WE’LL MISS WAYNE WRIGHT

Aside from the justly celebrated Freddie Green, the rhythm guitarist is the stoker down in the ship’s hold: unseen, uncredited, yet essential. My version of the Decline of the West got even more gloomy when four-piece jazz rhythm sections became three-piece. Green, like Eddie Condon, got a perverse kind of fame for refusing to play a solo, as if he were a farmer being paid not to grow his crop.

By way of Jon-Erik Kellso, I learned that the singular guitarist Wayne Wright died on May 9. If you saw Les Paul a half-dozen years ago, you might have seen Wayne providing rocking motion that kept it all together.

My own delighted perceptions of Wayne come from small-group New York jazz sessions of the early Seventies. At the time, Wayne was a cheerful, wisecracking presence, with a modified Beatle haircut and black-framed glasses. He was left-handed, and he liked to accent phrases with a simple figure, like a drummer’s rimshot-bass drum accent, which he would emphasize with a leap of the guitar’s neck, as if it were a fish trying to wriggle out of his grip. His rhythmic pulse was urgent but never loud — an audible, pushing sonic wave.

Even before he became a member of the Ruby Braff – George Barnes quartet, he surfaced, rewardingly, in odd places. One such occasion was a free lunchtime concert in summer 1973 which brought together Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern before they had organized Soprano Summit. Backing them was a perfect ad hoc New York rhythm section: Wayne, Milt Hinton, Dill Jones, and Jackie Williams. They played outside the Seagram Building in midtown, on a great concrete plaza with huge fountains, so rushing water competed with the music. Eubie Blake was the intermission pianist (!) and WCBS-AM anchorman Brian Madden brought his tenor sax and played enthusiastic early-Hawkins choruses with the band on “Crazy Rhythm.”

Wayne also came down to Brew’s, a little eatery that turned into a jazz club at night, just east of the Empire State Building. The Dave Tough-inspired drummer Mike Burgevin booked his friends and heroes — a very brief Golden Age that few noticed. They included pianists Jimmy Andrews and Dill Jones, bassists Al Hall and others, and horn players Herb Hall, Rudy Powell, Joe Thomas, Herman Autrey, Vic Dickenson, Marshall Brown, Kenny Davern, and others I have forgotten. But I remember one night in July 1974 when Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, and Wayne joined forces with Jimmy Andrews and Mike to pay tribute to Louis, with exquisitely swinging music, much of its rhythmic impetus courtesy of Wayne, his bell-like sound always floating the beat. Brew’s couldn’t stay afloat because the cabaret laws caught up with it — ironically so, in terms of the noise that follows us everywhere now! — and Mike tried, for a minute or so, to have jazz trios without a drummer. I caught one such evening — a trio led by Wayne, with Jimmy Andrews and Al Hall, making delightful homespun jazz, Wayne playing melody and single-string variations on “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and “Say It Isn’t So.” Wayne’s tone sang; he bent notes; he earnestly worked around the melody.

He also played for about eighteen months with the irreplaceable quartet that Ruby and George Barnes had. The two leaders soon loathed each other, and the quartet imploded, but it was a great experience to sit on the floor of the New York Jazz Museum and listen to them meander through “Sweethearts on Parade,” for one. Wayne recorded two impossible-to-find records of guitar duets with Marty Grosz on Jerry Valburn’s Aviva label, Let Your Fingers Do The Walking and Goody Goody — but much of the material on those records is a careful, loving exploration of duets by Dick McDonough and Carl Kress, among others. Wayne is there, but his personality rarely comes through.

Now he’s gone, and it feels as if he took as much of the identifying evidence with him as he could. YouTube used to offer clips of the Braff-Barnes quartet in Berlin, in 1974, but no more. Google Images came up only with two record-cover pictures of the quartet, which I’ve included here, and the closest thing we have to Wayne’s oral history or a self-portrait is a jazz guitar site where he talks about Barnes: classicjazzguitar.com/…/article.jsp?article=61

Was he content to strum in the background? I don’t know. But he could play! Goodbye, Wayne, and thank you.

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10 responses to “WE’LL MISS WAYNE WRIGHT

  1. Pingback: WE’LL MISS WAYNE WRIGHT | Jazz Guitar Digest

  2. Frank Amoss

    Wayne Wright – By: Frank Amoss

    Wayne Wright was a big part of my life. His passing leaves me with the most pronounced feeling of loss I’ve ever known. Titles such as friend, brother, colleague, confidant, and all ‘round hanger-outer only begin to address the degrees of comradeship we developed in the fifty-two years we knew each other.

    The first of those years was 1956 when I was serving in the 9th Army Band at Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. The temporary barracks for incoming troops was in the same building as the band’s rehearsal facility. Wayne showed up one day, headed for assignment with the Army Signal Corps, having been an employee of the Telephone Company in Detroit. Naturally, he got out his guitar and a jam session ensued. The band lacked a piano player at the time, which rendered us incapable of playing for dance type gigs at the various service clubs on base. The band director pulled some strings and Wayne was rerouted to the band, with the understanding he also learn to play a marching band instrument. For the rest of his service career he struggled with a French horn, not seriously caring about mastering the instrument, but giving it “lip service” while enjoying being in the band and playing gigs for extra money in the off-duty times.

    Fairbanks, in those pre-statehood days was a pretty wide open place. There was no curfew for the bars, of which there was an overabundance, so those of us who were jazz players would have various jobs that didn’t start until midnight. The duty in Alaska was limited by the weather and, aside from a morning rehearsal it was easy to catch a nap in the library or other sought out areas of seclusion.

    Wayne sent for his wife, JoAnn, and it was during this time their first child, Nancy, was born. They lived off base but Wayne, with his first Volkswagen, managed to cover what there was of the live music scene and still be a responsible husband and father. Wayne chose the Volkswagen because its air-cooled engine would not freeze during the many months of sub-zero temperatures. Cars with radiators had head bolt heaters to keep the blocks from cracking. Wayne kept his Volkswagen warm with a light bulb under the hood.

    Wayne, bassist, Jack Gregg (Memphis, TN) and I were a rhythm section and we played together a lot. After a year and a half my time was served and the both of them drove me to the airport. As far as we knew, I’d never see them again.

    In 1961 I moved to New York City. Later that year, there was Wayne at Local 802. He had moved there with his family, which now included son, Scott. It was great to be back in the company of such a good friend. The 60’s life style in New York included a lot of hanging out, mainly at Jim & Andy’s, Charlie’s Tavern and Joe Harbor’s Spotlight. I spent many hours with Wayne as we spread ourselves between the watering holes. This was our method of maintaining contacts, which was later to become known as networking.

    We also made a few road trips with the bands of Sammy Kaye and Richard Maltby. In 1963 Wayne became the guitarist in the pit band for the Broadway show “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” playing at the 46th St. Theatre. Jimmy Crawford, creator of the “Lunceford Two,” was the drummer. Jimmy was looking for a drummer to substitute for him so he could take some shows off. This was to allow him to play for the Jackie Gleason Orchestra recording sessions which were producing high selling records. Wayne told Jimmy about me, introduced us and I spent many nights sitting next to Jimmy in the pit so I could learn to play the show exactly as he did. After the shows Wayne and I would hop in his Volkswagen and drive around New York, catching bands or hanging out at one or more of the aforementioned bars. After a while I started playing the show when Jimmy Crawford took some time off for whatever reason. What a thrill…..to be playing a Broadway Show! This was very good for my reputation and I owed it to Wayne’s friendship. There was some swinging music in this show and Wayne and I had a lot of fun digging into it.

    After the mid-60’s Wayne and I didn’t have the opportunity to play together. Once he took me and a bass player to George Barnes’ apartment to jam. It was sort of an audition. Much later George told me he didn’t like the bass player so nothing came of it. It was during this time Wayne spent many months playing the Jaques Brell show in the Village. Our hanging out didn’t slow down, however. We ran into each other on an almost daily basis at Jim & Andy’s and continued roaming the city late at night in his Volkswagen.

    In 1970 I went on the road with a show with which I became associated while playing at the Copacabana. This led me to California, where I’ve resided ever since. I still think of New York as the top of the world and visit there whenever I can. No trip to NYC could be complete without getting together with Wayne. I’d meet him at the union exchange floor or he’d pick me up at my hotel and off we’d go. After a few years none of the 60’s hanging out spots survived, but Wayne was always a part of the happening scene so we’d go to where “the guys” were currently hanging and it would be like old times.

    Not too many years ago I was in New York in December. Wayne picked me up and took me to a Christmas gig with him. I sat in with the band and we had one last opportunity to make music together. On my most recent visit to New York I was only able to call Wayne on the phone. I had gone to see the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium before it was torn down. I called him from the stadium and we talked about the time we had set up our instruments there on second base with Sammy Kaye’s band to play for a Yankees Old Timers’ Day and game.

    Fortunately, only a few months earlier I had been in town and was able to meet with Wayne and JoAnn. They took the LIRR to Penn Station and we met there for lunch. Much reminiscing took place as we talked about experiences and friends. Our friend, Jack Gregg, from the army band, who had also come to New York in the 60’s had moved to Paris and communicated with me for years, which I always passed on to Wayne. Then, in the early 90’s, communication stopped and I never heard from him again. Wayne and I were like his big brothers and we always expressed the hope of hearing from him again.

    Wayne was a funny guy, his perennial admonishment “ya gotta allow for shrinkage” delivered in a light hearted manner, is actually a valuable philosophical lesson in living which I’ve always recognized as such. His impish grin, in response to any adversity, was evidence he lived what he preached.

    E-mail communication became my life line with Wayne. Through it we maintained a constant connection. Aside from the barrage of jokes, we exchanged observations of music, politics and the inevitable passing of friends. For these many years Wayne’s musicianship and friendliness have comforted me. I don’t possess the fortitude to remove his name from my mailing list.

  3. Thank you so much for that, Frank. We should all have friends who remember us with such clarity and such affection.

  4. Tommy Mulvihill

    I met Wayne at One Station Plaza, a club in Bayside where he was playing with Marty Grosz. He came to see me play and would always bring his guitar and ask if he could sit in. Now, my music was not jazz, just pop and folk but he was always interested in seeing how he could fit in. “I won’t get in your way”, he’d say, adding his wonderful fills laced with humor and then have his Heineken and cigarette and make puns all night.

    He took me to Les Paul’s home in North Jersey quaking in my boots, but Wayne always treated me as an equal and had the 3 of us jamming for about an hour until Les’s hands got stiff from the arthritis. I played the fiddle for Les as well because Wayne got such a kick out of the Irish traditional music I learned as a child. We were both amazed that Les could here an Irish reel once or twice and match me note for note.

    I hadn’t seen Wayne in quite a few years and was just walking down the street today when he came into my head. I googled his name when I got home to the computer and read the sad news of his passing. But at the same time, he will always bring a smile to me.

    Thank God I have the duet albums, Goody Goody and Let Your Fingers Do The Walking with Marty Grosz to fall back on.

    Goodbye for a while, Wayne!

  5. Peter Hassett

    I hadn’t thought of Wayne Wright in years, and just yesterday, a fellow guitarist asked me about him. I was startled and saddened very much to discover that Wayne had died, especially so recently.

    As testament to someone’s earlier comment about Wayne’s habit of wandering around NY City late at night, I ran into Wayne outside a Manhattan hotel probably 30 years ago, and he asked me if I’d like to hear some jazz he had bootlegged on to a casette tape. We went up to my room, where Wayne pulled out a dresser drawer and set his casette player inside it. “The traveling man’s ampklifier,” he explaind. And it worked!

    He was a wonderful guy, and a great, great guitarist. Far better I think than he’s ever been recognized for.

    I’ll miss him, even though I had not seen him in years. My memories come from the late 1970’s, when he played a month at the Statler Hotel in Buffalo, NY, with the premier “chamber jazz” group, the Braff/Barnes Quartet. He and bassist Michael Moore layed the most beautiful rythym carpet on which Braff and Barnes danced.

    My deepest condolences to those who knew Wayne. We’ll all miss him.

  6. I was truly shocked to learn about Wayne’s passing on to the Celebrated Heavenly Band.
    My favorite recollections are:
    1. Wayne invited me to meet him at Les Paul’s house — the house of wizardry. e My son, David, helped Les transfer his old TV series with Mary to video – state of the art at that time.
    2. As pianist/vocalist, I secured a duo gig weekly in NJ. Wayne accompanied me on guitar, adding plenty of pizzazz — changes of keys and rhythms.
    My kids were planning a surprise 50th party for me. By error, I heard about it and cancelled the party because I didn’t want to miss out on the steady and fun gig. I still know it was the better choice.

  7. I just found out belatedly that Wayne had passed on. He was a sweet man who introduced me to several wonderful players. I thought people who knew him and his music might be interested in an interview I did with him some years back for an article on the Freddie Green style; there’s an abbreviated version of it at:
    http://www.freddiegreen.org/technique/lehmann.html

  8. JoAnn Wright

    Wayne has been gone for nearly two years..yet i miss him so much it is hard to be in his beloved computer. He embraced the computer and graphic art whe he was no longer able to play his beloved music. i have just learned of this site but will visit it often. For all those who comment THANK YOU Wayne’s wife JoAnn

  9. Wayne Wright and Joseph Reinhardt are musical heroes. These men loved the music and had the commitment to “lay the most beautiful rythym carpet” as Peter Hasset put it. I try to emulate these men in my playing and every time I hear George Barnes or Django I feel the satisfaction that these great soloists took in being able to rely on that perfect carpet on which to dance.

  10. Hello, I knew Wayne Wright the great guitar player. We lived 9 blocks away from each other in Whitestone , New York. I met him through yet another guitar player also from Whitestone,N.Y. by name of Tommy Febbraro who has also gone to HEAVEN.We al 3 would jam at times even though each of our styles were different.I will always recall all the times that Wayne called me to see if I would ride to NYC with him to his gigs there.I got to meet the great Les Paul at Fat Tuesdays through Wayne Wright even was to Les paul’s house in Mah Wah , New Jersey twice with wayne….once after a Fat Tuesdays gig to actually jam with the 2 guitar icons.Wayne also took me to meet greats like Joe Pass….Frank Vignola….Joey Bushkin the cool piano jazz man…..Gary Mazzaroppi their bass palyer…..what great times….what great memories….It was all real….no dream here at all…..Joe Nania also known as Hollywood Joe hollywoodjoe.com

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