November 2, 2013

Frank Wess, 1922-2013

Frank Wess, at Hamilton College in 2007
If you’re a jazz fan, especially of big band jazz, I know you’ve heard Frank Wess. If you’re not a big band fan I’m pretty sure you’ve heard him anyway. In the 2000 movie “Space Cowboys,” the astronaut played by Tommy Lee Jones saves the day and guides the Russian nuclear-tipped missiles out of earth’s orbit and to the moon, saving much of humanity. In the final scene the camera pans over the lunar landscape, ending in a close-up of our hero astronaut’s final resting place. Cue the music: Freddie Green’s rhythm guitar, a couple of piano notes from Basie, “Fly Me to the Moon” sung by Frank Sinatra, and backed up by Frank Wess’ classy flute.
Frank Wess passed away on October 30 at the age of 91, adding to the ever-growing list of Basie alums that have now left us. Frank played a major role in what was dubbed the “New Testament Band” that Basie formed after a brief hiatus in the early 50’s. Wess was part of a consistent saxophone section and stayed with the band for eleven years. Among his section mates were Marshall Royal, the straw boss, on lead alto; tenors Frank Foster, Billy Mitchell or Eric Dixon; and Charlie Fowlkes holding down the baritone chair. Frank was the last surviving member of this reed royalty.
He appeared at Hamilton College on three different occasions for our Fallcoming jazz weekends. I was mystified why he was carrying this long, slim case to the gig when I saw him, why he would need a pool cue? When I asked him about it he said, “oh that’s for my flute. This way I don’t have to keep taking it apart and putting it together.” Frank was not the first jazz flautist, but was among the most influential, and provided arrangers such as Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti with a distinctive sound to use in their charts for the Basie band. Frank spoke about his use of the flute to complement his alto and tenor sax, during our interview from May, 1995:
Frank Wess, in 1995
MR:    What led you to pick up [the flute] as a jazz horn?
FW:    That started years ago when I was in high school. My teacher, Henry L. Grant, who was also Duke Ellington’s teacher and Billy Taylor — Dr. Billy Taylor and I studied with him — and he was the orchestra teacher. And he gave me a flute to take home. So I took it home and after fooling with it a while I realized that I couldn’t do it without a teacher. And at the time, I couldn’t afford a teacher and there wasn’t one available that I knew of. So I said I’ll just let it rest until I can get to it. So at that time there was a fellow named William Culver, who was in the Chic Webb orchestra. And he played with a group within the orchestra called the Little Chicks. And that inspired me to want to play the flute. Because he was the first that I know of to do it. And he recorded a lot with Benny Carter and the musicians that were recording at that time. So when I got a chance to study it under the GI bill I got a chance to go back to school and studied flute, so I did. And Basie evidently was looking for a tenor player, so he kept calling and calling. He called for a couple of years and I told him I was doing something, and I couldn’t leave right then. So he just kept calling. Periodically he would call. And in the meantime I got a degree, a bachelor’s degree in flute, and we got together and I joined Basie. Well the thing was at the time what made me go with him because actually I had quit the road five years before I joined Basie. You know I’d given up on the road because I first left home in 1939. So he said, “well Frank, I think I can give you more exposure than you’ve had.” So that’s what made me join him. I said maybe that is what I need. So I went with him. Well Billy Eckstine had told him about me. Then when I got in the band, Don Redman had asked him, “have you ever heard him play flute?” He said “no.” Said “you ought to let him play flute.” So Bas’ told me, “whatever solos you have, you know, on tenor, whatever you’ve got, if you want to play it on flute, just go ahead and do it.” So that’s how that came about.
Basie fans will debate passionately about the greatest era of the Count’s orchestra. Some people preferred the very early ensemble which included Lester Young, Sweets Edison, and the “All-American Rhythm Section.” But the “New Testament” had a stunning combination of precision, power, individual soloists, and an amazing staff of arrangers, including Frank Wess. He spoke about the band and his role in it:
FW:   The band was hot. We were in one of the best bands Basie ever had. And that’s the band that made him rich, you know. The band was tight. I had forgotten actually, how good the band was until I was listening to those Mosaic recordings. And then it came back to me, how good that band was. It was like one person playing. Everybody was — it was a good band. Well Basie, he knew how to do that. You know he didn’t fault nobody. He just let it stay there until the cats got it together, and then when they got it together he knew what to do with it. But you know the fellows in the band did all of that. He didn’t know too many people, really, I mean musicians. When he’d want somebody he’d say “hey Magic, I need a trumpet player — I need a trombone player — I need a bass” I need this — I need that. And I’d tell him who to call. I got Eddie Jones in the band, Bill Hughes, Sonny Cohn, Eric Dixon, Thad Jones, I can’t think, oh Al Aarons. Yeah I got a whole lot of people in the band.
Frank was responsible for one of the a-ha moments that I experienced during the first few years of my jazz archive experience. We, and I include myself, assume that when musicians gather they engage in intense conversations about music and other musicians. We were lucky enough to take part in a jazz cruise, where our interview with Frank occurred. I learned a lesson when I was invited to join a table where Frank was holding court. I blogged about the story here, entitled Jazz Chat.
Frank’s answers to interview questions could be profound or perfunctory. When he was asked about practice regimens and technical exercises, Frank addressed the question quite eloquently, choosing his words carefully. His advice was born out of years of experience:
FW:    Etudes are studies and that’s what they were meant to be, and that’s what they are. Because you can’t consider most etudes as music, because they’re not. You know they were designed to do a certain thing. Technically you know. But most students, they spend so much time doing that that when they come out and start playing they think they’re making music when it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s two different things. I can be the greatest saxophone player in the world and not be able to make a note of music. It’s two different things. See so they have to get, they almost have to forget that, and then make some music, you know what I mean? Because it’s been my observation that all good music, regardless of what type it is, European music or I don’t care any kind of music, it’s all a matter of, well it’s an extension actually of us. And we, as a part of the universe, we operate the same way. It’s a matter of tension and release. And in music it’s the same thing. And in the best music, I’ve noticed it’s the artful use of that tension and release that makes the music, using the components of music which are first rhythm, because you can have rhythm without melody, and melody and harmony. And the one that’s ignored so much — which is this is important — is silence. Because that is the ultimate release to sound. And it’s the silence that makes the sound important. So if you keep on playing, it gets to be more and more meaningless as you go.
Frank’s eleven years with Basie were memorable, but they were only a fraction of his seven decade career. He left the road to make his living as many former big band players did, arranging, playing commercial dates and Broadway shows, recording, and leading small and large ensembles. He was honored in 2007 as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, a well-conceived program to honor jazz veteran artists while they can still enjoy the acclaim and support.