Frank Wess Wisdom
AAJ: Tell us about the beauty of the tenor saxophone.
FW: (laugh) I don't have to tell you...you can hear it. (laugh)
AAJ: Did you pick the instrument or did the instrument pick you?
FW: Actually, I started out playing alto saxophone in Washington D.C. That's where I started playing jazz. I played in a kids band and the pianist said he hears me playing like a tenor than an alto. I just got a new alto and I told my mother about it and she said, if you want to trade it for a tenor, you're going to have to pay for it. So, I traded it for a tenor and I've been playing tenor ever since.
AAJ: How did the flute become an instrument of yours?
FW: Well, that's something I wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn't been able to take lessons. My orchestra teacher in high school gave me one to take home, but I found out quickly that I couldn't do too much with it by myself, so I just put in on the backburner and when I got a chance I would do it...and that's what I did.
Frank Wess mentors the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
AAJ: Tell me about time on the road. Does it teach you about the world, spending so much time traveling?
FW: All your experience teaches you, wherever you are, whether you're on the road or not. You get to see a lot of different things and meet a lot of different people. I had quit the road five years before I joined Basie. And then in the Army, I was all over Africa and Italy...had a 17-piece band. We accompanied Josephine Baker in North Africa playing for the troops. I've been doin' it for a long time. I never had an agent and I work all the time. People call me, they don't need to call an agent.
AAJ: With all the pop superstars making trillions of dollars...the whole marketing thing...do you think jazz gets a fair shake?
FW: Its like I said before, most of the people in this country don't listen to jazz. They're more into country music. Jazz has its audience and they're a very dedicated audience, even though it's a small audience compared to other music. People like to see things, they don't want to listen, really. Most of the time they want music as a background to their conversation. Jazz people listen to music. Other music, people want to see people jumpin' around actin' crazy with some funny costumes on. They want to see music, they don't want to hear it.
AAJ: Jazz is an intellectual music... a thinking man's music.
FW: It is. Before it was dance music. That's what people like. Just like today, you can go to any salsa club and you can't get in there...people are dancing...people want to be a part of it. When the swing bands were traveling and playing dances all over, jazz was popular.
AAJ: What advice would you give to young people considering getting into music?
FW: Make sure they can live with it...'cause if they can't, there's no point getting' into it. (laugh) It's a 24-hour thing. If you can't deal with it 24-hours, whatever it is, music or anything else, you shouldn't bother with it...at least not as a life's work. Whatever you choose you gotta be able to live with it 24-hours a day 'cause you might have to do it that long to make a living at it.
AAJ: What brought you into music?
FW: I always liked music. When I was a kid the only thing I could listen to was to stay up nights and listen to the bands on the radio like Earl Hines and Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, Claude Hopkins... bands like that.
AAJ: And the blues has a lot to do with it, huh?
FW: That's all a part of it, ya know. It's just one of the many styles of black music... folk music. That's what it is actually, black folk music. Jazz is alright. It'll be alright, 'cause it's all over the world now. You've got good players everywhere now. Its not just here in this country like it used to be. Now its all over.
Frank Wess: The Message of Swing
Frank Stewart & Jazz at Lincoln Center