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

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Agei
X
Elizabeth Lee
July 20, 2014 2:36 AM
Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Video

Video Diplomatic Crisis Grows Over MH17 Plane Crash

The Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine is drawing reaction from leaders around the world. With suspicions growing that a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft, there are increasing tensions in the international community over who is to blame. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Undocumented Immigrants Face Perilous Journey to US, No Guarantees

Every day, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central America attempt the arduous journey through Mexico and turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol -- with the hope that they will not be turned away. But the dangers they face along the way are many, and as Ramon Taylor reports from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, their fate rests on more than just the reception they get at the US border.
Video

Video Scientists Create Blackest Material Ever

Of all the black things in the universe only the infamous "black holes" are so black that not even a tiny amount of light can bounce back. But scientists have managed to create material almost as black, and it has enormous potential use. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Fog Collector Transforming Maasai Water Harvesting in Kenya

The Maasai people of Kenya are known for their cattle-herding, nomadic lifestyle. But it's an existence that depends on access to adequate water for their herds and flocks. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA, on a "fog collector."

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

New Orleans-based Water Seed joins Shawna Renee inside the "Soul Lounge" where they introduce listeners to their latest album, a wonderful fusion of jazz, soul and rhythm & blues. The group also explains how the heart of New Orleans influences each of them as musicians and songwriters.