Correction: A previous version of this obituary incorrectly identified former Dunbar High School teacher Henry Grant as Henry Grimes.
Frank Wess, who helped anchor the saxophone section of the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950s and ’60s and who pioneered the use of the flute in jazz during a career that spanned more than 70 years, died Oct. 30 in New York. He was 91.
His longtime partner and common-law wife, Sara Tsutsumi-Wess, said he died in a taxicab on his way to dialysis treatment for a kidney ailment.
Mr. Wess began his career in Washington, where he moved from Oklahoma in 1935. He had temporarily stopped playing until he heard a group of students jamming during lunch hour at Dunbar High School. One of the students was Billy Taylor, who switched from saxophone to piano after hearing Mr. Wess play.
“He’s the reason I don’t play tenor saxophone,” Taylor, who died in 2010, told The Washington Post in 2008. “Even in his teens, he was a remarkable player.”
Mr. Wess, who studied classical music in his youth, received much of his early jazz training at U Street nightclubs, such as the Club Bali, Republic Gardens, Crystal Caverns and Club Bengasi.
“You had to learn jazz in the streets,” he told The Post. “If you played it in the conservatory, they’d throw you out.”
Mr. Wess learned his lessons well and went on to a quiet but distinguished career as a saxophonist, flutist and composer. He was honored in 2007 as a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest award for a jazz musician.
In the mid-1940s, Mr. Wess was a member of singer Billy Eckstine’s influential big band, which featured at various times such jazz stars as singer Sarah Vaughan; trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro; saxophonists Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon; and drummer Art Blakey.
By 1953, Mr. Wess had joined the “New Testament” version of Basie’s band, which was beginning a resurgence that would return the group to the preeminence it had known in the 1930s. Mr. Wess recruited several other key members of the band, including trumpeter-arranger Thad Jones, trombonist Bill Hughes, saxophonist Eric Dixon and double bassist Eddie Jones.
In the beginning, Mr. Wess played primarily tenor saxophone, but Basie had heard that he was also skilled on the flute, then little used in jazz.
One day during a jam session, Basie recalled in his autobiography, “Good Morning Blues,” “I told Frank, ‘Why don’t you take a couple of choruses on your flute?’ ”
Mr. Wess seemed surprised by the request, but nevertheless took out his flute and played.
“As soon as I heard him, that was when I realized that we had a new thing,” Basie continued. “So that’s how the flute thing started. . . . And not long after that, everywhere you looked, here come the flutes. . . . They can put something different in somebody’s else’s books, but Frank Wess is the man who really brought the flute into the jazz scene beginning right down there at Birdland.”
With his solos in “Cute” and other tunes in the Basie songbook, Mr. Wess “gave a new instrumental sound not just to the band, but to the whole of jazz,” critic Will Friedwald wrote in 2005.
In his 11 years with Basie, Mr. Wess wrote several tunes and appeared on the classic “April in Paris” (1955) and “Atomic Mr. Basie” (1958) albums. His casually swinging solo on “Corner Pocket” is one of the most memorable moments in the Basie group’s history.
For years, Mr. Wess played alongside his fellow tenor saxophonist Frank Foster, who later became the leader of the Basie band before his death in 2011. Their complementary styles — Foster was aggressive and boppish where Mr. Wess was lyrical and relaxed — provided a sense of musical balance that gave the Basie band much of its lasting appeal. Their friendly saxophone battles became such a staple of Basie’s performances that composer Neal Hefti wrote a tune, “Two Franks,” just for them.
“Many people have not recognized what Frank has done,” Taylor told The Post in 2008. “People just took him for granted.”
Frank Wellington Wess was born Jan. 4, 1922, in Kansas City, Mo., and spent his early years in Sapulpa, Okla., before moving to Washington at 13.
At Dunbar, he and Taylor studied with Henry Grant, the same teacher who had been influential in the early life of their fellow Washingtonian, Duke Ellington.
Mr. Wess was an Army musician during World War II and, at age 20, was leading a 17-piece band.
“We were sent to Africa in 1942,” he recalled in a 2005 interview with the All About Jazz Web site. “When we got down there, the first gig we played was for the Americans, the Germans and the English. Can you believe that? The were all dancing together.”
After working with Eckstine’s band and other groups, Mr. Wess settled in Washington in 1949 and studied flute with Wallace Mann of the National Symphony Orchestra. In the 1960s and ’70s, he was playing in Broadway pit orchestras and for several TV programs, including the talk shows of David Frost and Dick Cavett. He was even part of the “Saturday Night Live” band in the late 1970s, before gaining a following late in his career as a soloist and leader of his own groups.
In 1994, Mr. Wess was the first guest on Taylor’s NPR show, “Jazz at the Kennedy Center.” He appeared on hundreds of recordings, including “Magic 101,” which was released this summer and received a glowing review in DownBeat magazine in September. His final album, “Magic 201,” will appear next year.
“Retire?” he said in 2005. “To what? I’ve never done anything else in my life.”
He was predeceased by his first wife, Virginia Wess, and a son, Richard Wess.
In addition to his common-law wife, Sara Tsutsumi of New York, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Michelle Kane and Francine Wess, both of New York; two grandchildren; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Wess came from the old school of jazz, where a sense of soul-stirring swing was what mattered most.
“If you can’t tap your foot or dance to it, you may as well be driving a cab,” he said in 2005. “That’s what it’s all about.”