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Frank Wess, Saxophonist and Flutist, Dies at 91

Played with Count Basie and many others in seven-decade career

Frank Wess performing at the Concert to Benefit the James Moody Scholarship for Newark Youth
Frank Wess and Benny Golson at the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters awards
Frank Wess

Frank Wess, whose career as a saxophonist and flutist began prior to World War II and was still going strong seven decades later, died yesterday, Oct. 30, it was confirmed by NPR’s A Blog Supreme. The cause of death was kidney failure. Wess was 91.

Wess, who recently released a new album, Magic 101, recorded in 2011, was born Jan. 4, 1922 in Kansas City, Mo., where, at age 10, he began playing alto saxophone. He would later add tenor sax, flute and clarinet and began working professionally in Washington, D.C. Following a stint in the Army he led singer Josephine Baker’s band and also played with Lucky Millinder, Billy Eckstine and others.

In 1953, Wess joined Count Basie’s orchestra, staying with that ensemble for 11 years, during which time he helped popularize the use of the flute in jazz. He moved to New York City in 1964 and, in addition to playing with bands in the area, he worked in the TV medium, performing on such programs as Saturday Night Live and The Dick Cavett Show.

As a sideman, Wess contributed to recordings by Elvin Jones, Zoot Sims, Gene Ammons, Yusef Lateef, Houston Person, Milt Jackson, Woody Shaw and others.

In 1967, Wess joined Clark Terry’s big band, staying with them into the ’70s. In subsequent years he played with the New York Jazz Quartet, Kenny Barron, Mel Torme, Benny Carter, Frank Vignola, Toshiko Akiyoshi and others.

Wess also maintained an active performing partnership with saxophonist and fellow Basie alumnus Frank Foster for more than 20 years. Foster died in 2011.

Wess recorded more than a dozen albums as a leader beginning in 1957. He was still performing in 2013.

He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2007.

Originally Published