Happy 91st, Frank Wess!
George Cables posted a note on Facebook today in which he said, “I'm having a great time at Birdland this week with Frank Wess, who's celebrating his 91st birthday today, but you'd never know it! In addition, Victor Lewis, Santi Debriano, and Roni Ben-Hur are playing. If you can, you should try to make it out.”
Wess came to prominence with Count Basie in the fifties. He and fellow tenor saxophonist Frank Foster were the principals on the Neil Hefti flag-waver, “Two Franks,” and they continued the two-tenor tradition that Basie established in the mid-thirties with Lester Young and Herschel Evans, and continued in the forties with the pairing of Buddy Tate and Don Byas, and later in the decade with Illinois Jacquet and Lucky Thompson.
Wess was born in the same Kansas City, Missouri, that was home for the Basie band in its early years and an incubator of Wess’s early musical skills. Both his parents were teachers, and music was in the household, too. The family moved to Washington, D.C. around 1940 and Wess landed a job playing alto saxophone with the house band of the Howard Theater. At pianist John Malachi’s suggestion, he switched to tenor, and he reflected on this transition when he spoke with Stanley Dance for The World of Count Basie:
“When I started on tenor, I found I liked it better. I liked Chu Berry and Ben Webster, and I’d known Don Byas from the time I was ten years old…But Lester Young impressed me more then. He was my inspiration.
“I jammed with him in Washington, and he showed me a lot of things about the horn…For a long time I played more like him and sounded more like him than anybody, and I played nearly everything he recorded. Then one day a friend of mine, just a guy who liked music, came around where I was playing a matinee in Baltimore.
“’You know what?’ he said, “You sound just like Prez. You’ll never get any credit for that. Everything you play just makes him bigger’.”
“That made sense to me, and I gradually changed.”
In addition to tenor and alto, Wess, along with James Moody and Herbie Mann, was one of the first musicians to popularlze the flute in modern jazz. Here he is on tenor two years ago at a mere 89 years of age playing "Never Let Me Go" with Barry Harris and Rufus Reid. Enjoy this, and if you’re not on your way to Birdland, tune in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode for more of the great Frank Wess.