Frank Wess was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of a principal father and a schoolteacher mother. He began with classical music training and played in Oklahoma in high school. He later switched to jazz on moving to Washington, D. C. and by nineteen was working with big bands. His career was interrupted by World War II although he did play with a military band in the period. After leaving the military, he joined Billy Eckstine’s orchestra. He returned to Washington D.C. a few years afterwards and received a degree in flute at the city’s Modern School of Music. He played tenor sax with Count Basie from 1953 to 1964, doubling on flute.
Frank Wess was considered one of the best jazz flautists of his time. From 1959 to 1964, he won the Down Beat magazine critics’ poll for flute. He was a member of Clark Terry’s big band from 1967 into the 1970s and played in theNew York Jazz Quartet (with Roland Hanna). He also did a variety of work for TV. In 1968 he contributed to the album The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. He played tenor and alto sax, doubling on flute throughout his career. In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked withKenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Buck Clayton,Benny Carter, Billy Taylor, Harry Edison, Mel Tormé, Ernestine Anderson, Louie Bellson,John Pizzarelli, Howard Alden, Dick Hyman,Jane Jarvis, Frank Vignola and was a featured member of the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra. In the 2000s, Wess released two albums with Hank Jones. In 2007, Wess was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. Frank Wess died from a heart attack related to kidney failure on October 30, 2013.