Jazz musician

Jazz musician

Born: January 4, 1922; Died: October 30, 2013.

Frank Wess never became quite as famous as his school friend Billy Taylor, but he made one important contribution to Taylor's career. When Taylor heard Wess playing saxophone with extraordinary accomplishment for a teenager, he changed his mind about switching instruments and concentrated on the piano, going on to great success with his trio and composing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free - a hit for Nina Simone.

Taylor might equally have claimed he did Wess a service. When they met at school in Washington, Wess had given up playing saxophone. Hearing Taylor and his friends playing jazz during lunch breaks got Wess back into the instrument that took him into the Count Basie Orchestra and earned him a hallowed reputation.

Wess was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and moved with his family to Oklahoma soon afterwards. His mother was a singer and his father played cornet, and when they saw a left-handed violinist in church, because young Wess was also left-handed, they tried to persuade him to play violin too. Wess refused. He'd heard a saxophone-playing teacher who lived locally rehearsing with his band at home and that was the sound he wanted to make.

He got his first saxophone, an alto, at the age of 10 and quickly became proficient. But when the family moved to Washington and he heard the classical music he was expected to play at school, he put his saxophone back in its case, he thought, for keeps.

With Taylor's encouragement he took it up again only to have a course in dentistry at Howard University, where he became a pre-med at 15, encroach on his music. An offer of work in the university theatre orchestra pit soon put paid to his medical studies and he switched from alto to tenor saxophone on the advice of a visiting dignitary, Jelly Roll Morton no less.

After serving largely as a musician with the army during the Second World War, Wess joined singer Billy Eckstine's orchestra and began studying the flute in 1949. Having rebuffed several approaches due to his reluctance to go on the road, in 1953 he finally accepted an offer of regular work from Count Basie. He toured and recorded with Basie for 11 years. Featuring on flute as well as alto and tenor saxophones, he helped to establish the flute as a jazz instrument. On leaving Basie, Wess worked in big bands with trumpeter Clark Terry and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and reunited with Billy Taylor. He also formed a 20-year partnership with fellow former Basie saxophonist Frank Foster in The Two Franks.

His appearances in Scotland were rare, but he did bring his talent for moving an audience to Nairn Jazz Festival in 2007. He continued to play publicly until April this year.