Long before jazz pianist Billy Taylor became world-famous, he planned in high school to switch to saxophone. But then he heard the new kid in school — Frank Wess — play the horn.
“He’s the reason I don’t play the tenor saxophone,” Taylor said in a 2008 Washington Post interview. “Even in his teens, he was really a remarkable player.”
Wess never achieved the fame of his longtime friend Taylor, but he was a key player in some of the all-time great jazz ensembles, including Count Basie’s big band, and he was a major force in establishing the flute as a jazz instrument.
He was also known as a mentor who went out of his way to help young musicians coming into jazz. No matter how progressive the music got, Wess told them, it all came down to swing.
“If you can’t tap your foot or dance to it, you may as well be driving a cab,” Wess said in a 2005 interview for the All About Jazz website. “When I do clinics, I have the individual instruments play by themselves and I want them to make me dance, make me want to dance.”
Wess, 91, died in New York on Wednesday. He was in a cab on his way to get a dialysis treatment when he had a heart attack, said his companion, Sara Tsutsumi.
Wess played his last concert in April at the 54 Below club in New York, and had been in failing health for the last several months. But as recently as a month ago, he was still playing with friends.
“He would invite young musicians — maybe a rhythm section or horn players — to his home and they would have a jam session,” said Marc Loehrwald, a saxophone player who maintained Wess’ website. “He loved to play with other musicians. It was his life.”
Frank Wellington Wess was born Jan. 4, 1922, in Kansas City, Mo., and his family moved when he was a small child to the town of Sapulpa, Okla., near Tulsa. “When I was 10 years old my life started — I got my saxophone,” Wess said in a National Endowment for the Arts interview in 2007.
He eventually put the instrument away because the school orchestra played a lot of classical music he didn’t enjoy. Then the family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1935 and he heard Taylor and others play jazz sessions in the high school orchestra room during lunch periods.
“I said, ‘this is what I want to do,’” he said in the All About Jazz interview. “So I got my horn, had it fixed up and started playing again.”
His early career as a professional was interrupted by military service during World War II — but he kept playing because the U.S. Army assigned him to various music ensembles that toured overseas. When he was out of the Army, he played with the famed Billy Eckstine Orchestra and several other outfits. And using the G.I. Bill education benefit, he began studying the flute in 1949 with Wallace Mann, a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.
Count Basie had heard Wess on saxophone and called him several times to try and hire him. “I told him I was busy doing something else and I wasn’t going to quit school to go back on the road, because I had had enough of the road,” Wess told All About Jazz. Finally Basie convinced him by promising a regular salary and exposure. Wess joined the outfit in 1953 and stayed until 1964.
Wess said that one reason the band was so great was that unlike some other leaders, Basie strove to keep players for long periods of time. “If you fire people every four or six months, I don’t care how good they are, you still got a bunch of strangers sitting on the band stand,” Wess said in the NEA interview. “When they stay there long enough, they get to be brothers and you got a family, and everybody’s happy and the music shows it.”
And with Basie, Wess got to show off his expertise on his new instrument. Because of his time with the Basie band “being featured on the flute, it gave the instrument its place in jazz,” said longtime jazz critic and historian Dan Morgenstern. “Also, of the people who played flute, he was pretty much the best of them.”
Wess went on to play with several other ensembles, including the house band led by Taylor for “The David Frost Show” that ran on CBS from 1969 to 1972. And with an old friend from the Basie days, fellow saxophonist Frank Foster, he played jazz dates over a 20-year period under the title “Two Franks.”
In 2007 he was named an NEA Jazz Master.
Wess may have not been involved in starting new movements in jazz, but he was known for his consistently fine musicianship over an exceptionally long career. And he knew how to move an audience.
“I think you can play anything you want to,” Wess said in his NEA interview, “as long as you take the audience along with you.”
In addition to Tsutsumi, he is survived by two daughters, Michele Kane and Francine Wess, both of New York; two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.