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.