Frank Wess named “National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master”

Multi-instrumentalist Frank Wess is being honored as one of the most influential and innovative flutists in jazz history.

NEA’s press release:

Seven Living Legends Of American Music Are Named As New National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters

October 6, 2006 at 9:00 PM EDT

Standing before an audience of jazz fans at Washington’s Lincoln Theater, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia tonight revealed the names of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, Class of 2007.

Chairman Gioia made the announcement at a concert of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival featuring two previously named NEA Jazz Masters, Paquito D’Rivera (Class of 2005) and Roy Haynes (Class of 1995). This announcement of the Class of 2007, delivered as part of the first concert of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s season, marked the 25th anniversary of the NEA Jazz Masters program.

Each year since 1982, the Arts Endowment has conferred the NEA Jazz Masters Award on a handful of living legends who have made major contributions to this distinctively American art form. Recognized as the nation’s highest honor in the art of jazz, the award to date has been given to 87 great figures in American music. With Chairman Gioia’s announcement, another seven may now call themselves NEA Jazz Masters.

The seven new NEA Jazz Masters are Toshiko Akiyoshi (bandleader), Curtis Fuller (solo instrumentalist, trombone), Ramsey Lewis (pianist), Jimmy Scott (vocalist), Frank Wess (solo instrumentalist, flute), and Phil Woods (composer-arranger). In addition, the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy is being given to Dan Morgenstern.

“The jazz world has come to regard the NEA Jazz Masters Award as its equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize,” Chairman Gioia stated. “We are immensely proud that the Arts Endowment can not only honor these American artists but also help them to forge new connections with the public, thanks to the outreach and education programs of the NEA Jazz Masters program.”

Each member of the NEA Jazz Masters Class of 2007 has made a distinctive, lifelong contribution to jazz. Bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi helped re-make the big-band tradition for contemporary audiences, with a vibrant new sound and new international influences. Trombonist Curtis Fuller, an omnipresent mainstay of the hard-bop era, continues to flourish today in varied settings as a performer and teacher. Pianist Ramsey Lewis spans the influences of gospel music, classical music, and mainstream jazz; while Jimmy Scott has brought his deeply affecting voice and style to everything from ballads to rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Multi-instrumentalist Frank Wess is being honored as one of the most influential and innovative flutists in jazz history. Master alto saxophonist Phil Woods has been named an NEA Jazz Master in the composer-arranger category, in recognition of his contributions to the modern jazz repertoire. As for Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, he has devoted himself to jazz advocacy as an historian, archivist, author, editor, and educator.

Profiles of the 2007 NEA Jazz Masters are available on the web site.

The seven new NEA Jazz Masters will officially receive their awards at a ceremony and concert held in New York City on January 12, 2007, as a highlight of the annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education.


“I was excited, honored, and grateful to be considered for this award.” – Frank Wess

A multi-instrumentalist whose inspired solos have kept big-band jazz fresh and vital into the present, Frank Wess is revered as a smoothly swinging tenor saxophone player in the Lester Young tradition, as an expert alto saxophonist, and as one of the most influential, instantly recognizable flutists in jazz history.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Wess first studied classical music and played with the Kansas All-State High School Orchestra. After moving to Washington, DC, as a teenager, in 1935, he began to play jazz in lunchtime jam sessions with fellow students, including Billy Taylor™. An early touring career was interrupted by military service—he played in a 17-piece band during World War II—and then was resumed when Wess came out of the Army and joined an outstanding lineup in the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.

It was at this time that he took up the flute, studying at the Modern School of Music in Washington. All this time, Count Basie™ had been calling. Wess finally joined his big band in 1953, helping it to evolve during its so-called “New Testament” phase and remaining with it until 1964. Wess’s flute playing, set off by Neal Hefti’s arrangements, contributed strongly to the Basie Orchestra’s new sound, while his tenor saxophone playing served as a counterpoint to the more fiery sound of Frank Foster™.

Wess has played in countless settings since the 1960s: with Clark Terry’s™ big band, the New York Quartet with Roland Hanna, Dameronia (1981-85), and Toshiko Akiyoshi™’s Jazz Orchestra. During this period, he also bridged the worlds of jazz and popular show business. Wess performed as a staff musician for ABC Television, both for the Dick Cavett Show and for the David Frost Show (with the Billy Taylor™ Orchestra). In Broadway pit bands, he played for shows such as Sammy Davis’s Golden Boy (starring Sammy Davis), Irene (with Debbie Reynolds), and Sugar Babies (with Mickey Rooney). For ten years, he played first-chair tenor saxophonist in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band.

He has also led his own big bands on world tours, and has played recently in the Dizzy Gillespie™ Alumni Big Band. Widely recorded on many labels, both as a leader and a sideman, Wess is a perennial favorite in Down Beat polls and a now-legendary presence on the jazz scene.