Eugene Wright, Longtime Brubeck Quartet Bassist, Dies at 97
Eugene Wright, a respected bassist who toured the world with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in his decade and recorded around 30 albums, including the landmark “Time Out”, died on December 30th in the Valley Glen neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 97 years old.
Caroline Howard, the executor of Mr. Wright’s estate, confirmed his death in an assisted living facility.
Mr. Wright, a solidly swinging timekeeper known for his work with the Count Basie Orchestra in the late 1940s, may not seem the ideal choice in 1958 for the complex modern jazz compositions that make up most of Mr. Brubeck’s repertoire made out.
“It shouldn’t have worked, but Dave had an ESP about musicians and knew Eugene would work somehow,” said Philip Clark, the author of Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time (2020), in a telephone interview. “Eugene was a light-fingered player who could swing a lot, but his sound was spongy, which gave a chamber music quality to albums like ‘Time Out’ and very complicated pieces like ‘Three to Get Ready’.”
Bassist and trombonist Chris Brubeck, one of Dave Brubeck’s sons, said that Mr. Wright was an “egoless” musician who did not push to be a soloist – although he played a prominent role in that role – with Mr. Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and Joe Morello on drums.
“Gene was the rhythmic bedrock of the band,” said Mr. Brubeck, who played with Mr. Wright on special occasions over the years. “He wanted to anchor Joe, Dave and Paul. His fame was when the band was boiling. “
“Time Out,” the group’s best known and most successful album, was unusual in that most of the tracks featured unusual time signatures. “Take Five,” a track from this album, written by Mr. Desmond in 5/4 time, was released as a single and peaked at number 25 on the Billboard pop charts, a rare achievement for a jazz record.
The quartet was one of the few racially mixed jazz groups in the fiery early years of the civil rights movement. This led to showdowns between Mr Brubeck, who was firmly against segregation, and some concert promoters and university officials.
On February 5, 1958, before a performance at East Carolina College (now University) in Greenville, NC, the quartet was on stage to do a sound check when the Dean of Student Affairs asked why Mr. Wright was there. The school did not allow blacks to appear on the stage.
“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 sought advice from Governor Luther Hodges’ office in an article last year in Our State, a North Carolina magazine. Mr. Messick made a deal with Mr. Brubeck: the quartet could go on but with Mr. Wright in the background.
Mr. Brubeck quickly interrupted the deal by telling Mr. Wright that his microphone was broken and that he had to play his solo on the announcement microphone in front of the band.
“We waited to go on for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and man, when we finally went on, we were smoking,” Mr. Wright was quoted as saying in Mr. Clark’s Brubeck biography. “The audience knew what had happened. They had stepped on the floor and sang because they wanted us to play and boy I remember the roar when we got on stage. “
Soon after, the quartet embarked on a long tour, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, of Poland, Iran, Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
In 1960 Mr. Brubeck refused to play 23 dates at colleges and universities of the South because he would not replace Mr. Wright with a white bassist. And in 1964 the quartet defied the picket line and threats of violence by the Ku Klux Klan and performed before an integrated audience in the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Eugene Joseph Wright was born on May 29, 1923 in Chicago to Mayme (Brisco) Wright and Ezra Wright. His mother played the piano, and after Gene studied the cornet in high school, he taught himself the double bass. In the early twenties he founded his own group, the Dukes of Swing, and played bass with Basie, saxophonist Gene Ammons and vibraphonists Red Norvo and Cal Tjader, among others. Mr. Wright’s idol was Walter Page, known for his long time as Basie’s bass player.
When Norman Bates stopped playing bass with the Brubeck Quartet in 1958, Mr. Morello suggested Mr. Wright try to get the slot. Mr. Wright called at Mr. Brubeck’s home in Oakland, California.
“There was a big, beautiful piano and Dave said, ‘What do you want to play?'” Mr. Wright told Mr. Clark in a 2017 interview for his biography. They agreed, “Brother, can you save a dime?”
“He started playing his version of the tune” – which the quartet had recorded in 1955 – “and we played the first chorus well, but he made a mistake in the second that didn’t happen too often,” said Mr. Wright, recalled . “Now I had never played with him before, but I knew how to listen and I had a good ear and he kept playing and I waited until I caught up with him and got it right.
“Dave loved how this afternoon went and offered me the job.”
Mr. Wright stayed with the quartet until late 1967 when Mr. Brubeck broke it up to focus on composing. The group came back together occasionally over the years. Mr. 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 following the breakup of the Brubeck Quartet, Mr. 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.