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Eugene Wright, Steadfast Bassist and Longtime Anchor of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Dies at 97

Eugene Wright, whose nimble and rock-steady bass playing anchored the Dave Brubeck Quartet during its most popular and prolific decade, from the late 1950s through the late ‘60s, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97.

His death was announced online by the Dave Brubeck estate.

Known in jazz circles by a mock-serious nickname, The Senator, Wright also worked with an array of other prominent bandleaders — from saxophonists Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt to pianists Erroll Garner, Monty Alexander and Vince Guaraldi.

But it was his tenure with Brubeck that cemented his reputation, over the course of some 30 albums — including the defining breakthrough Time Out, which yielded a hit in “Take Five,” and a calling card in “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Wright was the last surviving member of Brubeck’s classic quartet, which also featured Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and Joe Morello on drums.

Credit courtesy of the Brubeck Estate
courtesy of the Brubeck Estate
Eugene Wright with Dave Brubeck in the 1960s

“I liked his solid bass lines that grounded the group,” Brubeck attests in an undated journal entry cited by Philip Clark in Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time. That foundation, Brubeck adds, made it possible “to play other tempos and do polyrhythmic things and he wouldn’t budge from this grounded beat. Oftentimes Joe, on drums, would be playing a different counter-rhythm to what Gene was playing. Paul and I might be playing in a different rhythm from either of them.”

In addition to Time Out and its later sequels, like Time Further Out and Time In, Wright can be heard on The Real Ambassadors, a jazz musical created by Brubeck with his wife, Iola, with vocals by Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae, among others.

That piece was inspired by the hypocrisy of a U.S. State Department that touted jazz as a beacon of democratic equality even as Jim Crow segregation persisted back at home. Wright had experienced this dissonance firsthand, notably during his first week with the band in Feb. 1958. When Brubeck arrived at a college gig in North Carolina, university administrators balked at the unexpected presence of a Black musician in his band. (Brubeck refused to play the concert without him.)

While he held down a firm foundation in the band, Wright was no slouch as a solo improviser: consult this footage of a concert in 1964, the year that he appeared on Time Changes, Jazz Impressions of Japan and Dave Brubeck in Berlin.

Eugene Joseph Wright was born in Chicago on May 29, 1923. A cornetist during his high school years, he led a 16-piece band called the Dukes of Swing in his 20s. He was largely self-taught on bass until his early 30s, when he studied privately with Paul Gregory and others.

Wright’s musical hero was Walter Page, the unflashy but commanding bassist in Count Basie’s All-American Rhythm Section. So it was no small point of pride when Wright landed a gig with Basie in the late 1940s — one of a handful of notable appointments for him in that era. In the early ‘50s he worked with tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco; later in the decade he backed vibraphonists Red Norvo and Cal Tjader. Here he is with Tjader’s quartet in ’57, on the album Jazz at the Blackhawk.

Brubeck hired Wright after hearing him with Tjader and others — and while his earthy, swinging bass playing might seem at odds with the more cerebral aspects of Brubeck’s band, the pianist recognized a perfect odd-couple fit. Wright provided just what he needed, and Morello was quick to second the endorsement.

The quartet’s reign ended in 1968, as Brubeck decided to focus on larger compositional endeavors. But it was an amicable split, and Wright reunited with the others on multiple occasions over the ensuing decades. (Brubeck, whose centennial was observed this year, died in 2012, at 91. Desmond died in 1977, and Morello in 2011.)

Wright settled happily into retirement in his later years, becoming a mentor to many bassists in Los Angeles, and a proud keeper of his legacy in and out of the Brubeck quartet. He appears as a sparkling elder statesman in Clark’s biography, sharing tales that shed a personal light on his time with the band.

“One time we were playing a benefit concert in Carnegie Hall for the NAACP, five or six different bands, and we opened the second half,” he says. “Before we played one of the brothers said, ‘Gene Wright! What are you doing with that group?’ And I said, ‘Well, I was offered a job.’ Afterward he came up to me and said, ‘Man, I owe you an apology, because you made Dave play harder than I’ve ever heard him play.’”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.