See The Director, Sir! Remembering Dr. Al G. Wright on his passing at 104 years of age

Mike Lawson • • October 2, 2020

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“Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” or “See the director, sir,” were the only acceptable responses to any question asked by a judge at any band competition. This was the level of discipline instilled and expected of a Miami Senior High School “Million Dollar” Marching Band member.

The director referred to was Al G. Wright during my sophomore year at Miami Senior High in 1953. This is just one of many vivid memories of that year that were refreshed during my conversations with him while writing the August 2016 SBO cover article celebrating Wright’s 100th birthday.

My band director passed away on September 5 at the age of 104. “Mr. Wright” as he was known to his students (“Al” to the thousands who got to really know him over these years), may have directed more lives, not just their music, than anyone else in music education.

Among those reflecting on this time and Wright’s leadership is Gus Perry. Perry served as our drum major and as a saxophone player in almost all Miami Senior High (MHS) music organizations. Based on this experience, Gus earned his Bachelor of Music from the University of Miami, and after a brief assignment in Georgia became the director of bands at Miami Senior High, his alma mater, in 1960.

Other additional music education responsibilities were added, including becoming a professor of music, band director, and eventually music department chair at Miami Dade College. He was a Florida Bandmasters Association adjudicator for 40 years. Perry reflected on Al Wright’s impact on his life and career, saying “Wright instilled concepts in me as a band student at MHS. They are the same concepts that I tried to instill in my students when I was band director at Miami High. In fact, I used the same handbook that he wrote when he was there. Wright provided a path that led his students to becoming mature adults!”

Perry added some specifics: “he provided organization and leadership skills in learning situations while working with others, he provided an outlet for learning to perform superior music and marching techniques so that one became proud to be involved in the group process. He provided a challenging curriculum for his students to reach a high degree of excellence.

All information needed to accomplish the goals of any MHS music organizations were always provided in writing.” Al Wright accepted the position of director of bands at Purdue University starting over the summer of 1954. Wright’s tenure at Purdue is beautifully described in John Norberg’s Heartbeat of the University, 125 Years of Purdue Bands published by the university in 2011. In 1954, when Wright arrived, the all-male band had a distinctly military appearance, and in fact, doubled as the ROTC band. “You don’t go in and wipe the slate clean,” he stated…”except…” The first few exceptions began the movement from military band to show band. They included white spats over the military boots and the introduction of the Golden Girl, a solo twirler in gold sequin outfit.

Wright also looked for ways to involve the band in Purdue events. One example was bringing the symphonic band to a pig roast held by the university vice president/treasurer. They performed a commissioned work, “Fanfare for a Roasted Pig” and also provided dinner music throughout the evening. The book also relates other innovations including inviting widely known and popular entertainers to perform with the band. These were all typical Al Wright, both innovative and, to some, shocking.

It is notable that there are no music or music education majors at Purdue University, yet there are over 1,200 students involved in the university’s music programs. Many were drawn by these widely-seen Purdue performances. Vanessa Dingledine came from a musical family. Her dad was a cellist at Kent State and her brother played oboe and would become a high school band director. She studied clarinet and also became a baton twirler, both with her high school band. Vanessa was drawn to Purdue by the excellence she saw in the band’s performances. She attended Purdue in the late 1960s and graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and speech communication. She was in the Purdue bands and majorettes during the era of international trips to Japan and Colombia. “We learned discipline, we developed a sense of purpose, and to appreciate quality,” she said. “We learned to exercise your part in an established group.” She related the process of reviewing the films of the previous week’s band and auxiliary rehearsals and performances, “not to embarrass but to improve the totality of the group’s performance. It was for the betterment of the group!”

Vanessa, now Castagna, went into retail, working for Blue Chip Fortune 50 companies. She has retired after serving as CEO and chairwoman of JC Penney and being recognized by both Fortune and Forbes magazines as a “Most Powerful Woman in Business.” She was appointed as one of three alumni trustees of Purdue University in 2013 and also serves on the Purdue University Band and Orchestras Advisory Board. Vanessa launched and successfully established the endowed Al G. Wright Chair of University Bands.

Jay S. Gephart is the director of university bands which include the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band and the Purdue University Wind Ensemble. He currently serves as the endowed Al G. Wright Chair of the Purdue Bands and Orchestra. When he first met with Al and Gladys after accepting the position at Purdue, he viewed Al as “bigger than life, and along with Gladys, a formidable duo!” He was aware of their incredible accomplishments. “They were gracious, not at all threatening, and welcomed me into the Purdue family.”

One of the Purdue traditions that Gephart inherited and has continued was a short statement that is read every fall just before the band plays the national anthem at pre-game ceremonies. It is now also recited prior to every pandemic-caused virtual band performance as well. “I Am an American” was written by Al Wright. These words will remind us of an English-born American and his love of America: “I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four, you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across this bright autumn sky. But remember too, that these are more than just words. They are a way of life. So, whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!”

Max McKee has been involved in music education his entire life. As founder and executive director of American Band College in Ashland, Oregon, and also founder of Bandworld Magazine, he has known Al and Gladys most of his life. In fact, his father-in-law, Randall Spicer, was responsible for introducing Al and Gladys to each other at the Gunnison Music Camp in 1953. The American Band College hosted Al and Gladys as clinicians at four different summer sessions, the last in 2011. Referring to the Wrights as a couple, McKee reflected on how difficult it is to grasp not only the importance of these two people in the field of band music and education but the number of years represented by their involvement in our profession. He would add, “The amazing thing is they remained involved in so many aspects of what makes us tick as band directors in America today!” McKee summarized his respect for Al with, “Al was, above all else, a fantastic idea man! I learned so much from him on how to bring to fruition most of the crazy, yet valid ideas.”

This tribute intentionally avoided listing all of Al Wright’s many accomplishments, honors, and organization involvement. Rather, we focused on how he was perceived by those who worked closest with him. In addition to the Purdue University Band book previously mentioned, the John Philip Sousa Foundation published The Music Makers, A Love Story with Music in 2004. It is described as “an autobiography by Dr. and Gladys Stone Wright.” This 600-page volume contains detailed and intimate information about this incredible music education couple spanning nearly 90 years of their lives. Sixty-seven of these years were as a married couple.

And after 67 years I still remember the booming voice from the director’s tower at the band’s field drill rehearsal behind Miami High School…”Steiner, your rank looks terrible. Fix it!”

I’m still trying to “fix it” all through my life.

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