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HT Jazz History Vol 4: Leo Nash Wright

“…when you’re working with giants, you’ve got to improve…I’m still in school”

Leo Nash Wright, alto saxophonist and flutist, was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on December 14, 1933. He was the son of Mel Wright. His father played trombone with the San Antonio band Boots and His Buddies in the late 1930s and had a musical association with the father of tenorist Booker Ervin.

After beginning studies with his father, Wright was later taught by Texas tenorist John Hardee and attended Huston–Tillotson College in Austin and San Francisco State University in California. He played with Saunders King in San Francisco and with Charles Mingus in New York. In 1959 he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, with which he recorded on February 9, 1961, at the Museum of Modern Art (An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, reissued by Verve on CD in 1999). Of his experience with Gillespie, Wright commented in a 1961 interview that "when you're working with the giants, you've got to improve.” It is a challenge to play with a master. You've got to learn discipline, get down to business. I'm still in school." Under his own name, Wright recorded an album entitled Blues Shout (Atlantic, 1960), which includes on trumpet Texan Richard "Notes" Williams. Williams returned the favor by including Wright on the album New Horn in Town (Candid, 1960).

Wright left Gillespie in 1962, free-lanced in Scandinavia during 1963–64, then settled in Berlin. There he was a member of the Radio Free Berlin Studio Band. Around 1968 he moved to Vienna. In 1978 he appeared with another fellow Texan, pianist Red Garland, on the album I Left My Heart (Muse). Wright's performance of "Body and Soul" on this album is a masterpiece of alto saxophone artistry. His style has been described as combining the tonality of Johnny Hodges, star altoist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, with the lines of bebop genius Charlie Parker, and as embodying "an inherent blues feeling." Wright retired from music in 1979 but returned to perform in 1986 with the Paris Reunion Band. He died in Vienna on January 4, 1991.

Here’s the amazing sound and clarity of Leo in “A Night in Tunisia”

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