Frank Wess, who helped popularize the flute as a jazz instrument in the 1950s and ’60s with the Count Basie Orchestra, where he was also a standout saxophone soloist, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 91.
The cause was a heart attack related to kidney failure, said his longtime companion, Sara Tsutsumi.
Mr. Wess was not the first flutist in jazz. But his tonally rich and technically deft flute solos enjoyed an unusually prominent platform: the front row of the powerhouse Basie ensemble.
Mr. Wess had been studying flute at the Modern School of Music in Washington when Basie asked him to join a big band he had formed in 1952 to highlight new compositions and arrangements, many of them by Neal Hefti
. It became known as Basie's New Testament" band, to distinguish it from the equally impressive and popular big band he had led in the ’30s and ’40s.
Mr. Wess, who had earlier played with bands led by Billy Eckstine
and others, initially resisted, saying he was weary of the road and wanted to finish school. But Basie 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,” Mr. Wess recalled in a 2005 interview
with the website All About Jazz. “That struck a chord in me. I said, ‘Maybe that’s what I need.’ ”