Bill Foster, Detroit’s 2014 Jazz Hero, has been a strong advocate of the city’s arts for almost 60 years, promoting jazz all the while, and is currently working towards Detroit’s revitalization. Most of his efforts have been facilitated through The Jazz Network Foundation, a non-profit organization which he founded in 1992, and through which he has presented numerous concerts, workshops, art shows, dance performances, poetry and plays.
Raised and educated in Detroit, Bill promoted his first concert in 1956. It was headlined by pianist Harold McKinney and drummer Roy Brooks, and featured in Jet magazine. Moving to Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1960s, Bill promoted local artists as well as nationally touring acts there, also hosting a live jazz radio show on WCUY-FM and program of recorded jazz on WERE-FM. Returning to Detroit in the 1970s, Bill continued to work with artists representing his passion — a brief list of those who have performed under his auspices includes Dwight Adams, Bill Banfield, Marcus Belgrave, Ben’s Friends Big Band, Ron Blake, George Bohanon, Buddy Budson, Oscar Brown Jr., James Carter, Kenn Cox, Tommy Flanagan, FRA FRA Sound, Charlie Gabriel, Roy Hargrove, Winard Harper, Dr. Teddy Harris, Bob Hurst, Milt Jackson, Sean Jones, Eugene Maslov, Mulgrew Miller, Steve Nelson, Johnny O’Neal, Michael Rabinowitz, Kareem Riggins, Vanessa Rubin, Straight Ahead, Donald Walden, Ursula Walker, Michael Wolff, Rodney Whitaker, Lenny White and Buster Williams.
Bill developed and established venues such as the SereNgeti Ballroom and also the SereNgeti Galleries to showcase local, national and international artists. The Balloom hosted “Thursday Night Jam Sessions” and youth development programs hosted by Harold McKinney; the Galleries became home to the National Jazz Orchestra (which Bill directed, and which performed at the Detroit Jazz Festival for four consecutive years), as well as the Youth in Music Program and several African dance troupes. It served as a community cultural center that specialized in exhibiting African and Haitian artwork. “It’s a great concept; you can come to an art exhibit that turns into a jazz concert or a jazz concert that turns into an art exhibit,” he says.
Bill’s efforts have not gone unnoticed: he was honored by the Detroit Jazz Festival as a recipient of its Jazz Guardian Award in 2007 and in September, 2013 received the Spirit of Detroit Award from the City of Detroit as well as a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge award. His concept for the Knight Foundation Arts Challenge is Jazz-Off Detroit, which will assemble two jazz ensembles through performance competitions, one consisting of musicians 30 years of age or older and the other of musicians under 30. The JJA’s Jazz Hero Award is not, of course, tied to any age requirement or restriction — it just asserts that Bill Foster deserves applause as an activist, advocate, altruist, aider and abettor of jazz.
-Viva C. Foster