News / Arts & Entertainment

    Remembering Jazz Legend Frank Wess

    Frank Wess in the early years of his music career. (Photo by Terry Cryer)
    Frank Wess in the early years of his music career. (Photo by Terry Cryer)
    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
    Remembering Jazz Legend Frank Wessi
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

    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 MynettFrank Wess at the Jazz Cellar, Vancouver, Oct. 5, 2005. Photo by Steve Mynett
    x
    Frank Wess at the Jazz Cellar, Vancouver, Oct. 5, 2005. Photo by Steve Mynett
    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:


    You May Like

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora

    New in Music Alley

    Border Crossings: A Great Big Worldi
    || 0:00:00
    ...  
     
    X
    April 27, 2016 12:30 PM
    Duo Ian Axel and Chad King who are better known as "A Great Big World" released their sophomore CD in 2015, "When the Morning Comes" and they join Border Crossings host Larry London to perform songs from the new CD and also their biggest hit, "Say Something."

    Duo Ian Axel and Chad King who are better known as "A Great Big World" released their sophomore CD in 2015, "When the Morning Comes" and they join Border Crossings host Larry London to perform songs from the new CD and also their biggest hit, "Say Something."