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

UN: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Pianist Myra Melford’s new CD “Life Carries Me This Way” features solo piano interpretations of drawings by modern artist Don Reich. She performs songs from the album, talks about turning art into music, and joins host Eric Felten in some Chicago boogie-woogie on "Beyond Category."