Legendary sax player was pursued by Count Basie
By Kenny Mathieson, The Inverness Courier
Published: 07 August, 2007
SAXOPHONIST Frank Wess has made his mark on jazz in a variety of ways.
He was a key figure in the great Count Basie bands of the 1950s, and was instrumental in establishing the flute in jazz. Earlier this year he was one of six musicians to receive the prestigious annual Jazz Masters Fellowship for 2007 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The 85-year-old saxophonist will make his debut at the Nairn Jazz Festival this week, a very rare opportunity to hear him perform live in this country. The original idea of featuring him in a Basie-themed programme in the first of his two appearances has changed, but he recalled in 2005 how he had joined the Basie band.
“I didn’t meet Basie until I joined him in 1953,” Wess said. “He had been calling me for a couple of years and I told him I was busy doing something else. I had gone to the Modern School of Music in Washington to study, because they had instrumental teachers from the National Symphony and I wasn’t going to quit school to go back on the road, because I’d had enough of the road.
“So he just kept calling and at about the end of my school year he called again and said he thought he could get me more exposure. That struck a chord — I thought maybe that was what I needed, and I told him I had to have a salary. He gave me what I wanted and I joined the band.”
Wess formed a famous partnership with fellow tenor saxophonist Frank Foster and also had an opportunity to play on his original first instrument with the band.
“I started out playing alto saxophone,” Wess explained.
“The piano player in the band in school said he heard me playing like a tenor rather than an alto. 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, but I played to alto with Basie as well.”
The flute was a more exotic addition in jazz at that time and his playing reflected a classical training acquired at high school in Oklahoma, where he played in the All-State High School Orchestra. His interest in jazz was sparked after his family moved to Washington DC in 1935.
“It was a different scene there. That’s where I started playing jazz. During lunch time in school they used to have sessions down in the orchestra room. Billy Taylor (pianist) was going to school there too and a lot of different fellas. We’d be jamming at noontime and I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
The saxophonist’s 11-year association with Basie ended in 1964, but he has remained active in jazz, touring and recording as a leader and also giving workshops and clinics, where he stresses the importance of that most fundamental of jazz ingredients, swing.
“It’s important for anybody who wants to play jazz,” Wess said.
“When I do clinics, I have the individual instruments play alone and I want them to make me want to dance. I don’t want them to depend on the rhythm section or somebody else for that swing. That’s what it’s all about. If you can’t tap your foot or dance to it, you may as well be driving a cab.”
* Frank Wess plays at the Newton Hotel, Nairn, on Thursday and the Universal Hall, Findhorn, on Friday.