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November 06, 2013

Remembering Jazz Legend Frank Wess

by Richard Paul

Legendary jazz musician Frank Wess, 91, died on November 3.  For more than 70 years, Wess performed around the world, playing multiple instruments in some America’s greatest jazz bands.  

To say that Frank Wess started his long and illustrious career early would be an understatement.  The fact is - as Wess said in a 2006 interview

“Music has always been a part of my life,” he said.  

Remembering Jazz Legend Frank Wess

As a young child in Oklahoma, Wess’s home was filled with music.  His mother had been a singer and his father had played cornet in a family band.

“We used to go a church and they had a left-handed violin player that played there," Wess said. "I’m left-handed, so they wanted me to play the violin.  I didn’t want the violin.”

He fooled around a little with his father’s cornet, but he says, “When I got to be 10 years old my life started.”

Wess had a teacher who lived nearby and played the sax.  When he would rehearse with his band, “I could always hear this you know and I liked the saxophone.  So that’s what I wanted.”

His family had moved to Washington, D.C. by then and Wess started taking music lessons from a man in the neighborhood named Henry Grant.  Grant had trained Duke Ellington and would go on to teach Billy Taylor.  With Grant’s training, it wasn’t long before Frank Wess was on stage.

“The saxophone was as big as I was and they just put me out on stage, you know and I played it so much like - when I heard “ba-dah-da-da-da-dah” I was on automatic pilot," he said.  "You know?  I’m gone!”

In high school, Wess took lessons with John Malachi, a pianist who would go on to help invent bee-bop.  But despite this early love of music, the world was almost denied Frank Wess’s talent and ability.  On top of being a musician, as a child he was also a scholar.  And in 1937, at the age of 15, he was pre-med at Howard University.

“I was taking a pre-dental course,” he said.  

That didn’t last too long, as it turns out.  Wess dropped medicine and, he says, “And when I was 17, I was working in the pit band in the Howard Theater.”

The Howard Theater was a principal spot on what was called “The Chit’lin Circuit” - a string of theaters where African-American bands were allowed to play.  At the Howard, Wess was lucky to see and occasionally work with Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunsford, Cab Calloway and - one time - the great Jelly Roll Morton.  In fact, he says it was Jelly Roll who started him on the road to playing tenor sax. 

One night, while jamming, “I made a mistake or something like that and he turned around -- he said, ‘Hey boy, where you from?’  I said, ‘I’m from Oklahoma.’  He said, ‘Look, you can forget it.  You’ll never play the saxophone.’  Said, ‘But one man ever came out of Oklahoma played the saxophone and I taught him.”

Frank Wess at the Jazz Cellar, Vancouver, Oct. 5, 2005. Photo by Steve Mynett
​​​Wess took the great mans’ advice and picked up the tenor sax instead.  And a good thing too.

“I went and changed for the tenor and luckily, after I started playing the tenor I started working,” he said.

And he started traveling.  He also kept on learning.  Picking up the flute while on the road, mastering that instrument too and pioneering its introduction into jazz.

Wess spent 11 years playing flute and tenor sax with the Count Basie band.  He played with Clark Terry into the 1970s. 

Of jazz, Wess said, “It’s a way of life.  That’s what it is, actually.  And that’s what you live for. That’s what you’ve done all your life and that’s what it is.”

Wess continued performing right up to the end, even releasing a new album last June.  Appropriately, it ended with the jazz standard, “All Too Soon.”

Watch the Count Basie Orchestra featuring Thad Jones, Frank Wess & Billy Mitchell in 1960: