PASSINGS: Phillip Walker, Robert M. Jaffe, Denise Jefferson, Mac Foster, Kaye Cowher


Phillip Walker

Blues guitarist and singer

Phillip Walker, 73, a blues guitarist and singer who backed such stars as Etta James and Lowell Fulson, died of heart failure Thursday in Palm Springs, said Marc Lipkin, publicity director for Alligator Records.


Walker performed for more than 50 years, recording many solo albums and touring with zydeco legend Clifton Chenier for two years.

Walker was born in Welsh, La., on Feb. 11, 1937, and grew up in Port Arthur, Texas.

In 1959, he moved to California, where he earned a reputation as one of the region’s top guitarists. He also joined Little Richard’s band for a brief time.

Over the last decade, Walker continued to record albums and tour, including an October 2009 stint in South Africa. His most recent album, “Going Back Home,” was released in 2007.

Robert M. Jaffe

Head of California youth art retreat

Robert M. Jaffe, 57, director of the California State Summer School for the Arts since 1987, died July 16 in Davis of primary amyloidosis, a rare disorder caused by abnormal protein accumulations in the body.


The summer school, a retreat for select high school students, offers training by professionals in music, theater, video and film, visual arts, dance, creative writing and animation.

More than 11,000 students have attended the four-week study program, known as InnerSpark, at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Jaffe built connections among artists, Hollywood agents and studio heads, politicians, and private foundations and corporations to raise scholarship money for the school, which was created by state legislation as a public-private partnership.

He was a program director for the California Arts Council from 1981 to 1986 and previously spent almost two years as managing director of the Sacramento Civic Theatre.

Born in New York in 1953, Jaffe played trombone in a band as a boy.

He earned a degree in English and drama at Kenyon College in Ohio and a master’s degree in theater administration at the Yale School of Drama.

Jaffe began working as managing director of the Viola Farber Dance Company in New York and joined the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego before settling in Sacramento in 1979.


Denise Jefferson

Dancer led the Ailey School

Denise Jefferson, 65, a dancer and the longtime director of the Ailey School in New York City, died of ovarian cancer July 17 in New York City.

Handpicked by Alvin Ailey to run the school in 1984, she had led that enterprise for the last 26 years, mentoring numerous students, including many who later joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Martha Graham Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and others.

During her tenure, Jefferson proved instrumental, after Ailey’s death in 1989, in perpetuating his legacy by expanding the school’s size and influence. Enrollment, which began in 1965 with only 125 students, grew to its current size of some 3,500 pupils. She also developed an innovative program in 1998, affiliating the school with Fordham University to offer a joint bachelor of fine arts degree.

Born in Chicago on Nov. 1, 1944, Jefferson first studied ballet in Chicago. She studied at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and earned a master’s degree in French at New York University, choosing not to pursue a ballet career because, she said later, the only troupes she’d ever seen were all-white. But she studied at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and began her professional career with the Pearl Lang Dance Theater, modern dance experience that eventually helped her to oversee the Ailey School’s broad range of dance disciplines. She joined the Ailey faculty in 1974.


Mac Foster

Boxer was 1970 title contender

Mac Foster, 68, a former boxer who was a contender for the heavyweight championship in 1970, died of congestive heart failure Monday in Fresno.

The 6-foot-2 Vietnam veteran with a powerful left hook at one point won 24 straight bouts by knockout. In 1972, he went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in Tokyo, losing in a unanimous decision.

Foster carved out an 11-year record of 30-6 in professional boxing. All his victories were by knockout. On the night of June 17, 1970, Foster carried a 24-0 record into a bout against Jerry Quarry at New York’s Madison Square Garden. A victory probably would have earned him a championship bout against Joe Frazier. Instead, Quarry won by knockout in the sixth round, sending Foster’s career toward retirement. He won only six of his final 11 bouts, the last a 10-round decision loss to Stan Ward on Feb. 26, 1976, in San Jose.

Foster was born in Alexandria, La., one of 11 children of sharecroppers who moved the family to Fresno. He picked grapes and cotton as a youth. After high school, instead of attending Fresno State on a track and field scholarship, Foster volunteered for the Marine Corps and served two tours in Vietnam. He boxed while in the military, then turned pro after his discharge.


Kaye Cowher, wife of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, died of skin cancer Friday in Raleigh, N.C., the News & Observer reported. Cowher, who played basketball at North Carolina State and in the Women’s Professional Basketball League, was 54.

— Times staff and wire reports