Versatile Flutist, Saxophonist Frank Wess Dies at 91
Flutist and saxophonist Frank Wess, whose long career included a stint in Count Basie’s band in the ’50s and ’60s, passed away from kidney failure on Oct. 30. He was 91.
Wess’ groundbreaking flute work won him DownBeat Critics Poll awards in the Flute category from 1959 to 1964. In 2007 he became a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master.
During his versatile career, Wess was a key figure in defining the flute as a strong solo voice in modern jazz.
The NEA issued a statement that read, in part: “It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of 2007 NEA Jazz Master Frank Wess. Wess is revered [as a] smoothly swinging tenor saxophone player in the Lester Young tradition, as an expert alto saxophonist, and as one of the most influential, instantly recognizable flutists in jazz history.”
Wess’ albums include I Hear Ya Talkin’ (1959), Flute Juice (1981) and Going Wess (1993).
“You can play jazz on any instrument, but you’ve got to have the feeling and conception for it,” Wess told DownBeat in the Oct. 7, 1965, issue. “Where jazz and the flute are concerned, there’s a whole lot more to be done on the instrument.”
Wess was born Jan. 4, 1922, in Kansas City, Mo. His parents were teachers, and his father led a family band.
He played tenor saxophone and clarinet in the U.S. Army band while he served in World War II. After his military service, Wess joined the Billy Eckstine Orchestra in 1946 and also played with the bands of Eddie Heywood, Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson.
He later studied flute in Washington, D.C., with Wallace Mann, the flute soloist of the National Symphony Orchestra.
In 1953, Wess joined the Count Basie Big Band and helped transform its sound during its “New Testament” phase, playing alto and tenor saxophone, as well as flute. He also contributed compositions and wrote arrangements for the group. Wess stayed with the band for 11 years, becoming one of jazz’s most distinguished flutists.
Wess performed with a diverse array of acts, including Clark Terry’s big band, the New York Quartet with Roland Hanna, Dameronia, Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Jazz Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band.
Additionally, he played in Broadway pit bands for shows such as Golden Boy (starring Sammy Davis Jr.), Irene (with Debbie Reynolds) and Sugar Babies (with Mickey Rooney).
Along with his many albums as a leader, Wess was an accompanist on recordings by Zoot Sims, Houston Person and Thad Jones.
Wess continued performing and recording for eight decades. On June 11, the IPO label released Magic 101—an album of standards by such composers as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and Thelonious Monk—which Wess recorded in 2011 with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. The CD also includes Wess’ original composition “Pretty Lady.”
In the Hot Box review of Magic 101 in the September 2013 issue of DownBeat, critic John McDonough wrote, “The mood is gentle, the sound intimate and amorous. … Wess comes to us here in full flower, skills and sounds intact.”
In Memoriam: The jazz world recently lost two other great artists. DownBeat has posted obituaries of Ronald Shannon Jackson and Butch Warren.