The saxophonist and flautist Frank Wess played a major role in bringing the flute into the jazz mainstream. The native of Kansas City toured the globe, performing everywhere from Japan to Germany and Europe. He was a regular at New York’s Birdland, the Blue Note and St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.
Wess’s infectious solos on both flute and tenor saxophone made him an invaluable member of Count Basie’s band in the early 1950s and ’60s; later, he became an impressive composer and arranger. Basie liked his flute for its colorful tones. Today it remains a toss up on which instrument Wess was the most proficient. If you listen to his rendition of “The Very Thought of You,” you may lean toward his flute, but those boastful, lyrical, soul-swinging rhythms on his tenor sax—wow.
On January 24-28, the Scott Robinson Octet will pay tribute to the jazz man (who would have been 101 this January) at Birdland, two sets each night. Scott Robinson has reassembled the octet that he and Wess started in the early 1990s. The repertoire will consist of many original arrangements written by Wess that the group performed with him on many occasions (kindly provided by his widow, Sara Tsutsumi, who will be in attendance).
The octet will include multi-instrumentalist and musical director Scott Robinson (on tenor and baritone sax, alto clarinet and bass flute); Bill Easley on tenor and alto sax, flute; Frank Greene and Mike Rodriguez on trumpets; Steve Davis, trombone; Michael Weiss, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; and Dennis Mackrel on drums. This is an all-star line-up that may not happen again. These are musicians with distinction as bandleaders and composers, representing the 20th and 21st centuries of jazz music.
When many fans think of Wess, they automatically recall saxophonist Frank West during their Basie days when the two were known as “the Two Franks.” In the Count Basie band, they were known for their duets and “tenor battles.” They continued their association long after leaving Basie and often performed together.
Wess’s extensive résumé includes playing in the pit band for “Golden Boy” on Broadway, starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and playing for TV shows such as “The David Frost Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” and on jingles. Wess was not only an incredible musician; he was a wonderful human being and quite humorous.
For reservations, visit the website birdlandjazz.com or call 212-581-3080. Birdland is at 315 W. 44th Street.
Many prolific jazz musicians have called Harlem home and were adopted as honorary residents. Some of them include Scott Joplin through the Harlem Renaissance, with James P. Johnson to Billie Holiday, and bandleaders Jimmy Lunceford, Chic Webb, Count Basie and Roy Haynes.
However, there is a native son: The saxophonist and composer Bill Saxton didn’t travel to New York to perfect his craft, he was born at Harlem Hospital. Today his original speakeasy jazz club Bill’s Place (148 W. 133rd Street; once a part of Swing Street on 133rd Street during Prohibition, where Billie Holiday performed) carries on the jazz tradition every weekend on Friday and Saturday nights with the Bill Saxton Harlem All-Stars. There are two sets each night at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Don’t look for major names on the bandstand, but don’t be surprised if they show up, which often happens. For many years, when Saxton wasn’t touring, he was mentoring young aspiring musicians like Camille Thurman, Camille Gainer Jones and Lakecia Benjamin.
Saxton makes a habit of hiring young students. “For the last 17 years, I have practiced hiring young musicians, it gives them experience on the band stand and helps perfect their stage presence,” he said. “When I was coming up, musicians like Jackie McLean and Clark Terry allowed us young cats to sit in, plus there were a lot of clubs that offered jam sessions with the older guys.”
Bill’s Place offers audiences an opportunity to witness rising stars in the making, led by the accomplished composer and bandleader Saxton. Some of the many legends Saxton has played with include Frank Foster, Charlie Persip Big Band, Roy Haynes (who donated his drum set to Bill’s Place), Pharoah Sanders, Nancy Wilson, Tito Puente and Carmen McRae (also born in Harlem). As a big band contributor, he was a regular in Frank Foster’s Loud Minority, Clark Terry’s Big Bad Band and most recently the Charles Tolliver Big Band.
Bill’s Place is where aspiring musicians rise to the top.
Reservations required—call 212-281-0777.
Camille Gainer Jones, the versatile drummer with a keen sense of swing, will perform for one night only at Brooklyn’s hard-hittin’ jazz spot Sista’s Place (456 Nostrand Avenue) on January 28; two sets, 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Jones will be joined by an able cast featuring pianist Willerm Delisfort, alto saxophonist Chris Hemingway and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. Be prepared for her creative journey, free-swinging melodic beats that will be under and over her intuitive band carrying the flow. Audiences will be on the edge of their seats. If some funk gets in the mix, you may want to dance. It’s Sista’s Place so don’t be afraid to get down.
The drummer has played with musicians from a variety of genres, including R&B singer Jean Carn, Roy Ayers, Cyndi Lauper, Alicia Keys, Marc Cary and Greg Osby. With surely a varied list, it’s easy to realize that the drummer has some vibing music to offer.
For reservations, call 718-398-1766. Admission is $25.