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

Sunni-Shi’ite Divide Threatens Stability of Middle East

Ancient dispute that traces back to the Islamic Revolution fueling modern day unrest More

Shifting Demographics Lie Beneath Racial Tensions in Ferguson

As Missouri suburb morphed from majority white to majority black, observer say power structure remained static More

Video Artists Shun Russia's Profanity Law

Restriction is toughest since Soviet era, though critics reject move as patronizing and ineffective act of censorship in line with a string of conservative morality laws More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Paquito D'Rivera, who has won 12 Grammys, is celebrated both for his artistry in Latin jazz and his achievements as a classical composer. D'Rivera's latest project, “Jazz Meets the Classics,” was released this month. He joins us on the latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."