Frank Wess, January 4, 1922 – October 30, 2013

Frank WessWe have confirmation that Frank Wess died today. The flutist and saxophonist succumbed to kidney failure at 91. Wess played with undiminished spirit and creativity that kept him in the forefront of jazz soloists for decades after most of his contemporaries had retired or died. A professional from the age of 19, following service in World War Two Wess joined Billy Eckstine’s big band.

After earning a conservatory degree in flute, he became a member of Count Basie’s reed section in 1953 and stayed with Basie until 1964, occasionally playing alto sax in addition to tenor and flute. It was on tenor, however, that he developed a symbiotic relationship with Frank Foster (1928-2011). Their tenor sax partnership became so distinctive that the band was sometimes referred to as the Two Franks edition of the Basie organization.

One of Wess’s flute features with Basie was Neil Hefti’s “Cute.”

Here is Wess in 2009, when he was 87, with with fellow tenorist Scott Robinson in the Gene Ammons-Sonny Stitt specialty “Blues Up And Down.” The rhythm section is Ilya Lushtak, guitar; Tal Ronen, bass; and Quincy Davis, drums.

In 2007, Wess was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Frank Wess, RIP

(Addendum, November 1, 2013)

As he was about to board a plane for Tokyo and a Japanese tour, Scott Roinson sent a message about his friend.

We have lost the great Frank Wess… a dear mentor, friend, and giant of music. Someone I have looked up to my entire musical life. A source of immeasurable inspiration and guidance, as well as friendship. An American treasure. I last saw him less than two weeks before I went on the road, and I knew it would not be long. But as my friend Maria Traversa said to me, “91 years of doing what you love is a pretty good life.” And, from fellow saxophonist Dan Block: “We’ll carry what he gave us throughout our lives.”

For me this is a very personal loss. I worked closely with Frank on many concerts, tours and recordings, and we even started a band together – at his urging – back in the early nineties. My wife and I hold annual cookouts at our home in NJ, and Frank and his beloved Sara were usually there. Here is a photo Maria took of Frank at one of these events, sitting under our giant oak tree with me and Dean Pratt, who is trying out my “echo cornet.”

Dean Pratt, Scott Robinson, Frank Wess

I am incredibly grateful for the time I have known Frank Wess, and for all that he has given me. I will miss him more than I can say.

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  1. Jim Brown says

    Sometime in the 80s or 90s, I was in NYC at a meeting of my professional society, the Audio Engineering Society, and I spotted Frank sitting quietly, unnoticed, at the back of a banquet style event in a large hotel ballroom. I later learned that he would play for us as part of a small band. It was just another gig for a giant of our music.

    C. A. 2005, Frank was invited to join the Chicago Jazz Orchestra in a re-creation of the Basie Band’s monumental recording of Benny Carter’s Kansas City Suite. The assumption was that Frank would play tenor solos, but when he arrived, he told the leader, Jeff Lindberg, that he had played lead alto on those sessions, and that he would like to do so again. He did, along with a first rate Chicago band. The wonderful tenor saxophonist Eddie Johnson was in the section and played some solos. I was part of a small team that recorded it, both audio and video, but to my knowledge,it has not been released.

  2. dick vartanian says

    the first time I heard Frank was on a track named “Two Franks” from a Basie album . I listened to that great performance many times. Sadly, there’s not much like that around anymore

  3. says

    He was a true jazz giant and gentleman – and his significance as a pioneer and master of jazz flute is one of his most important contributions.

  4. Peter Stanger says

    I remember seeing the “Two Franks” edition of the Basie band at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium in 1957. The band had just completed a tour in Europe.That concert is still with me.

  5. Bill Crow says

    I was playing with Terry Gibbs’s quartet opposite the Basie Band in Birdland in 1953. Basie had just put the New Testament band together, and Frank Wess and Frank Foster were the ornaments of the saxophone section. We became good friends right away. Frank Wess kept turning up on gigs that I did here and there, and was always a welcome addition to the festivities. He was connected to the old school, but very contemporary. Another section mate of his from that Basie band, Ernie Wilkins, wrote a lot of good charts, some of the best of which were for that great album Joe Turner did called “Boss of the Blues,” which had some wonderful Frank Wess solos and ensemble work. I often return to that album for a cheer-up. Frank left a lot of good music behind, and went out with a whole lot of love.

  6. Steve voce says

    Frank had a great sense of humour. Once he was offered a job in Long Island, a long way from his home, and the money was no good.
    ‘I’m afraid I can’t make it,’ he told the guy who offered him the gig.
    ‘Why not?’ Asked the fellow.
    ‘I’ve got anal glaucoma,’ said Frank.
    ‘Anal glaucoma” said the guy. ‘What’s that?’
    ‘I can’t see me getting my ass up there,’ said Frank.

    Steve Voce

  7. Charlton Price says

    The New York Jazz Quartet , with Roland Hanna, was another outstanding segment of Frank’s remarkably long, distinguished career. A great artist. A stalwart in the music. — with huge charm, sensibilities, and musical smarts. We’ll thank Frank for always, and treasure what he created for the music. and for us.

  8. says

    Frank Wess…! what a beautiful tenor sound he had. Guts, grace, beauty, grit and great heart. He was my favorite of all the Basie tenor players that came along throughout the years. You could always tell when it was Frank. And, he never lost that sound. You could tell just by that that he was a true gentleman.

  9. says

    I am sad and lonely remembering Magic. He played on several albums I recorded, and his New York Jazz Quartet hired me as the girl singer on my first tour of Japan in 1977. His musicianship and ribald sense of humor, his gravelly voice and that great answering machine message of his: “Now, you’re not gonna believe this, but I was just thinking about you…” I was privileged to know the man and call him friend. -Sloane