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Frank Wess: The Message of Swing

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The genetic makeup of sax and flute legend Frank Wess is pure jazz. What else could explain over 60 years on the bandstand, dozens of cities seen and conquered, the message of swing spread to all within earshot? Though perhaps best known for his years with Count Basie, bookending those are decades of vigorous development and art. And like a long, abounding breath from his polished horn, the 83 year-old Wess remembers it all with lucid mind, sharp wit and unending generosity.

All About Jazz: Growing up in Oklahoma, how did you first get into music?

Frank Wess: I was taught classical music. I belonged to the All-State High School Orchestra. We used to go around the state at different times, playing. And then, in '35, we moved to Washington. I had stopped for a year, because I got tired of the music. Every time I had to play, I was hungry. But when I moved to Washington, it was a different scene. I was in high school already and during lunch time they used to have sessions down in the orchestra room. Billy Taylor was going to school there too and a lot of different fellas. We'd be jamming at noontime and I said, "this is what I want to do." So I got my horn, had it fixed up and started playing again.

AAJ: By 19, you were already moving up the ranks of big bands and then you ended up in the army. What happened?

FW: I was supposed to go with Lionel Hampton's band, but I had already signed a contract to do a Bill Robinson show in Boston. The bookers caught a couple of us down in Philadelphia after a dance. They read us the riot act and got us out of that contract. A couple of the guys, like George Jenkins and Ray Perry, saw the bookers and ducked. They went down to Joe Glaser's office, got their tickets and went off to California to join Hamp.

AAJ: Were you able to keep playing during the war?

FW: Yeah. My ROTC bandleader was recruiting eligible young professionals to go into the army. They had a deal where you get a rating your first day and you didn't have to do any basic training. All you had to do was play music. We played all kinds of music—Viennese waltzes, marches—everything. I had a 17-piece swing band. We were sent to Africa in 1942. When we got down there, the first gig we played was for the Americans, the Germans and the English. Can you believe that? They were all dancing together.

AAJ: Shortly after your return in 1944, you joined the Billy Eckstine Orchestra. How did that come about?

FW: I had known Billy Eckstine before the war. So when I went to the theater to see him, he said, "look, my tenor player is going into the army. Come on with me." So I quit my job and went with him. That was a good band. Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, Gene Ammons.

AAJ: When did you first pick up the flute?

FW: Well, I went back to school—to the Modern School of Music, up on George Avenue [in Washington]. I went there because they had instrumental teachers from the National Symphony. But I had been conscious [of the flute] for a long time. In fact, when I was in high school my orchestra teacher Henry Grant—he was one of Duke's teachers—gave me a flute. But I couldn't do it by myself, so I just put it on the backburner until I got a chance.

AAJ: Did that come when you first met Count Basie?

FW: I didn't meet Basie until I joined him in '53. He had been calling me for a couple of years and I told him I was busy doing something else and I wasn't going to quit school to go back on the road, because I had had enough of the road. So he just kept calling. And at about the end of my school year, he called again and said he thought he could get me more exposure than I had. That struck a chord in me. I said, "Maybe that's what I need." I told him I had to have a salary. He said, "What do you want?" I told him and he said, "Okay, you got it."

AAJ: You joined the orchestra at around the same time as several other legendary Basie-ites like Thad Jones, Frank Foster...

FW: No, no—I got Thad and them in the band. Thad, Bill Hughes, Eddie Jones, Al Aarons, Eric Dixon—I got a whole lot of cats in the band.

AAJ: You became known as Basie's "New Testament" band. Did you feel that you were helping his music change or evolve?

FW: We naturally did that. But he let us do what we wanted to do. That's what was good about him. He never rehearsed the band, he just sat back and listened. Everybody else rehearsed the band—Joe Newman, Frank Foster, Thad Jones, myself. And we were the ones who decided which arrangements we took. If somebody brought in an arrangement and we didn't like it, we would just say, "pass it in." And Basie didn't say nothing. He just sat in the back, listening. He let us do it, you know. And he wasn't someone who fired people every two minutes either. So all the cats stayed there long enough to know each other and get to be a band. You know, you can't have a good band in six months.

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