Frank Wess, a pioneering jazz flutist and tenor saxophonist who spent his formative years in Washington D.C., associating himself with the city for the rest of his life, died yesterday afternoon of kidney failure, reports NPR. He was 91 years old.
A beloved and highly respected player, Wess had a long and extraordinarily versatile musical life—-moving from the big bands to bebop to vocal accompaniment and back again, many times over, and lead and co-leading his own bands—-in a 70-year career that began in the nation’s capital.
Born in Kansas City in 1922, Frank Wellington Wess moved to D.C. with his family at age 13, in 1935. By that time Wess had already been playing alto saxophone for three years; he would also learn tenor sax. After graduating from Dunbar High School (where he was classmates with another D.C. jazz legend, Dr. Billy Taylor), Wess began playing in area big bands, including a brief stint in the band led by Baltimore singer Blanche Calloway, making him a regular presence in the busy jazz scenes of U Street and 14th Street NW, as well as that of H Street NE.
Shortly before his 20th birthday, however, the U.S. entered World War II and Wess was drafted into the Army. He spent his military service playing saxophone and clarinet in the 17-piece U.S. Army band. Upon his discharge, Wess was hired by the Billy Eckstine band, then a great incubator of jazz talent; fellow band members included Miles Davis and Art Blakey. He also worked in bands led by Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson, at the same studying at D.C.’s Modern School of Music, where he earned a degree in flute.
In 1953 Wess joined Count Basie‘s band. It was his professional breakthrough, where he would become a high-profile ensemble player and soloist. While in Basie’s band, Wess pioneered the use of the flute in jazz, becoming a key voice in the sophisticated arrangements that the band became known for. He also established a close partnership with saxophone sectionmate Frank Foster, working prolifically with him over the years and eventually starting a long-lived quintet called The Two Franks.
He left the Basie band in 1964, establishing himself in New York music circles. He was a contract player for ABC-TV for a decade, playing in the house bands for Dick Cavett and Sammy Davis Jr.‘s TV shows among others; in the ’70s, he would work for NBC in the Saturday Night Live band. He also became a favorite accompanist for Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Anita O’Day, and worked through the 1980s in the Toshiko Akayoshi big band, and the Tadd Dameron repertory band Dameronia. He led his own big band and often his own small ones, in addition to continuing work with the Two Franks. He released a dozen recordings under his own name, but appeared on 604 total records throughout his career.
He remained active to the end of his life. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2007 and, earlier this year, releasing his final recording (made in 2011), Magic 101. It featured him playing exclusively tenor saxophone and showed that he had lost none of his punch or lyricism even in his advanced years.
Information about Wess’ survivors and a funeral date and location have not yet been released.
Photo: Steve Mynett