Frank Wess, a legendary figure in the jazz music scene, has left an indelible mark on the world of saxophone and flute playing. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on January 4, 1922, Wess was one of the pioneers who masterfully bridged the gap between big band and small ensemble playing. His blend of technical prowess and musical expressivity elevated the status of the flute in jazz, while his tenor saxophone playing was the epitome of smooth, swinging elegance, in the spirit of Lester Young.
Wess’ musical journey began when he was just ten years old, playing the alto saxophone. His interest in music burgeoned further after his family moved to Washington, D.C. There, he attended the respected Dunbar High School and later studied at the Modern School of Music.
His musical career was temporarily interrupted by World War II when Wess served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946. Upon his discharge, he joined Billy Eckstine’s orchestra and eventually gravitated towards the tenor saxophone and flute, instruments that would become his musical signatures.
In 1953, Wess became a pivotal member of the Count Basie Orchestra, one of the premier big bands of the era. His skills as a saxophonist and flutist were instrumental in shaping the “New Testament” Basie band sound, bringing a distinctive blend of rhythm, melody, and harmony to the ensemble. His duals with tenor saxophonist Frank Foster were a big part of the orchestra’s performances.
Following his decade-long tenure with Basie, Wess moved on to freelance work, playing with various ensembles and collaborating with prominent musicians like Johnny Coles, Kenny Clarke, and Kenny Burrell. In his later years, Wess continued to perform and record, displaying an undiminished passion for music and an unwavering commitment to his craft. His album “Magic 101”, released just months before his passing in 2013, exemplified the depth and breadth of his musical talent, featuring poignant and masterful performances that were testament to his lifelong dedication to jazz.
Throughout his seven-decade-long career, Wess garnered numerous accolades, including being named an NEA Jazz Master in 2007, the highest honor for a jazz artist in the United States. Despite his passing at the age of 91, Frank Wess’s legacy lives on, his music continuing to inspire saxophonists and jazz enthusiasts around the world.
Page last updated 7/15/2023.