Up Close: Al G. Wright – Purdue University Band Director Emeritus Turns 100!

Mike Lawson • • August 15, 2016

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In fall of 1953, my high school band director, Al G. Wright, began a lifelong impact and created a set of memories for me. His style was direct but the results spoke of excellence.

Although many of my fellow band members still have harsh recollections of him, all acknowledge the greatness that resulted.

Miami Senior High is the oldest high school in Miami, Florida. Housed in a large, magnificent Spanish architecture building that is on the National Register of Historic Places, it was known for excellence in every quarter. The football team had a decade-long run of no defeats and many of the school’s graduates would go on to become Florida’s governors, United States senators and congressmen, and leaders in every manner of endeavor. The band was also expected to accomplish greatness. Wright was barely out of college at the University of Miami when he took on this challenge.

This formal portrait of Al Wright probably dates back to University of Miami days, possibly from the 1930's or 1940's. Early photos of Wright are held in archives of many band director associations as well as at Purdue University and the University of Miami. Wright was more than equal to the challenge. The “Million Dollar” marching band and the symphonic band always excelled, prompting judges at competitions to compare its performances with legendary concert bands of the past. Wagner’s “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla,” a complex piece to say the least, was the Miami High band’s feature selection at the 1954 Florida State Band Contest in Tampa. The band had practiced this piece to such an extent that an a capella whistling and humming version took place on the buses carrying the band to the state competition. Band members had totally committed to memory their individual parts allowing the band’s focus to be on the director, not on the printed music.

Noteworthy presentations of symphonic band standards (the old warhorses) included a creative presentation of the 1812 Overture. The cannon fire emphasis was accomplished by the percussion section firing starter pistol blanks into backstage oil drums each containing different levels of water to “tune” them, much like tympani. This not only produced the composer’s intended sound effects but also added the dimensions and sensations of flash, concussion, smoke and even the aroma of gunpowder that would have accompanied actual cannon fire.

Near the end of that school year, in the Miami High band room, Wright announced that he was leaving and that he would be taking the position of director of bands at Purdue University in Indiana. Dead silence was the initial response. At that moment, regardless of one’s attitude towards Mr. Wright, a sense of loss engulfed the room. The glory and reputation of the “Million Dollar Band” suddenly came into sharp focus! The impact of Wright’s discipline was now obvious.

Over the next twenty-seven years, as only the second person to be director of bands at Purdue University, Wright would implement changes that were perceived as revolutionary. However, many of these changes, especially the early ones, were deeply rooted in the Miami High “Million Dollar” repertoire. The Million Dollar Band had utilized dance steps and movement during its field shows and formations as well as well-trained, nationally-ranked solo baton twirlers and majorette corps – all in one-piece sequin uniforms that predated, but inspired, the “Golden Girl”, the “Girl in Black”, and the “Silver Twins” at Purdue. Ballet and flag corps rounded out these earlier Miami High versions of multimedia field show performances. The Purdue All-American Marching Band would perform internationally just as the Miami High band had years before.

Size also mattered at Miami High and later at Purdue University. The high school band program included the 180 member Million Dollar Marching Band and a reserve band of equal size whose members were just itching to move up, creating a highly competitive situation that drove a constant high level of performance. Wright grew the Purdue band from an average 100 members to over 200, creating both a supply of competent members and a consistent high level of capability. He also initiated an orchestra program at Purdue.

The celebration of Wright’s 100th birthday included two events in his long-time hometown of West Lafayette, Indiana. An evening concert on June 23, Wright’s birthday, was presented by the Lafayette Citizens Band, directed by a former Purdue associate professor of bands, Bill Kisinger. The event was supported by the Purdue Bands and Orchestras and Alumni organization and held in an open town square. An article published in the local Lafayette Journal and Courier newspaper on the eve of the concert was headlined, “Al Wright Sees His Legacy.” An open house event was held the following weekend at the John Philip Sousa Foundation House in West Lafayette.

These events were not just a recognition of the 100-year birthday but an open acknowledgement of Wright’s accomplishments through these years.

Wright was born in London, England and as a child, immigrated with his family to Pontiac, Michigan. He grew up, attended school and played French horn in the Pontiac Band. Graduating in 1933, he became aware of music scholarships offered at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida, applied and was accepted, receiving a scholarship. Wright earned his Bachelor of Arts in public school music in 1937 and almost immediately (1938) became the band and orchestra director at Miami Senior High School. Later, in 1947 while director at Miami High, he completed the University of Miami master’s in education degree program. He continued at Miami High until moving to Purdue University in 1954.

Perhaps the fact that Wright was once an immigrant and has lived the American dream led him to write “I am an American!” which is traditionally recited just before the “Star Spangled Banner” at all Purdue sporting events.

During his time at Miami High School, he served as president of the Florida Bandmasters Association, president of the Florida Orchestra Association and was invited to the American Bandmasters Association in 1949 where he would serve as president and later would be designated Honorary Life President.

The woman behind the podium (when she’s not on the podium) is Gladys Stone Wright, Al’s wife of 62 years! She is an accomplished director in her own right. Gladys Stone was born and educated in Oregon, receiving bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Oregon. Her thirtysix-year career as a high school band director started in Oregon where, in 1951 as the band director at Elmira Union High School, she attended the Western Music Camp at Gunnison, Colorado. There she met Al G. Wright whom she would marry in 1953 just as he was accepting his position at Purdue. Gladys then became the band director at Otterbein High School in Indiana. Many of Gladys’ awards and accomplishments represent “firsts” for a woman band director. She is active as an adjudicator, conductor, and clinician, and has also published articles and composed music.

The Women Band Directors International held their summer conference this year at the Sousa House over the birthday weekend to honor Wright. Al and Gladys both actively participated in the birthday concert event, each taking the podium to direct the Lafayette Citizens Band. Wright directed Henry Fillmore’s Rolling Thunder March and Gladys directed one of her own compositions.

What honors still await this director who already has either been awarded or created the various recognitions of band directors? The American Band College (ABC) in Ashland, Oregon has recently announced plans for the Al & Gladys Wright School of the American Band College. This building will provide a permanent home for the college’s unique master’s degree program along with the ABC Center for Research with archives and library, large and smaller rehearsal and performance rooms, practice rooms and space for the instruments and equipment needed for the Western International Band Clinic.

In an era when relatively new school band directors deal with career burnout as one of the topics at directors’ workshops and in source books, Al and Gladys Wright serve as examples from another generation that should inspire them with what can be accomplished during their time on the podium.

While recognition of long term accomplishments by a band director should not be the goal, a number of highly respected professional groups do honor these efforts. Many of these recognitions bear the name of Al G. Wright. Among the many honors already given was the establishment of the Al G. Wright Chair of Purdue University and Orchestra, an endowment created by matching funds of Purdue University and the Band Alumni Association to honor Wright’s 27 years as the director of bands. Vanessa Castagna, one of three alumni members of the university’s board of trustees who promoted the endowed chair, said, “Al Wright instilled in each student he touched a tremendous sense of discipline, work ethic, duty, responsibility, and pride in performance.” She once played clarinet in the Purdue band and was a majorette as well. The current Purdue University director of bands, Jay Gephart, holds that Wright Chair.

Wright’s true legacy may not be in his numerous accomplishments, awards, and recognitions but the simple and obvious fact that so many of his peers, coworkers, and students are highly active and visible in the world of band directing. Many of these individuals, at ages that easily qualify them for retirement, are creating new challenges for current band directors and also are steering almost every major professional organization.

And Wright’s reaction to all this birthday activity and attention may have been best said as he took to the podium in Lafayette at his 100th birthday concert. With some effort, he got up to the microphone and said, “This was a lot easier when I was 99!” That being said, Wright has told others that he would like to attend next year’s 83rd Annual ABA convention in Lexington, Kentucky, in March. Why not, after all Wright closed the 2012 ABA convention directing the Purdue Wind Ensemble in the last march of the closing concert. Gephart remembers that event saying, “As he took the podium, it was as if he were home!”


Gladys Stone Wright

In 1948, the Elmira Union High School in Elmira, Oregon got a new band director. As was typical for a small rural community, this director was fresh out of college. This first assignment would only be the beginning of many firsts for this director, however.

As a woman, she would frequently be the first, and quite possibly the only woman at many stages of her career. Gladys’s role model was her elementary school band director, Evelyn Scott, in Wasco, Oregon. Strong set out not only to become a competent band director but also to locate other women directors.

In 1951, while attending the Western Music Camp in Gunnison, Colorado, she met two more women directors. She also met Al G. Wright, a high school director at Miami Senior High School in Miami, Florida. Even though they were far apart geographically, their relationship grew and they married in 1953.

Wright was about to leave Florida and become only the second director of bands at Purdue University. Gladys was able to find a position at Otterbein, Indiana and some five years later in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Gladys’ bands were known for traveling tours throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and even Europe. In 1975, the William Henry Harrison High School Band from West Lafayette, Indiana, won the gold medal at the World Music Contest in Holland. Based on the years of band tours that both had conducted, the Wrights established International Band Tours as a business venture to the school band industry.

Through all of these activities, Gladys continued to locate other women band directors. Prompted by a display, “Ladies of the Podium,” set up at the Daniel Boone Music Camp in Kentucky where Al frequently taught, Gladys began to think about an organization to represent, encourage, and honor women band directors. The six women enrolled or teaching at that camp held organizational meetings. Late the following year, 1968, five women at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago set about creating a constitution, by-laws and establishing officer positions for the Women Band Directors National Association. Building their contact list and setting the organization in motion occupied the next year. All members from 1969 were given charter member status, all fifty-four. Gladys Stone Wright became the founding president of what is today Women Band Directors International.

Her activities rivaled those of her husband, and Gladys would become among the first women to receive many of the honors from the various music organizations. These honors continue as does the work of both Gladys and Al continuing to be active in the world of music education!

For further information, please visit the Women Band Directors’ website at womenbanddirectors.org.

American Band College to Build Al & Gladys Wright Building

The American Band College was initially established by Southern Oregon University in 1989 as a summer workshop focused on training for secondary and college band directors. Max McKee, who was on teaching staff at Southern Oregon University from 1967 to 1997, headed up this effort. In 1992, the American Band College formed a relationship with Southern Oregon University which formalized this summer workshop program into a master’s degree granting program. This arrangement worked well for 18 years when the American Band College transitioned to a similar understanding with Sam Houston State University School of Music in Huntsville, Texas. This caused the college to leave the Southern Oregon campus but to continue to operate in Ashland, Oregon, utilizing the local high school.

Today, this program functions as a Sam Houston State University distance learning center for band conducting. This three year, 45 credit program (with a tuition of $12,000) includes an intense two week workshop for three summers with six weeks of workshop follow-up utilizing the eCollege system of Sam Houston State. These workshops are always scheduled to complete right after July 4 with the American Band College band performing the Ashland Pops concert for the Independence Day holiday. This performing band is composed of the workshop master’s degree candidates, predominantly high school and college band directors!

The program currently has over 200 candidates. In 2010, there were 66 graduates from 40 states and four foreign countries. The master’s program had graduated 643 master’s recipients thru 2011 and now nearly a thousand, most of these being working secondary or college band directors.

The Wrights were on the workshop staff in 1989, the very first year of the program. They returned in 2005, 2008 and 2011. Al and Gladys Wright celebrated his 92nd birthday at the American Band College on June 23, 2008. Both were featured as guest conductors at the 2011 “Night to Remember” symphonic band concert that concludes the first week of the summer workshop portion of the master’s program. Both conducted marches by their old friend and mentor, Henry Fillmore. The Wrights joined the soloists, guest conductors and staff for a portion of that year’s summer workshops. Max McKee, the founder of the original workshop and the American Band College, has worked with the Wrights over the years on a number of projects. McKee is a second generation band director and has served on the board of directors of both the American Band College and the Sousa Foundation

The college has decided to build and operate their own educational building for this master’s program and other associated band director and music education. The Ashland High School, where the workshops have operated, also is in need of additional space. Through an innovative cooperative arrangement, the needs of both entities will be served by the Al & Gladys Wright School Building. The music library and archives will also serve as a valuable research facility for the entire music education community.

The American Band College decided to honor the long and productive music teaching careers of the Wrights by naming and dedicating their future home facility after them, the Al & Gladys Wright School Building. For further information about this Wright Building project, please visit the American Band College website (bandworld.org/ABC) or (541) 778-4880.

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