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Eugene Wright, longtime Brubeck Quartet bassist, dies at 97
The quartet was one of the few racially mixed jazz groups during the fiery early years of the civil rights movement.

by Richard Sandomir



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Eugene Wright, a distinguished bass player who toured the world and recorded some 30 albums, including the landmark “Time Out,” in his decade with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, died Dec. 30 in the Valley Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 97.

Caroline Howard, the executor of Wright’s estate, confirmed his death, at an assisted living facility.

In 1958 Wright, a solidly swinging timekeeper best known for his work with the Count Basie Orchestra in the late 1940s, might not have seemed the ideal choice for the complex modern jazz compositions that formed the bulk of Brubeck’s repertoire.

“It shouldn’t have worked, but Dave had an ESP about musicians and knew somehow Eugene would work,” Philip Clark, the author of “Dave Brubeck: A Life In Time” (2020), said in a phone interview. “Eugene was a light-fingered player who could swing heavily, but he had a spongy sound that gave albums like ‘Time Out’ and very intricate pieces like ‘Three to Get Ready’ a chamber music quality.”

Bassist and trombonist Chris Brubeck, one of Dave Brubeck’s sons, said that Wright was an “egoless” musician who did not push to be a soloist — although he was a standout in that role — in the company of Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and Joe Morello on drums.

“Gene was the rhythmic foundation of the band,” said Chris Brubeck, who played with Wright on special occasions over the years. “He wanted to anchor Joe and Dave and Paul. His glory was when the band was cooking.”

“Time Out,” the group’s best-known and most successful album, was unusual in that most of the pieces on it were in unusual time signatures. “Take Five,” a track from that album in 5/4 time written by Desmond, was released as a single and reached No. 25 on the Billboard pop chart, a rare achievement for a jazz record.

The quartet was one of the few racially mixed jazz groups during the fiery early years of the civil rights movement. That led to showdowns between Brubeck, who was staunchly opposed to segregation, and some concert promoters and college officials.

On Feb. 5, 1958, the quartet was onstage for a soundcheck before a performance at East Carolina College (now University), in Greenville, North Carolina, when the dean of student affairs demanded to know why Wright was there. The school did not let Black people perform onstage.

“If Eugene can’t play, we won’t play,” Brubeck told the dean, and the dean reported the stalemate to the school’s president, John D. Messick, who called Gov. Luther Hodges’ office for advice, according to an article last year in Our State, a North Carolina magazine. Messick made a deal with Brubeck: The quartet could go on, but with Wright in the background.

Brubeck quickly subverted the deal by telling Wright that his microphone was broken and that he had to perform his solo at the announcement mic in front of the band.




“We were waiting to go on for an hour, an hour and a half maybe, and man, when finally we went on, we smoked,” Wright was quoted as saying in Clark’s Brubeck biography. “The audience, they knew what had happened. They’d been kicking the floor and chanting because they wanted us to play, and boy, I remember the roar when we hit the stage.”

(Soon after that, the quartet left on a long tour, sponsored by the State Department, of Poland, Iran, Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.)

In 1960, Brubeck refused to play 23 dates at Southern colleges and universities because he would not replace Wright with a white bassist. And in 1964, the quartet defied picketing and threats of violence by the Ku Klux Klan and performed before an integrated audience at the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium in Tuscaloosa.

Eugene Joseph Wright was born on May 29, 1923, in Chicago to Mayme (Brisco) Wright and Ezra Wright. His mother played piano, and, after studying the cornet in high school, he taught himself the string bass. He formed his own group, the Dukes of Swing, in his early 20s, and went on to play bass with, among others, Basie, saxophonist Gene Ammons and vibraphonists Red Norvo and Cal Tjader. Wright’s idol was Walter Page, best known for his long stint as Basie’s bassist.

When Norman Bates quit as the Brubeck quartet’s bassist in 1958, Morello suggested that Wright try for the slot. Wright auditioned at Brubeck’s house in Oakland, California.

“There was a big, beautiful piano, and Dave said, ‘What do you want to play?’” Wright told Clark in an interview in 2017 for his biography. They agreed on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

“He started playing his version of the tune” — which the quartet had recorded in 1955 — “and we played the first chorus fine, but in the second chorus, he made a mistake, which didn’t happen too often,” Wright recalled. “Now, I hadn’t played with him before, but I knew how to listen and I had a good ear and he carried on playing and I waited until — bang — I caught up with him, made it right.

“Dave was delighted with how that afternoon went and offered me the job.”

Wright stayed with the quartet until the end of 1967, when Brubeck disbanded it to focus on composing. The group reunited occasionally over the years. Wright was the last surviving member.

He is survived by his daughters, Adrianne Wright and Rosita Dozier, and a son, Stewart Ayers. His marriage to Jacqueline Winters ended in divorce. His second wife, Phyllis (Lycett) Wright, died in 2006.

In the decades after the Brubeck quartet broke up, Wright played with pianist Monty Alexander’s trio and worked on soundtracks for film and television studios. He also performed at private parties until 2016 and gave private lessons until three years ago.

© 2021 The New York Times Company










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