Frank Wess In the Tradition

Today is Frank Wess’s 92nd birthday anniversary.  It’s also the day of his memorial service, which is being held at 6:30 at St. Peter’s Church.   It’ll be the warmest place in New York City.

With the news of Wess’s death on October 30, a few correspondents wondered if he had been the last surviving member of Count Basie’s great big band of the 1950’s, the so-called New Testament band.  Actually, trumpeters Clark Terry and Joe Wilder are still with us from that band, but Wess may have been the last saxophonist in the Count’s realm to have had a direct link to Lester Young, and to the glorious tenor tradition of the Swing Era.

In Stanley Dance’s indispensable chronicle, The World of Count Basie, Wess recalled, “When I started on tenor, I liked Chu Berry and Ben Webster, and I’d known Don Byas from the time I was ten years old in Oklahoma.  He went to Langston University in Oklahoma, and I went out there during the summer, studying saxophone.  He led a band there and he always played the same way. But Lester Young impressed me more then.  He was my inspiration.”

Young, of course, was an inspiration to an entire generation of saxophonists, including Charlie Parker.  In his new biography of Parker, Kansas City Lightning, Stanley Crouch says that Bird had a “breakthrough” one night listening to Young playing with Basie at the Reno Club in Kansas City.  “He began to understand what the tenor saxophonist was doing, and he broke out into a cold sweat.  From that point on, Charlie Parker came under the sway of that tall, light-skinned man who held his horn out to the side and pumped his ideas into the air.”

Frank Wess was born in that same Kansas City musical hot house that was a launching pad for Basie, Young, and Bird.  But his family moved to Oklahoma when he was in grade school, and then to Washington, D.C., where his father was a school principal and his mother a music teacher.  Billy Taylor was a classmate of Wess’s in high school, and they later worked together in the house band that Taylor led for the David Frost Show.  

As it happened, D.C. was also where Wess had a significant encounter with his tenor-playing hero.  “I jammed with [Lester] in Washington, and he showed me a lot of things about the horn, and how to make some of the sounds he got that other people were not making. 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 matinees 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.”

Crouch notes that the kind of access Wess enjoyed with Young was something Bird didn’t experience in Kansas City.  “He would never have the moments of direct communication that fellow saxophonist Frank Wess did a few years later in Washington, when he and a buddy went to Young’s hotel to pay their respects, and were called up to his room, where the tenor saxophonist greeted them in his long underwear, hat atop his head, cigarette case filled with reefers, and his horn out.  As the young musicians sat rapt before him, Lester Young shared a lifetime’s worth of lessons: alternate fingerings, breathing techniques, advice on tone production, the great man a light-skinned Oracle right before them.  No, none of that for young Charlie.  His unrequited apprenticeship ended when Basie took Prez off to New York City [in 1936].  He would have to find another mentor.”

Crouch also reports that Wess had a DC connection with Biddy Fleet, the legendary guitarist whom Parker jammed with at Dan Wall’s Chili House in Harlem around 1940. Fleet was apparently the guitarist Parker was playing with when he made his breakthrough while jamming on the chord changes of “Cherokee.”  Referring to Fleet’s mechanical aptitude, Wess said, “Biddy liked to figure out how things worked…The touch and the mind, he was born with it. It was a gift.”

(Frank Wess and the author, Litchfield Jazz Fest 2004; photo by Steven Sussman)

Wess came to prominence paired with Frank Foster on “Two Franks,” “Two for the Blues,” and “Blues Backstage,” in Basie’s newly resurrected big band in 1953.  The two Franks carried on the two-tenor lineage that Basie instituted with Young and Herschel Evans in 1936.  Billy Eckstine’s mid-40’s orchestra made a more formalized ritual of tenor battles with duelists Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons.  Following service in the Army during World War II, Wess joined Eckstine in 1946 when Ammons, as well as Fats Navarro and Miles Davis, were still with Mr. B.  He then worked with pianist Eddie Heywood and the great jump blues bands of Lucky Millinder and Bullmoose Jackson.

In 1949, under the G.I. Bill, Wess returned to D.C. to study at the Howard University Music School.  There he concentrated on flute and arranging.  He told Stanley Dance: “I had heard [flutist] Wayman Carver when those records by Chick Webb first came out [in 1936]. I was always interested in flute, but then I didn’t have a teacher.” 

(Frank Wess; photo by Terry Cryer)

By the time Wess joined Basie in 1953, the flute would soon gain prominence in jazz through the work of Wess, Sam Most, James Moody, Jerome Richardson, and Herbie Mann. Here’s how Basie recalled his decision to feature the instrument. “That was the time when the new thing we went [into Birdland] with was Frank Wess playing the flute,” he said in his autobiography, Good Morning Blues.  “Frank was an excellent flute player, but he had been with us for a little while before I found that out.  Don Redman hipped me to him.  We were uptown playing a gig somewhere, and Don came by and asked me how Frank was doing, and he said, ‘Has he played anything on the flute for you yet?’ And I said, ‘Well, I didn’t know about that.’ And Don said, ‘Why don’t you try him?’

“So one day at the Savoy we were doing a jam and I told Frank, ‘Why don’t you take a couple of choruses on your flute?’ And he looked surprised. ‘You really want me to?’ I said, ‘Yeah, take a couple and let’s see what happens.’

“So he went out there and played and broke it up, and as soon as I heard him, that was when I realized that we had a new thing to go back down into Birdland with. So that’s how the flute things started, because it seemed to me that it excited just about everybody that came down there. ‘Hey, what is that?’ they said. ‘What’s he doing, jazzing the flute?’

“And not long after, everywhere you looked, here come the flutes. Here come the flutes. Here come the flutes.  Arrangers started leaving special spots for flutes.  Later we also began to feature flute duets and little flute ensemble passages. We still do. They can put something different in somebody else’s books, but Frank Wess is the man who really brought the flute into the jazz scene beginning right down there in Birdland.”

(Basie-ites Ernie Wilkins, Charlie Fowlkes, Frank Wess, and Joe Newman in Geneva, 1956)

Basie cited a Carnegie Hall concert in 1954 to illustrate how essential Wess was to his success. The Carnegie Hall lineup included Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker and Lester Young. “For our own spot, Frank Wess did his thing on “Perdido,” with his flute on the first solo and his tenor on the follow-up, and then we sent both Franks out there together on Neil Hefti’s “Two Franks,” and of course they tore it up.”

Over the years, Wess was rightly celebrated not only for his longevity but for the brilliance of his playing right up till the end of his 91-year-long life.  Here he is with Scott Robinson at Birdland five years ago playing one of the standards of the two tenor tradition, the Gene Ammons-Sonny Stitt classic, “Blues Up and Down.”  It’s hard not to marvel at the quality and power of Frank Wess, who was still tearing it up decades after he did the same for Basie.




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