We 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.
(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.”
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.