Oct 31, 2013
Frank Wess, a pioneering jazz flutist and tenor saxophonist, has died of kidney failure. He was 91 years old.
Born in Kansas City in 1922, Frank Wellington Wess moved to Washington D.C. with his family at age 13, in 1935. After graduating from Dunbar High School (where he was classmates with another D.C. jazz legend, Dr. Billy Taylor), Wess began playing in area big bands. He spent his military service playing saxophone and clarinet in the 17-piece U.S. Army band during World War II. Upon his discharge, Wess was hired by the Billy Eckstine band, then a great incubator of jazz talent; fellow band members included Miles Davis and Art Blakey. He also worked in bands led by Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson, at the same studying at D.C.'s Modern School of Music, where he earned a degree in flute.
In 1953 Wess joined Count Basie's band. It was his professional breakthrough, where he would become a high-profile ensemble player and soloist. While in Basie's band, Wess pioneered the use of the flute in jazz, becoming a key voice in the sophisticated arrangements that the band became known for.
Wess left the Basie band in 1964, establishing himself in New York music circles. He also became a favorite accompanist for Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Anita O'Day, and worked through the 1980s in the Toshiko Akayoshi big band, and the Tadd Dameron repertory band Dameronia. Wess was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2007.
He released a dozen recordings under his own name, but appeared on 604 total records throughout his career. His last CD, Magic 101, was released earlier this year on IPO Recordings, and featured him with Kenny Barron (piano), Kenny Davis (bass) and Winard Harper (drums).