funny to me.

So I imagine that there’s like a different kind of reward or satisfaction between producing and making your own records. Is that right?

Ronnie Foster: Yeah. You know, like you already know, Reboot is my first album in thirty-six years. I was in the production mode, but I’m always writing. I probably have enough material for another six albums. I’m always writing.

So did you initially reach out to Blue Note to make the first kind of move to do the record?

Ronnie Foster: When [Blue Note President] Don Was first came to the label, I’m sure he was inundated with everybody calling him. I called him and he said “man, if anybody needs to be on the label it’s you,” but I’ve signed a lot of people and I kind of have to hold back right now.” And I said, “great, Don, no problem.” And then I was calling him last year about some other project that I had in mind that has really nothing to do with me as an artist. I was joking and I said, “Well, if you want to bring me back to Blue Note. . .” And he says, “okay, let’s do it.”

Don bringing me back was great. He said, “send me music what you’re thinking.” You don’t hear this from record companies. I have so much respect for him because he is a genius. He said “man everything sounds great. Your demo sounds like a finished product.” I said “no, it’s just the way I think, because I like to hear a representation of where it can go.” And he says, “let’s do it.” He didn’t say, “I like that, but can you do something like this?” It wasn’t like that. “Man, that’s great, let’s go.”

The piece “After Conversation with Nadia,” It’s a piano piece, the album’s closing track. There’s a friend of mine who was going through some deep stuff. And when somebody is down like that, you want to try to uplift them, you know? We were on the phone for two hours. After the conversation I had my keyboard and I just put my hands down and I was playing the emotion of what I was feeling from our conversation. I can never repeat that. I sent that to Don and told him that “this is nothing for the record or whatever. I just wanted to share this moment with you.” And one day he calls up, he says, “Hey, Ronnie, you know that piece ‘After Conversation with Nadia’? I think that should be the last cut on the organ trio record.” I said “Don, it’s an organ record.” And he said “And?” So, you know, I got it. He thinks outside the box, which is great. So that’s how that piece came about. She said that’s the most beautiful gift she’s ever been given, you know. I’m excited because in the future, whatever I do might not be all organ. I do records with radically different things and that piece kind of sets that up so it’s not too much of a surprise.

It’s an amazing experience because in this time period with social media and all the stuff, that side of things is completely different. I mean, I did seven interviews last week. The Blue Note team—everybody that’s working behind the scenes is amazing. Sometimes the record companies were like, “oh, this guy, let’s just let him do a record,” you know, almost like a token. Now I do not feel that. I discussed that with Don. And he said “no, no, no man, it’s not like that.” I still feel, you know I’m 72, but I still feel that I have a lot to say musically, you know? Like I said, I can’t say enough things about the Blue Note team. They are totally amazing with what’s going on. Like I said, I’m happily numb.

So the title of the album—Reboot—suggests that this is the start of more to come. And you’ve got material for a bunch of more projects. Do you have anything coming soon?

Ronnie Foster: Yeah. A reboot is what it is. Yes. And my daughter did the cover. So my son is playing drums on four tracks, you know. So it’s a beautiful way to come back.

Do you play with your son often?

Ronnie Foster: Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s the drummer in the trio now. The trio consists of Michael O’Neill on guitar and my son on drums.

And are you going to be able to get out on the road and playing shows?

Ronnie Foster: We’ve done some stuff here locally in Vegas last year. We did Marian’s Jazzroom in Switzerland. And that was, you know, we played five days in a row. Yeah. That’s a great place to play. And now we’re working on a European tour for the Fall. And Michael O’Neil is a rhythm guitarist for George. So we have to build our schedule around his schedule with George.

That’s got to be tricky.

Ronnie Foster: Yeah, yeah, it gets a little tricky, but it will work. I’m doing Jazz Is Dead on the 31st of this month. So a lot of stuff is coming. You know, we just want to get the record out there and that, you know, that generates other things as well.

I noticed in the press release that you were saying that the title track is a different kind of organ music and it’s where your head is at right now. Can you explain what you mean?

Ronnie Foster: I feel, there’s, you know, what I call—and it’s not downgrading—it’s just kind of like a normal approach for an organ trio, you know, play tunes and all that stuff. And I think “Reboot” is a little harmonically different. I think I write a little different harmonically. And so doing stuff like that on the trio, you give it a different color. Right. So “Reboot” is kind of like a funky fusion thing that’s groovin’, you know. We did “Swingin’” which is kind of a normal straight blues. And “Isn’t she lovely?” Is that kind of, you know.

And I like how all the tracks, you know, have a little different flavor on them, right?

Ronnie Foster: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that’s the thing. I did, you know that vocal “Hey Good Lookin’ Woman”—it’s a blues. And that’s fun because when we do that on the road I have a breakdown where I do a call and response with the audience and they love it because they really become part of the band. It’s a lot of fun. So I put that on as a fun tune. I think differently harmonically—like if you listen to “After Chicago” and “Sultry Song,” you know harmonically I love going to little different places that I think you don’t hear on organ a lot. “Carlos”, you know, dedicated to Carlos [Santana]. My friend Jerry Lopez did the flamenco guitar intro. And just having Lenny Castro [percussion] and Luis Conte [percussion], you know, are great friends, having them play together because that was one of the things I wanted to happen is have them play together. So they play off the energy of each other and you know what we’re doing musically and we didn’t overdub anything.

Oh, it’s all live?

Ronnie Foster: Yeah, yeah. And “J’s Dream,” which was written from an ex relationship with someone. And we’re still great friends and all that stuff. But that’s the organ song “J’s Dream” was, you know, that was the solo piece. And “Conversation with Nadia.” So yeah, I think it’s pretty well-rounded. It was kind of freaky because after we first did it, I wasn’t sure we had it and I was kind of freaking out. But, you know, when you’re too close to stuff, right? And then I didn’t listen to it for a month and then I listened to it and I, like, just, you know. Because you forget. You would think I would know that already, but, I was like, “dang man, do we have anything?” It’s coming back to Blue Note—all of that kind of pressure. But yeah, I’m very, very happy with it. As I said, I’m humbled by the whole thing. I just love what I do, you know, and that’s why I do it. And I’ll keep doing it until I can’t.

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