NORMAN — Long before jazz pianist Billy Taylor became world-famous, he planned in high school to switch to saxophone. But then he heard the new kid in school — Frank Wess — play the horn.
“He’s the reason I don’t play the tenor saxophone,” Taylor said in a 2008 Washington Post interview. “Even in his teens, he was really a remarkable player.”
Wess never achieved the fame of his longtime friend Taylor, but he was a key player in some of the all-time great jazz ensembles, including Count Basie’s big band, and he was a major force in establishing the flute as a jazz instrument.
He was also known as a mentor who went out of his way to help young musicians coming into jazz. No matter how progressive the music got, Wess told them, it all came down to swing.
“If you can’t tap your foot or dance to it, you may as well be driving a cab,” Wess said in a 2005 interview for the All About Jazz web site. “When I do clinics, I have the individual instruments play by themselves and I want them to make me dance, make me want to dance.”
Wess, 91, died in New York on Wednesday. He was in a cab on his way to get a dialysis treatment when he had a heart attack, said his companion, Sara Tsutsumi.
Wess played his last concert in April at the 54 Below club in New York, and had been in failing health for the last several months. But as recently as a month ago, he was still playing with friends.
“He would invite young musicians — maybe a rhythm section or horn players — to his home and they would have a jam session,” said Marc Loehrwald, a saxophone player who maintained Wess’ web site. “He loved to play with other musicians. It was his life.”