Kenny Barron Remembers Frank Wess

1.4.22 – 10.30.13

Frank Wess performing at the Concert to Benefit the James Moody Scholarship for Newark Youth
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I knew Frank Wess since the early ’70s, when we first worked together with Yusef Lateef. We traveled quite a bit together and played together often in New York. That he was a fantastic musician goes without saying.

I played for a while in the Two Franks band, with Frank Wess and Frank Foster, and that was wonderful. To hear the two of them play together, the fire they generated between them, was just marvelous. And then Frank would play one of those pretty ballads of his, with that sound, on alto-he would play ballads in that band on alto-and it was unreal. I loved to hear him play ballads. He could play a ballad that would make you cry. We did a record with Grady Tate, where Grady just sings [the 2002 import All Love: Grady Tate Sings]. When Grady did a ballad, “Don’t Misunderstand,” and Frank took a solo on that-oh, wow. Those ballads hit me hard.

The thing I most remember about Frank, though, is his sense of humor. I remember one night at the Village Vanguard, with the Two Franks, we were burnin’-really on fire on this night. And at the end we got a standing ovation. Frank said, “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Hope we didn’t get none on ya.” It probably went over a lot of people’s heads, but it was funny! And when he wanted a drummer to get going on the tempo, he would say, “All right, beat yourself off.” Just stuff like that, silly stuff. But he always had that dry sense of humor. It still makes me laugh to remember it. You might say my strongest memory is of how much fun I had whenever I was with him.

It was also an education whenever I played with him. Once I was working with Benny Carter, and he was taking a kind of smaller big band to Japan. Frank was in the band, and I remember sitting on a train, across from Benny and Frank. And the stories they would tell! Stories about years ago, what the scene was like, or stories of being in this band or that band. It was like a history lesson; it was incredible. Every time I was with Frank, I learned something-either about the history of the music or the music itself.

My son actually took flute lessons from Frank, so even if I wasn’t playing with him I would go by his apartment on 55th Street. I was also fortunate enough to be on his last record. I’m sure he was ill, but you couldn’t tell, other than whatever comes with age-he was walking slower, his eyesight was failing. Other than that, he was feisty, he was playing great. Just like always.

As told to Michael J. West