Due to a foulup by my provider, my Internet has been down for the last week, a refreshing if frustrating lifestyle change. Today, though, it’s incumbent to observe Frank Wess’ 90th birthday, Jan. 4th, by posting a profile that I wrote about him ten years ago for DownBeat. A magnificent musician.
Not long before his 80th birthday, Frank Wess, in the studio with the Bill Charlap Trio, unfurled a tenor saxophone solo on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” that stands with the classics of the canon. Over a relentless camelwalk groove, Wess leaps in from the top, dissecting the melody with minimum embellishment and maximum soulfulness, spinning out lucid theme-and-variations with a burnished candlelight tone that contains just the right amount of vibrato. Poetic and functional, he conjures the spirits of such old-school storytellers as Lester Young and Chu Berry, who set the standards when Wess was cutting his teeth as a teenager in Washington, D.C.
Wess was full of stories in June at his compact mid-Manhattan apartment, chock-a-block with a top-shelf audio system, instruments, sheet music, tapes, albums, photographs and correspondence. Just back from a Seattle weekend, he was gearing up to fulfill a ten-day itinerary that would tax a man half his age—two concerts with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, successive one-nighters with tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and with Charlap’s trio, and a week’s residence at the Blue Note with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Orchestra.
“When I heard Lester Young, that was that,” Wess says, leaping back to 1937. An Oklahoma native who had moved to D.C. two years before, he took early stylistic cues from such big sound heartland tenormen as Don Byas (he met him while summering with his mother in Langston, Okla., in 1932), Dick Wilson and Ben Webster. “Basie came through town for a dance at the Lincoln Colonnades; I couldn’t even sleep that first night. They were waving those hats, doo-wah, doo-wah. Prez and Herschel Evans were in the band, and Eddie Durham was playing guitar. The band was hot!
“Prez was staying at a three-story rooming house, and a friend of ours brought us there. Prez came out in his pajamas, with his horn in his arm and a little powder-box full of joints. He offered everybody a joint! We asked him how he made all those funny sounds, and he showed us.”
Sixteen years later, Wess became an integral component of the Basie mystique. From 1953 until 1964, he served as a triple threat tenor saxophonist, alto saxophonist and flutist, almost single-handedly creating a modern jazz vocabulary for the latter instrument. Within Basie’s distinctive environment, operating on the principle “less is more” as opposed to “bigger is better” and never—for all the compositional sophistication of such hardcore modernist colleagues as Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Ernie Wilkins—going over anyone’s head, Wess blended the varying strands of his epoch into a style that might define the term “mainstream.”
Wess speaks of his employer with unsentimental fondness. “I hadn’t been with Basie long, and we were in Atlanta,” [he recalls]. “Next door to the hotel was an upstairs club, and I was drinking, feeling good and acting crazy. Basie saw me, and when I went back in, one of the valets said, ‘Chief wants to see you.’ I knock on the door and come in; he’s sitting on the side of one bed and I sit across from him. He started talking about the transportation was eating him up, and all the humiliation he had to go through. He went through a whole lot of shit with me. I didn’t say nothin’. I didn’t nod my head one way or the other. I just looked at him. And he started through his story the second time, and I still didn’t say nothin’. He’s crying the blues; he was in debt. Then he started through his story the third time. I said, ‘You know what I think? I just want to know why you ever hired Jimmy Rushing, the way you can cry the blues.’ He was trying to talk me out of my salary. That’s the last time he ever did that.
“You had to understand Basie. We used to go to the track together; he loved to gamble and couldn’t gamble—not one lick. So everything was beautiful as long as you didn’t ask him for the money. Then you got stories for days. When we went to England the first time, he wouldn’t carry the music. He said, ‘I’m not gonna pay all of that overweight. You all don’t look at it no-way; you’re always looking out in the audience at some chick!’ So we went to England, and we did two weeks with no music. Blew them people’s minds! They invited us back to do a command performance the same year.”
Basie himself had learned the techniques of blowing people’s minds with swinging riff-based music as a late ’20s member of the Oklahoma City-based Blue Devils, the territory band that spawned the southwest sound. Wess lived a few hundred miles down Route 66 in Sapulpa, an oiltown of 20,000. Guitarist Barney Kessel and future Basie lead altoist Marshall Royal had grown up there, and Wess recalls childhood games of marbles with trumpeter Howard McGhee, a few years his senior. Wess’ mother taught school in town; his father, raised on Lake Seneca in upstate New York, taught 30 miles down the road in Okmulgee, the hometown of Oscar Pettiford. There wasn’t much to do in Sapulpa but practice, and Wess—who picked up the alto saxophone at 10—progressed quickly.
Relocated to Washington, Wess enrolled at Dunbar High School, studying theory with orchestra teacher Henry Grant, a friend of James Reese Europe who had taught Duke Ellington. Away from the classroom, the precocious cohort—they included pianist Billy Taylor and saxophonists Julius Pogue, Billy White, Paul Jones and Charlie Parker soundalike Oswald Gibson— soaked up information from local mentors like guitarists Samuel Wood and Biddy Fleet (the latter would soon show Parker how to execute the augmented and diminished chord extensions that became the DNA of bebop).
Wess graduated high school at 15 and enrolled at Howard University, attending classes by day and working a succession of increasingly remunerative jobs at night. He ascended the ladder, graduating from the dance bands of Bill Baldwin and Tommy Miles to a $35-a-week [position] in the Howard Theater pit band. Blanche Calloway took over the band and brought Wess on the road in 1940 for double the pay. After various adventures involving Lionel Hampton, union bookers and a tragicomic Boston run-in with Bojangles Bill Robinson, Wess enlisted in the Army, sponsored by his ROTC bandleader, John J. Brice, for a spot in the Special Services. Sent to Africa in 1942, he honed his skills as assistant bandleader of a 17-piece unit that accompanied Josephine Baker on a 1943 tour of North Africa.
A few months after his discharge, Wess joined [young firebrands] Gene Ammons, Fats Navarro and Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s bebop orchestra. A proponent of the gangsta esthetic half-a-century before hip-hop, the dapper, silken-voiced Eckstine commanded tremendous respect for his well-documented willingness to beat crackers and hoodlums at their own game at various points along the road. “B didn’t take no shit,” Wess agrees, launching into another saga. “People would come up and say, ‘Hey, B!’ and slap him on the back. ‘How you doin’?’ He’d say, ‘I’m fine!’ and then he’d smack them in the stomach.
“We lost a job nine days before Christmas in 1946 in Boston. The stage is about two feet higher than the floor, this couple is sitting ringside, and while he’s doing his act the woman keeps hollering, ‘Sing it, honey chile,’ a whole lot of bullshit. B kept doing his act. When he finished, instead of going off backstage, he went off front, walked down to this table and said, ‘Now, listen. When I’m doing my act, you don’t be hollering up on me. You crazy bitch, what’s wrong with you?’ Then he told her husband, ‘Man, you’re a silly son-of-a-bitch for being out with a dumb bitch like this.’ So her husband gets up. When her husband stood up, B knocked him down and went to get on top of him, but he kicked B in the mouth. B is going for his hunting knife. The cat gets up. Art Blakey is standing right up over him on the dance floor with a chair, comes down with it on his head, and back down he went. At the same time, two of them big Irish cops are standing in the back of the club. They ain’t moving. Then the boss comes out there saying, ‘Get that goddamn band out of here.’ He was a crazy man. Good cat to work for.”
Eckstine disbanded in February 1947. With a young family, Wess settled in Washington, supplementing local jobs through road work with Eddie Heywood, Lucky Millinder and Bull Moose Jackson. “After I’d been South with Moose for the third time in one year, I gave it up,” Wess says. He enrolled in D.C.’s Modern School of Music on the G.I. Bill to study flute. “Mr. Grant had given me one when I was 14, but I realized that I couldn’t do it myself, and I couldn’t afford a teacher then. So I put it on the back-burner until I had a chance to do it.”
After several years of scaling down, Basie began to reassemble his “New Testament” band in 1951, and Eckstine recommended he snare Wess. “Basie had been calling for a couple of years, but even once I graduated school, I wasn’t thinking about going on the road,” Wess says. “Then Basie said, ‘Frank, I can give you more exposure than you’ve had.’”
At this point, according to Wess, the band was nowhere close to the sleek polished powerhouse it would become. “It wasn’t sounding too good,” he says. “There wasn’t much music and the brass wasn’t too strong, though the reed section was pretty good. Things started tightening up after our first tour south, when Joe Williams and Sonny Payne came in. I knew Snooky Young from 1940, when I was in Boston with Blanche Calloway, and in ’57 I talked him in. That really did it.”
Congenial and sharp, Wess had a keen eye for talent that would fit. “Basie didn’t know anybody. I told him to get Al Aarons and Thad Jones. I knew Thad from ’51, when I did a whole summer in Atlantic City in the front bar at Club Harlem, working with a quartet and a singer, and Thad was in the back room with Jimmy Tyler’s nine-piece band, making it sound like a million dollars. Later I I brought in Eric Dixon and Sonny Cohn, and early on, I recommended Eddie Jones to play bass. When Basie said they were getting four trombones, I recommended Bill Hughes, who lived across the street from me in Washington.”
Wess would frame his flute with those four trombones on one of several mid-’50s albums that built on the popularity of his fluid, blues-drenched sound on Basie charts like “Perdido,” “The Midgets” and “Cute.” “Don Redman had heard me play flute on jobs around Washington, and asked Basie if he’d heard me,” Wess says. Then he describes some of the secrets of the Basie sound.
“Basie never fired nobody. That’s where he was smart. Everybody got to know each other—for good or bad—and we knew what to expect and how to work together. He never rehearsed us. Everybody in the band had been playing forever, and we knew how the music should go. The reeds were a fraction behind the trumpets, and the trombones were a fraction behind the reeds, but it was consistent, so when you heard the BAM!, it sounded like one thing. And the band laid back til the last split second to hit a note. That’s the way the music said it should be played. Basie would let you know what he wanted in his own way. He’d say, ‘I want something like this,’ and you’re supposed to know what he’s talking about.”
By 1964, Wess figured he’d been in the game long enough. “The band changed,” Wess says. “It wasn’t as good as before. Snooky and Eddie Jones left the same day. When I told Basie, he said, ‘When do you want to go?’ ‘Sunday.’ ‘No, I’ve got something important coming up. Don’t go now.’ He went through that for about a month. Then we were in Chicago and I told him, ‘Base, I’ve got to go home. Tomorrow.’ ‘Who am I going to get?’ ‘Get Sonny Stitt or somebody.’ ‘He can’t read.’ ‘Well, I don’t care who you get. I’ve been listening to all that for a month. I’m gone.’ ‘When you coming back?’ I said, ‘I’ll be back in ten days.’ I came home and I got everything straightened out for doing Golden Boy with Sammy Davis. I went out and got paid with Basie one Thursday; the next Thursday I got paid for Golden Boy. I never missed a payment.”
Since then, Wess has made his blues turn green as a first-call New York freelancer, putting his kids through college on a mix of jingle sessions, sinecures in TV bands and Broadway pit orchestras, and occasional combo and sideman work, including the New York Jazz Quartet, a “Two Franks” quintet with Frank Foster, and a quintet with trumpeter Johnny Coles. Since 1984, when he left “Sugar Babies,” Wess has stuck strictly with jazz, leading and guest-starring in a variety of what he terms “trendy necrophiliac ensembles” and doing sessions with such younger New York mainstreamers as Bryan Stripling (Wess plays up a storm on Bryan … Get One Free ), Bill Charlap (Stardust), Joe Cohn and Michael Weiss.
A witness to seven decades of jazz history, Wess ruminates on the changing mores of[the scene. “When I was coming up, jazz was a dirty word,” he says. “At Howard, they’d put us out of school if they caught us playing jazz. Now it’s in the schools and you can get a degree, which doesn’t always mean something, but still you can get it.
“And the kids don’t dissipate as much as they did. I remember a time when it was just pitiful. Almost everybody was messed up. I drank, but I never was in that other clique. I was lucky when I was 17, in the pit band. One of the trumpet players, who’d been with Lunceford, was the first junkie I knew. We hung out together, and he was a helluva nice cat. He used to tell me, ‘Look, kid, you keep on drinking your whiskey; don’t ever bother with this stuff.’ We’d go to rehearsal Friday morning at 8, and he’d come in with a mouthpiece. I’d have to borrow one of my friend’s horns for him to make the gig.
“What’s funny is that when I was in B’s band, wasn’t nobody in there messed up. Maybe smoking some pot or something, but nothing more. Miles Davis was smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca-Cola. Jug wasn’t messed up until he went with Woody Herman. Fats Navarro wasn’t messed up. Dizzy used to sit in with B’s band to play with Fats; both were playing in the same idiom, but Fats had a little Spanish tinge to his thing and his sound was so much bigger. He’d hit a high G and A, and it enveloped the whole band. After the band broke up, I was playing the Apollo with Eddie Heywood, and I was walking down 126th Street. Somebody called, ‘Hey, Flank.’ That’s what Fats used to call me. I looked around, and man, he was just a skeleton. I almost cried. Just that quick.”
Then Wess jerks himself into the present tense, and offers a closing thought [on the futility of nostalgia.] “Ellington never did a whole concert of nobody’s music. Neither did Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. Ain’t nobody that we revere and know ever did that! There’s 24 hours in the day. If you spend all your time looking back, how in the hell you going anywhere?” DB