The Jazz Evangelist
Even through cancer treatment, jazz pianist and radio show host Billy Foster is ensuring that jazz is passed on to future generations.
By Jenny Song
Photographs by Ken Carl
You might call Billy Foster a jazz evangelist: He can't help but share his passion. Foster converted Bruce Evans, his friend of 50 years, back in 1965 when they were students at Defiance College in Ohio. Although Foster was majoring in classical piano, he was drawn to the improvisation and rhythm of jazz, and he urged Evans to listen with him as he played jazz recordings from his vast collection.
“Invariably, when I visited him in his dorm, the time would evolve into a marathon listening session,” says Evans, who today plays bass in Foster’s band, the Billy Foster Trio. “I can still hear him saying, ‘Bruce, you just gotta listen to this track before you go.’ ”
“There’s so much to the music,” says Foster. “You can never get tired because you never learn it all. You’re constantly learning. That’s what also makes it so great.” Half a century after those dorm room listening sessions, Foster, now 66, remains on that same jazz-driven mission—playing and performing, teaching and composing, and even hosting his own local radio show, the Billy Foster Jazz Zone, which he records at his Gary, Ind., home. He’s determined to spread his love of jazz, especially to younger generations.
In recent years, jazz has also given Foster a personal outlet during a difficult time—a way to express himself and cope since his cancer diagnosis and through treatment. “I would say that jazz is a centerpiece in Billy’s life,” notes Evans. “He loves to perform, compose and share his passion for jazz—all of which, I believe, helps to give him a focus and purpose for living.”
Living in the Moment
To anyone who knows Foster, it comes as no surprise that his favorite room at home is the piano room. There, you’ll find a Baldwin grand piano, recording equipment and countless jazz CDs and albums.
A lifelong musician, Foster began playing piano at 7 and taught himself jazz piano in college. He later honed his skills by taking lessons from Jaki Byard, a well-known American jazz pianist, while living in New York City in the 1970s. Today he plays piano and composes music for two trios: the Billy Foster Trio, which he started in 1967, and the Valparaiso University Faculty Jazz Trio, a group he co-founded in 1980, the same year he began teaching jazz piano at Valparaiso University in Indiana. The trios’ itineraries include performances at high schools, where Foster—who is also a retired public elementary school music teacher of more than three decades—hopes to spark an interest among his young audiences. When he’s not performing with the trios, he performs solo, playing at the Strongbow Inn in Valparaiso each Sunday.
It’s a schedule he’s kept up—and found comfort in—even through cancer. Initially diagnosed with stage I kidney cancer in 1996, Foster quickly underwent surgery to remove the affected kidney. But in 2007, a persistent cough led doctors to discover that the cancer had returned and spread to his lungs, liver and brain. His doctors recommended an oral drug, Sutent (sunitinib), which had been approved the previous year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of metastatic kidney cancer.
Despite difficult side effects, including nausea and high blood pressure, Foster stuck to his scheduled performances. “Sometimes we’d have to pour him into the car,” says his wife of 15 years, Renee Miles-Foster. “But he was determined to go and play.”
In 2008, when Foster’s cancer did not respond to the Sutent, he joined a clinical trial of an investigational drug. (See “Evangelizing Clinical Trials.”
) After that drug was discontinued in 2013, Foster started another new medication, Inlyta (axitinib), and his cancer is currently stable. He knows his disease is incurable, yet the ability to compose and perform jazz, he says, has steeled his mind against negative thoughts and the endless “what-ifs.”
Jazz, he explains, is about improvisation and living in the moment.