The saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess, whose time in the woodwind section of the Count Basie Orchestra propelled a long career, died Wednesday afternoon at age 91. The cause was kidney failure, according to Sara Tsutsumi, his longtime partner.
Born in 1922, Wess spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., where he was classmates with pianist Billy Taylor, and following a stint playing clarinet in a World War II U.S. Army band, toured with various outfits. In Washington, he also started studying the flute with orchestral musicians; he would later help popularize the instrument's use in jazz contexts.
But the opportunity that brought Wess to a wider spotlight came when, after years of inquiries, he finally accepted bandleader Count Basie's invitation to join the orchestra in 1953. Basie's original big band had disbanded, but in the early 1950s, Basie put together a new ensemble that incorporated more structured arrangements, newer jazz styles and often leading vocalists of the day. Wess had a prime role in the "New Testament" band's front row, as well as its composing/arranging roster — much like fellow tenor saxophonist Frank Foster, whose more gruff bebop approach countered Wess' mellower style, which was more obviously derived from the swing era.
The Count Basie Orchestra "had good caliber musicians," Wess said in a 2007 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters program. "Once you let people get to know each other, they stay there for long enough, they get to be brothers. You got a family. Everybody's happy, and, you know, the music shows it."
Wess moved to New York in 1964, performing freelance and leading his own groups. He worked in late night talk show bands and Broadway pit orchestras. He continued to perform in big bands, even assembling his own for international tours, and continued an artistic partnership with Frank Foster in the quintet "Two Franks."
Wess continued performing and recording into his latest years, even releasing an album earlier this year: Magic 101, a collaboration with pianist and fellow NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron. It ends with Wess' solo version of Duke Ellington's "All Too Soon."