One of the first major jazz flutists, Frank Wess has also been a top Lester Young-influenced tenorman, an expert first altoist, and an occasional composer/arranger—certainly a valuable man to have around. Early on he toured with Blanche Calloway, served in the military, and had stints with Billy Eckstine Orchestra (1946), Eddie Heywood, Lucky Millinder, and R&B star Bull Moose Jackson. That was all just a prelude to Wess’ important period with Count Basie’s big band, from 1953-1964. His flute playing, so expertly utilized in Neal Hefti’s arrangements, gave the Basie Orchestra a fresh new sound, and his cool-toned tenor contrasted well with the more passionate sound of fellow tenor Frank Foster; Wess also had opportunities to play alto with the classic big band. Since that time, Wess has freelanced in countless settings, playing with Clark Terry’s big band, the New York Quartet (with Roland Hanna) during the second half of the 1970s, Dameronia (1981-1985), and Toshiko Akiyoshi’s big band, and has also had occasional reunions with Frank Foster. Frank Wess has led sessions for Commodore (1954), Savoy, Prestige, Moodsville, Pablo (with Foster), Progressive, Uptown, Concord, and Town Crier.
I caught up with Frank Wess during his May 2005 gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble.
All About Jazz: Frank, with your wisdom and knowledge of jazz, how do you think jazz is doing today?
Frank Wess: Its doing as good as it ever was. It’s never been the biggest music in this country, because most of the people in this country don’t know about jazz and a lot of ‘em don’t want to know about jazz.
AAJ: Why is it, with Europe and Japan, that there’s so much appreciation for jazz?
FW: Well, because they hear it and they feel it and its different for them. They’re interested in it. Over here, its like you walk in a room and you see a chair…well the chair is supposed to be there. That’s the way people feel about jazz, they feel its supposed to be there. They don’t think of it really as an art form…most of the people don’t.
AAJ: They just take it for granted.
FW: Yeah, its just supposed to be here. (laugh)
AAJ: Count Basie…that band…that sound…tell us about working with the Count.
FW: Well its just a matter of having a band. And to have a band you have to have men that are together long enough to become a band…otherwise you’ve just got a bunch of good musicians trying to play together. When people get together and work together, they get to know each other, it doesn’t matter if they like each other or not, but they play together and work together. You can’t fire somebody every six months. He (Count Basie) worked ‘em like Duke (Ellington)…when I was eight years old, and then when I was 50 years old, he had some of the same people in the band! That was the secret of Basie’s band: he kept it simple and swingin’ and let the cats stay there until they knew each other.
AAJ: You were born in Kansas City, right?
FW: Yea, but actually I grew up in Oklahoma. A lot of musicians came from Oklahoma: Oscar Pettiford, Don Byas, Erroll Bostick, Dick Wilson, Cecil McBee, Walter Page, Jay McShann…you can go on and on…all of them from Oklahoma.
AAJ: Jazz historian Phil Schaap told me to ask you about Dick Wilson…
FW: Well, he was the tenor player with Andy Kirk’s band when the bands only featured only one solo tenor player. Basie started the two tenor player thing in the bands. But Dick Wilson was with Andy Kirk and I knew him and we used to hang together (laugh). He was much older than me. I was like 17 and he was 27, somethin’ like that…but we used to hang and drink together and play together. He was a very nice cat.
AAJ: Did you learn from him?
FW: Oh yeah. He was nice…and Don Byas when he got in that band too…’cause I had known Don since I was 10 or 11 years old. I knew him in Oklahoma. So all us Okies used to hang out. It was fun.
AAJ: Young players today look up to you. Who do you look up to?
“Jazz is alright. It’ll be alright, ’cause it’s all over the world now. You’ve got good players everywhere now.”
— Frank Wess
FW: I love everybody! (laugh) Anybody can play. Age doesn’t have that much to do with it. I mean, jazz…when it comes to ensemble playing, that’s a different thing. You have to have experience to be able to do that. But for young players…I like all of ‘em, a whole lot of ‘em I like. There are a lot of good ones out here today. So, jazz is in good shape. Since they started the stage bands 50 or so years ago. Like here, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra and they can play! They’re capable of doin’ it. When I went to college, if you played jazz they’d put you out of school. So its changed a lot. I’m glad they woke up and started putting it in schools.
AAJ: How about Jazz at Lincoln Center? Do you think we’re doing a good job?
FW: Oh yeah, no doubt about it. Wynton (Marsalis) is doing a good job. I can’t think of anybody that would do a better job. He’s got the experience and he’s got the know-how and he’s got the dedication and he knows how to talk to the people he has to talk to. That’s important.
AAJ: Tell us about the beauty of the tenor saxophone.
FW: (laugh) I don’t have to tell you…you can hear it. (laugh)
AAJ: Did you pick the instrument or did the instrument pick you?
FW: Actually, I started out playing alto saxophone in Washington D.C. That’s where I started playing jazz. I played in a kids band and the piano player said he hears me playing like a tenor than an alto. I just got a new alto and I told my mother about it and she said, if you want to trade it for a tenor, you’re going to have to pay for it. So, I traded it for a tenor and I’ve been playing tenor ever since.
AAJ: How did the flute become an instrument of yours?
FW: Well, that’s something I wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn’t been able to take lessons. My orchestra teacher in high school gave me one to take home, but I found out quickly that I couldn’t do too much with it by myself, so I just put in on the backburner and when I got a chance I would do it…and that’s what I did.
Frank Wess mentors the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
AAJ: Tell me about time on the road. Does it teach you about the world, spending so much time traveling?
FW: All your experience teaches you, wherever you are, whether you’re on the road or not. You get to see a lot of different things and meet a lot of different people. I had quit the road five years before I joined Basie. And then in the Army, I was all over Africa and Italy…had a 17-piece band. We accompanied Josephine Baker in North Africa playing for the troops. I’ve been doin’ it for a long time. I never had an agent and I work all the time. People call me, they don’t need to call an agent.
AAJ: With all the pop superstars making trillions of dollars…the whole marketing thing…do you think jazz gets a fair shake?
FW: Its like I said before, most of the people in this country don’t listen to jazz. They’re more into country music. Jazz has its audience and they’re a very dedicated audience, even though it’s a small audience compared to other music. People like to see things, they don’t want to listen, really. Most of the time they want music as a background to their conversation. Jazz people listen to music. Other music, people want to see people jumpin’ around actin’ crazy with some funny costumes on. They want to see music, they don’t want to hear it.
AAJ: Jazz is an intellectual music… a thinking man’s music.
FW: It is. Before it was dance music. That’s what people like. Just like today, you can go to any salsa club and you can’t get in there…people are dancing…people want to be a part of it. When the swing bands were traveling and playing dances all over, jazz was popular.
AAJ: What advice would you give to young people considering getting into music?
FW: Make sure they can live with it…’cause if they can’t, there’s no point getting’ into it. (laugh) It’s a 24-hour thing. If you can’t deal with it 24-hours, whatever it is, music or anything else, you shouldn’t bother with it…at least not as a life’s work. Whatever you choose you gotta be able to live with it 24-hours a day ‘cause you might have to do it that long to make a living at it.
AAJ: What brought you into music?
FW: I always liked music. When I was a kid the only thing I could listen to was to stay up nights and listen to the bands on the radio like Earl Hines and Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, Claude Hopkins… bands like that.
AAJ: And the blues has a lot to do with it, huh?
FW: That’s all a part of it, ya know. It’s just one of the many styles of black music… folk music. That’s what it is actually, black folk music. Jazz is alright. It’ll be alright, ‘cause it’s all over the world now. You’ve got good players everywhere now. Its not just here in this country like it used to be. Now its all over.
Frank Wess: The Message of Swing
Frank Stewart & Jazz at Lincoln Center