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.”
Frank Wellington Wess was born Jan. 4, 1922, in Kansas City, Mo., and his family moved when he was a small child to the town of Sapulpa, Okla., near Tulsa. “When I was 10 years old my life started — I got my saxophone,” Wess said in a National Endowment for the Arts interview in 2007.
He eventually put the instrument away because the school orchestra played a lot of classical music he didn’t enjoy. Then the family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1935 and he heard Taylor and others play jazz sessions in the high school orchestra room during lunch periods.
“I said, ‘this is what I want to do,’” he said in the All About Jazz interview. “So I got my horn, had it fixed up and started playing again.”
His early career as a professional was interrupted by military service during World War II — but he kept playing because the U.S. Army assigned him to various music ensembles that toured overseas. When he was out of the Army, he played with the famed Billy Eckstine Orchestra and several other outfits. And using the G.I. Bill education benefit, he began studying the flute in 1949 with Wallace Mann, a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.
In 2007 he was named an NEA Jazz Master.
In addition to Tsutsumi, he is survived by two daughters, Michele Kane and Francine Wess, both of New York; two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.