Frank Wess leads the flute revival – by Frank Dixon
“Every time I look around I see a new jazz flute player,” says Frank Wess, who was in at the start of the jazz flute revival.
We were in the artists’ bar at Belle Vue, Manchester. Frank was relaxing between the two Basie sessions of Wednesday, April 3.
A soft-spoken man of medium build, he has a neat little moustache and penetrating, widely-spaced eyes that make him look younger than his 35 years. He was tired from the Basie tour’s gruelling travelling, but he was ready to talk flute.
And I was wager to listen to an expert on an instrument which, I am sure, will soon establish itself as firmly in British as in American jazz.
“I first studied flute at the Modern School of Music in Washington in 1950,” Frank told me. “My teacher was Wallace Mann, principal flute with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington. When I first told him I wanted to learn flute purely for jazz he just laughed.”
On other Jazz flautists Frank said:
“Sam Most plays very prettily, and when I made the longplayer ‘Flutes and Reeds’ I had great fun working with Jermone Richardson.”
“I’ve heard a lot about Bobby Jasper, but up to now I’ve never actually heard him play. The late Esy Morales, though not strictly a jazzman, was a player whose work I greatly admire.
“Wayman Carver is still around, incidentally. I met him a few month ago at Atlanta, Georgia, where he’s now teaching.”
“Kincaid of the Philadelphia Symphony, is the greatest,” Wess went on. “Nicolai and my old teacher, Wallace Mann, also rate pretty high.”
When I asked him whether he played anything besides flute and tenor, Frank told me: “I was solo clarinet with the 5th U.S. Army Band from ’41 to ’45. But nowadays I only play clarinet only when I have to. It’s an instrument I don’t care for – doesn’t give you any satisfaction even when you’ve really studied it.”
Well plays a Powell closed G sharp Boehm with open holes. He put the instrument through its paces for me. It has an extension to low B natural, and when I tried it myself I found it had very much more resistance than my own Selmer. Though made of metal it had more power and a bigger range of volume than many wooden flutes I have tried.
Frank Wess does not use the conventional “smile” type of embouchure but blows with lips thrust well forward. “You loose a little refinement that way,” he explained. “But you get better intonation in the top register and it’s easier for quick changes from tenor.”
Frank also hooks his thimb well under the body of the instrument instead of using the more orthodox hold in which the right-hand thumb pushes outwards underneath the trillkey connection rods.
By all the rules this ought to slow him down, but it doesn’t – not a bit. His playing for me in private, even more than his solos at the Basie concert, showed me that he is an exceptionally agile player.
The Wess tone was a pleasant surprise. When heard at close quarters it is beautfully firm and rich. I do not think his recordings do him justice.
Our interview ended when Count Basie himself came into Frank’s dressing room just before the second house concert started. If he hadn’t Frank and I might have gone on talking flute all night.
Which would have suited me fine, for Wess, with his quiet and truly modest personality, is a man of great charm.
More than that, he is an enthusiast and a pioneer of an instrument that more and more reed man will have to take seriously if they wish to keep abreast of the lastest and best developments in mainstream jazz.