Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 May 1907, London; d there 23 December 1958) Pianist, composer and bandleader, his father West African and his mother German. He worked in the USA in the late 1920s, composing and arranging for Earl Hines, Paul Howard, Paul Whiteman and others; he recorded with the Howard band '29-30. Returning to London, he formed an unusual nine-piece band with six reeds (two clarinets, three saxes and a bassoon; no brass) and recorded for EMI/Columbia '33-4 as 'The New Music of Reginald Foresythe'. There were two piano solos: 'Because It's Love' was written for Elizabeth Welch. In '35 his 'Southern Holiday (A Phantasy Of Negro Music)' was recorded on two sides of a 78 by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra. 

He recorded his 'Serenade For A Wealthy Widow' in 1933; bandleader Lew Stone also recorded it in England and in the USA there were at least five recordings, the most famous one by Fats Waller, and also by Paul Whiteman, who recorded at least five Foresythe arrangements. He wrote 'He's A Son Of The South' '33 for Louis Armstrong. Foresythe's two 'Hymns To Darkness' included 'Deep Forest' (recorded by Hines) and 'Lament For Congo'. He was writing arrangements for a Wild Bill Davison band, which collapsed on the tragic death of Frank Teschemacher; the band's theme was to have been 'Deep Forest'. His 'Mississippi Basin' (lyrics by Andy Razaf) was recorded at least seven times in the USA, by Armstrong, the Casa Loma Band, Clarence Williams, the Washboard Rhythm Kings, Adrian Rollini, dance band leader Bert Lown and Chick Bullock.

He was obviously admired by American musicians. In New York in early '35 he recorded four sides for EMI/Columbia with his unique 'New Music' instrumentation, but with a Benny Goodman group, including both Goodman and Johnny Mince on clarinets, Toots Mondello, Hymie Schertzer and Dick Clark on saxes, Sol Schoenbach on bassoon, Gene Krupa on drums and John Kirby on bass; these were among the best treatments his tunes ever received: 'The Melancholy Clown', 'Lullaby' (for Mildred Bailey), 'The Greener The Grass' and 'Dodging A Divorcee'. Kirby became a fixture on 52nd Street with his Onyx Club Boys, and then became an unusual success for a black group in that era, including on the radio, 'The Biggest Little Band in the Land' playing ambitious and intricate chamber music that was definitely jazz. There was also the chamber music of Raymond Scott, which was not jazz but required very good musicians to play it, and indulged in amusing titles, like some of Foresythe's: 'Twilight In Turkey', 'Dinner Music For A Pack Of Hungry Cannibals'. And still later, Chico Hamilton's quintet in the second half of the 1950s played chamber music that was definitely jazz, with unusual instrumentation (no brass, no keyboard, Fred Katz on cello). Some critics had thought that Foresythe's chamber music was not jazz, but a jazz-influenced attempt to be something else; in any case, his was one of the first such attempts.

None of Foresythe's music had been heard for a long time, except for reissues of a couple of tunes recorded by Fats Waller or Earl Hines; then Willem Breuker had thought enough of it to arrange and record some tunes with his Willem Breuker Kollektief for his own BVHaast label in Holland in 1990. More recently BVHaast put out a CD compilation in 2008: The New Music of Reginald Foresythe had a good booklet by Val Wilmer, and included 10 of the 'New Music' sides from '33-4, the piano solo 'Because It's Love', the four sides with Benny Goodman from '35, and 11 recorded by Hines, Armstrong, Waller, Rollini, Stone, Hal Kemp and five by Whiteman. Albert McCarthy wrote that Foresythe's music had 'a curiously disquieting quality even when overtly dealing with such a pastoral theme as "Landscape".' To modern ears the small-group sides recorded in England sound too polite, almost tentative, as though they weren't quite sure what they were doing. 'Angry Jungle' isn't very angry, the music running up and down the stairs like cartoon mice. 'The Duke Insists' would have been an appropriate tribute to Ellington with a bit more panache. The best bits are where Foresythe allowed himself a solo flash; he had a personality. But it was good to hear at last what Foresythe was trying to do; and some of the big band arrangements are fun. 'Dodging A Divorcee' is a jolly piece, no doubt hoping to repeat the success of 'Serenade For A Wealthy Widow'. There was some repetition: across the collection there are four different versions of the latter tune. Needless to say, the CD was soon out of print.

In '35-6 Foresythe had recorded more titles for Decca in England, but less of his own music. There were piano duets with Arthur Young on Decca in '36 and in '38 for HMV. He served in the RAF during WWII and entertained troops. He recorded in Milan '48 with an Italian rhythm section for Italian HMV. The technical details and emotional atmosphere of his music were unique, but he was rather too fond of the night life, some said; his muse seemed to leave him, and he ended his days playing piano in London drinking clubs.