He began with classical music and played in Oklahoma. He later switched to jazz on moving to Washington, D. C. and by nineteen was working in the Big Bands. His career was interrupted during World War II although he did play with a military band in the period. On returning from service he joined Billy Eckstine's orchestra.
He returned to DC a few years after this and received a degree in flute at the city's Modern School Of Music. From 1953 he joined Count Basie's band, playing flute and tenor sax. He reverted to alto sax in the late '50s, and left Basie's band in 1964. From 1959 to 1964 he won Down Beat's critic poll for flute.
He was a member of Clark Terry's big band from 1967 into the '70s and played in the New York Quartet (with Roland Hanna). Since then he has done a variety of TV shows and telethons. In the '80s and '90s, he worked with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Buck Clayton, Benny Carter, Billy Taylor, Harry Edison, Mel Tormé, Ernestine Anderson, Louie Bellson, John Pizzarelli, Howard Alden, Dick Hyman, Byron Stripling, Jane Jarvis, Frank Vignola and was a featured member of the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra.
Wess also contributed to the landmark Jazz Composer's Orchestra 1968 album Communications.
In 2007 Wess was named an NEA Jazz Master by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. Comes with splice, pads and a 7 day money-back guarantee.