Celebrated flutist, saxophonist, and NEA Jazz Master Frank Wess died earlier today (October 30, 2013) of kidney failure, as confirmed by his partner Sara Tsutsumi. He was 91.
Wess, full name Frank Wellington Wess, was born in Kansas City, MO on January 4, 1922. He spent most of his young life in Oklahoma, playing classical music with the All-State High School Orchestra.
In 1935, at the age of 13, Wess and his family moved to Washington D.C., where he found himself at a high school with a number of jazz icons in waiting, such as Billy Taylor. Lunchtime jam sessions at the school represented Wess’ first introduction to jazz performance and laid the groundwork to Wess’ experimentation with other instruments, including the tenor saxophone. By the age of 19, Wess had already started moving up the ranks in the big band circuit; however World War II stalled his rise while he served in -and later led- an Army Band playing tenor saxophone and clarinet.
After the war Wess went on to perform with the likes of Billy Eckstine and Bull Moose Jackson before enrolling at the Modern School of Music in Washington D.C. At this point, he had contemplated learning the flute for more than a decade, having been given one as a graduation present by his high school orchestra teacher Henry Grant – Who happened to also be one of Duke Ellington‘s early piano teachers – and jumped at the chance to learn. In 1949, he continued to study the flute with Wallace Mann from the National Symphony Orchestra and Harold Bennett from the Metropolitan Opera in New York before joining Count Basie’s orchestra in 1953.
Wess became an integral part of the unique musical sensibilities of Basie’s orchestra, composing songs for and performing with the group during the height of their ‘Second Testament’ of fame. He served as a triple threat alto/tenor saxophonist, and flutist with the group for 11-years, going on the become one of the first distinguished jazz flutists, paving the way a new generation and style of flutists, and a new sound for the instrument’s future.
Wess moved to New York City permanently shortly after his tenure in Count Basie’s orchestra, where he led his own groups and played in a number of big bands. He also booked long-term gigs performing on popular television shows of the era, including the Dick Cavett Show, and spent ten years performing as part of the Saturday Night Live band. In that period, he also continued to perform as part of the Two Franks Quintet alongside fellow saxophonist and flutist Frank Foster – A colleague from Basie’s orchestra.
Wess remained an active and highly-respected member of the New York Jazz Scene through to the day he died. His last project, released just four months ago, is titled Magic 101 and sees the jazz legend playing alongside Kenny Barron (piano), Kenny Davis (bass), and Winard Harper (drums).
He received an American Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2007, leaving a powerful legacy in the 604 known recordings he has been featured in after more than 70 years on the music scene; laying the groundwork for a completely new style of flute performance for future generations.
Rest in peace, Frank Wess.
Watch Frank Wess perform ‘The Very Thought of You’ below: